Kunin Q and A on sexism, power and the impact government can have on people’s lives

Madeleine Kunin in 1982, photo from the Vermont Historical Society

In 1985, Madeleine Kunin became the first female governor in Vermont and the fourth woman elected to a gubernatorial post in the United States. She served for three terms.

On Tuesday, the University of Vermont will hold the first symposium in honor of the 25th anniversary of her inauguration. The symposium, “What Is the Role of Government? Then and Now” will be held at the Dudley H. Davis Center. The event is free and open to the public.

Kunin Symposium Schedule

The daylong event features panel discussions on education, the environment and women’s issues – the hallmarks of Kunin’s tenure from 1985 to 1991.

After she left the governor’s office, Kunin became a deputy secretary of education in the Clinton administration and ambassador of Switzerland and Lichtenstein. She went on to found the Institute for Sustainable Communities in Montpelier. Kunin has written several books, including an autobiography and “Pearls, Politics, and Power: How Women Can Win and Lead.”

She lives in Burlington and is a James Marsh Professor-at-Large at the University of Vermont.

We caught up with Kunin this weekend for a conversation about sexism, power and the impact government can have on people’s lives.

Q. What was it like to be a female governor at a time when few women held higher office?

A. Well, it was in a sense historic, and because I was the fourth woman elected in my own right. We felt a sense of responsibility to do an excellent job knowing that I would be opening the doors for others. But you know, after a while, being a woman is not the main issue, because you’re dealing with all the issues that any other governor has to deal with.

The difference in being the first in anything – whether it’s the first African-American or the first woman — is that there’s more of a spotlight on you.

We thought that once the election was over that the gender issue would be settled, but it really was there to some extent a lot of the time. As time wore on, it receded, but both in positive and negative ways. It wasn’t all negative.

Q. What are some examples of the kind of sexism you came up against?

A. Overt sexism is — except when you run for president — not politically correct. The press was much more active than it is today. It was a vibrant, critical press that really followed the governor. The press just isn’t interested anymore, or else they’re not being hired to do the job. So there was just a lot more commentary. I followed Dick Snelling, who was a command-and-control type of leader. I’m more (interested in) picking good people and letting them be creative and innovative.

I don’t want to belabor the gender issues because they were more questions of style than substance.

We had a very exciting administration. I chose talented people like Jonathan Lash, who is leading off the symposium on Tuesday, who had already established himself as a knowledgeable person in environmental policy and now is head of the World Resources Institute. I was criticized for hiring an environmentalist to head the environmental agency by people at Killington.

It was a time when people wanted to serve in government, took pride in it, and the people who are speaking Tuesday are still engaged in their work.

It was also an exciting time for women, because a lot of women had established their credentials. I had the luxury of appointing a lot of women, but I also didn’t stick to the standard resume when I made some of these appointments. People like Gretchen Morse) who turned out to be an outstanding secretary of Health and Human Services. She’d been a legislator, I’d seen her work as a legislator, I admired her, but some people said well, what has she done?

There were a lot of people whose resumes were different than the resumes of people before them who turned into very effective managers and leaders.

The gender issues were very subtle. People appoint commissions when they want to reach consensus, and some thought I was appointing too many commissions, and they thought I was being indecisive.

But we did achieve consensus on a lot of issues, and in the end I got most of my legislative agenda. But I really put forth an agenda that was doable. We spent a lot of time working with the Legislature. The Housing and Land Conservation Trust Fund, Dr. Dynasaur, a welfare-to-work program called Reach Up — all of those things still exist.

I think it was an optimistic time, when you felt government was there to help solve problems. That’s the theme of the conference: What is the role of government, then and now?

I think most of the animus or hostility is focused on the federal government, but it sort of filters through to a certain extent. It’s so important for a democracy to have that faith in government.

Q. What are you trying to accomplish with the symposium, what are you trying to say about what government can do for people?

A. We want to examine what the role of government is — (particularly) what has changed, and how can we establish credibility again for government. I think in Vermont, we’re less skeptical about government because it still seems within our control. I think most of the animus or hostility is focused on the federal government, but it sort of filters through to a certain extent. People adopt the bumper sticker slogans, but I think it’s so important for a democracy to have that faith in government.

It’s also focused on the students at UVM. I hope students come, because I think it’s a rare opportunity for them to see policy in action. I feel strongly about building bridges between academics and practitioners or advocates so that we can learn from one another.

Q. Do you think sexism is still a factor for women in politics now?

A. I think it isn’t in legislative races in most states. (I have to say most states because South Carolina has no women in the state Senate.) Vermont is one of top three states in the percentage of women we have in our Legislature. So I think in Vermont it is not an issue. I think for most congressional races, it isn’t an issue. There are exceptions here and there, but I think questions are still asked of women that aren’t asked of men when it comes to the top executive role, whether it’s CEO of a company or president of the United States. It doesn’t mean women can’t do it.

I’ve described something called the double bind that has been described by others that women in these top roles are expected to do two things: Be as tough as a man and also be soft and gentle like a woman. Hillary is an example where she won the toughness factor, but her warm and fuzzy side (was suspect). So that’s a bit harder. But I think it is changing; it’s not changing as fast as I would like – Congress is only 17 percent women today, and I thought it would be at least 40 percent by now.

And other countries have moved much faster than the United States.

