Community News Service Editor’s note: Madeleine Kunin served as the first and, to date, only female governor of Vermont from 1985-91. She has also served as a state legislator, lieutenant governor, deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of Education, and the U.S. ambassador to Switzerland during the Clinton administration. Most recently, she has become an acclaimed author and poet with her works reflecting her life, feminism and women as leaders. Reporter Sophia Buckley-Clement recently had an opportunity sit with Kunin for an interview co-incident with Women’s History Month.
Q: In the past two years, women have seen some strides in the level of representation in public office — our first female vice president, the highest number of women in U.S. Congress, and a historic number of those women being women of color. However, while 51% of the country is made up of women, these “record-breaking” numbers of women still only represent less than a third of U.S. Congress with women of color only representing roughly 9%. Why is it important, in your eyes, to continue pushing the boundaries of female representation in public office?
Kunin: Well, that question is accurate. I’m very proud of us, but we’re not at 50% — which would be reflecting the population where women are the majority in the United States. But the progress has been pretty dramatic. More women are looking at public life as an option to have an impact in the decisions that are being made. But I think women still need encouragement to run. They don’t see it as an easy route to follow. Men still see themselves reflected in public office more often than women see themselves. Programs like Emerge, which train women to run for office, are needed because women (are) more reticent about public speaking and public life. They learn these skills in programs like Emerge. Of course, Emerge is just for Democratic women and there should be a program for Republican women. Emerge is almost nationwide — and they still need role models. (People) should see that this is normal for women to enter the public arena. But politics has also gotten nastier since I was in office. And I think many women are repelled by the attacks, the dirty politics, that seem to be more prevalent today. So, we’ve still got work to do. I think it begins early in elementary school, in high school, to encourage women to have leadership skills and to speak up for their beliefs.
Q: As you mentioned, Emerge is a nationwide organization dedicated to training Democratic women to run for office in 26 states across the country. Could you speak a bit about why you established a Vermont branch of Emerge?
Kunin: “I started Emerge (in Vermont) because I felt the need. I was invited by Emerge California — where it began — to be a keynote speaker, and then I spoke to Emerge in Massachusetts. And I thought to myself, ‘Well, why not Emerge Vermont?’ And I didn’t know whether it would take hold because we already had a high percentage of women in the legislature, but to my surprise, it’s proven to be extremely popular, and we’ve had great people enroll in the program. For example, all three women who are running for Congress went through the Emerge program.
Q: In your book, “The New Feminist Agenda: Defining the Next Revolution for Women, Work, and Family,” you discuss some of the systemic issues that hold women back from vying for public office, including how the needs of families in the workplace are still considered “women’s issues.” What are some of the issues women still face that keep them from pushing for office?
Kunin: Well, it’s no secret. It’s obvious that the siege of COVID has put the spotlight on some of these issues. Child care is the big one, having quality and affordable child care available. And the Build Back Better bill, which has been rejected in Congress would have begun to address that — putting a limit on the cost of child care and making it more available. That is critical. Our neighbor, Canada, has affordable child care and so do most advanced countries. We’re really behind the times. I think if that legislation had passed, you’d see more women in the workplace, more women running for office and more women in leadership positions everywhere. Paid family and medical leave are the other big issues. Women need help. The Earned Income Tax Credit was a great boon to families with young children, and that hasn’t been renewed. We hit this high point with Biden’s proposed legislation, but now we’re back down in the dumps again, where we have to fight all over again for these issues.
Q: Do you feel the ease of accessibility for women to run for office has changed since your time running in the political sphere? What aspects have changed and what aspects still need change?
Kunin: I think there are more role models out there. There are more women CEOs, there are more women being role models in sports as we saw in the Olympics, and women have achieved higher levels of education. So, the outlook is positive, and I hope it’s going to continue to improve. There’s the expression, ‘you have to see it to believe it,’ and if you see women in leadership positions then you can imagine yourself there. So, I am pretty optimistic. But it is disappointing to see that Congress still looks at issues like Earned Income Tax Credit as ‘revolutionary,’ and not necessary. We still have some educating to do to have people recognize that investment in children is an investment in the future — such an obvious conclusion. What that Earned Income Tax Credit has done is reduced childhood poverty. And one of the shameful statistics in the United States is we have the highest poverty rates amongst children of any developed country. That’s really a statistic that can and must be changed.
Q: What do you feel has changed regarding how women in politics are seen since your time as governor?
Kunin: Well, I think politics has gotten more negative, more ‘attack-mode.’ I think Vermont is somewhat protected from that, as nasty as some parts of the country are. But we have to be careful, because we could easily fall into that trap. And money is still the worst obstacle — the amount of money and this money (where) you don’t know the sources. So, I think it’s changed. Nationally, the right-wing is working to make voting more difficult by putting up obstacles and barriers. I think we have to be very alert to the fact that we have to defend democracy itself. Again, Vermont is pretty healthy in that regard, but we may not always be immune. We can’t just think provincially about our own state, we have to think about the country. The influence of Trump and the extreme right wing has cut into the freedom to vote and to participate. We have to be defensive in that regard.
Q: With Vermont’s upcoming general election and many available positions in public office, what are your hopes for female candidates that are, or might be, running?
Kunin: There are three highly qualified women running for Congress and one of them is likely to make it. So, I think we will have the first woman in Congress from Vermont — and it’s about time. There are women running for lieutenant governor, so there might be another woman (there), which would be great.
Q: What is one piece of advice you’d give to young women and girls who are interested in running for public office?
Kunin: Go for it and be prepared. Inform yourself about the issues, figure out how the process works, find a role model in Vermont, make contact with a legislator, speak with her and go to some meetings. Just know something about the issues, you don’t have to know everything. Be curious and believe in yourself that you can express your opinions and beliefs and get some reaction. Open the door to public life. Get engaged and take it from there.