Q. Why do you think that is?


Madeleine Kunin


A. I think a lot of women look at politics and say it’s too dirty, it’s too ugly — I can do more outside of the political system. I think the incumbency, the fact that there’s not much turnover, is a factor. I think women still underestimate their own qualifications. In all races, a lot of research has concluded that women need to be asked to run more often than men. (They ask themselves), am I good enough? And they underestimate everything they’ve done in the community or as volunteers when that’s really a wonderful base from which to run for office.

Some other countries have quotas. For example, Argentina is one of the top countries with more than 40 percent women. There you have a macho culture, and yet women are out there. But a quota is almost impossible to implement in our system of government — besides the fact that people hate the word quota.

I’m writing another book now, and I’m hoping to spark a new wave of grassroots activism, not only for the sake of electing women, but women do behave somewhat differently in political office in terms of support for policies like education, the environment, family work issues.

There’s good news, and there’s bad news. It’s good news that Nancy Pelosi is speaker of the House and that we’ve had three women as secretaries of state, but the numbers overall are still surprisingly modest, and the same is true of CEOs in the private sector – top management positions in the private sector are about 17 percent women.

Q. Why did you make education and the environment two of your top priorities when you were governor?

A. Well, education touches everyone. When you step back and say, what can I do as governor to improve people’s lives? You can do a lot of individual programs, which are important, but when we say, how do I really lift the standard of living, the earning power of Vermonters? Improving education seemed to me the obvious answer on every level, from early childhood education to access to college. So we doubled the amount of funding in six years that went to state aid for education (to primary and secondary schools).

We had a new formula called the Foundation Plan, which tried to do the same thing every formula tries to do — to equalize both the tax burden and the amount of money that went to school districts. We succeeded for a few years(,) and then it had to be changed again. Nobody’s ever happy with a formula for a very long time.

But I was very struck as governor how different schools were from one part of the state to the other. You didn’t have to go very far. Stowe had a very fine school system, and I remembered going to Wolcott, and they were desperately trying to build a new school, and they couldn’t. And the people in Wolcott were ski-lift operators and chamber maids in Stowe, and Stowe spent at least twice as much money with less tax burden than the poor town of Wolcott. That seemed to me such an injustice, and that’s what we tried to remedy.

The environment is what makes Vermont the kind of state that it is. Global warming was not so much on the horizon then. But we started to talk about it in my last term, and energy conservation, pollution, Lake Champlain — these were all issues that were of concern. It just seemed to be the heart and soul of Vermont. We started a commission that led to Act 200, similar to the private sector commission that recently asked what is the future of Vermont? The Housing and Land Conservation Trust Fund came into legislation as a result of that commission.

Q. How do women shape politics differently?

A. Of course, you know, women represent a broad spectrum, as we see from Sarah Palin to Nancy Pelosi, so obviously not all women think alike and shouldn’t be expected to. But research and observation have shown that women tend to vote more in favor of children’s issues, education, the environment, and are more interested in practical results and are somewhat less ideological, though that depends. And they also tend to be more understanding of the outsider, the underprivileged, or those outside the power structure. One small example of that was with the civil unions vote in Vermont 10 years ago. Many women voted for that. Now you could also argue maybe they’re less threatened, less homophobic.

Kathleen Sibelius, who I quote in my book, says any woman who’s given a birthday party for a 5-year-old can run a campaign, and there’s truth to that.

They’re subtle differences, but they count. If we had more women in the Congress, I’m sure the health care debate would not be as acrimonious, and we might have a paid family-leave policy. The United States is one of three or four countries that doesn’t have paid family leave. Women aren’t perfect and I don’t believe in voting for a woman just because she’s a woman, but women bring different life experiences. You take someone like Justice Sonia Sotomayor. It’s not just that she’s a woman, but it’s also that she grew up in a housing project. You need this diversity of life experience in the political power structure and people who understand what ordinary people’s problems are.

Q. Has the role of women in Vermont politics changed since you were governor?

A. Vermont’s Legislature is 38 percent women, and not only is it the number of women, but it’s also the number of women in key positions. I was the first woman and the first Democrat to chair the House Appropriations Committee. Now you have a woman chairing both the House and the Senate(appropriations committees). With Gaye Symington, you had a woman speaker.

So, it’s really almost shared, equal power, and I don’t think anybody even comments on that anymore. It’s become part of the natural landscape, but that’s Vermont – it’s not South Carolina. Some of the Southern (and Midwestern) states are still much different.

I think the role really has changed significantly. You could argue, well, why haven’t we had another female governor since then? I don’t have an answer to that, but we’re obviously pleased that there are two women in the democratic primary out of five, and they both bring strong credentials. (Kunin has endorsed Deb Markowitz.) I don’t think people aren’t talking about gender so much; I think that threshold has been crossed. There used to be the unarticulated question: Is she tough enough, can a woman really do this?

A couple people would say directly to me (but they were rare) – they’d say, “I’ll never vote for a woman.” You would never hear that today.

In Gaye Symington’s case, I don’t think gender had anything to do with her (election) race. Women are still observed more closely than men – what is she wearing, what does her hair look like? – as they say, hair, husbands and hemlines. All these things are commented on more. I think that’s why Hillary likes to wear black pantsuits, because there isn’t much to say.

Q. What would you tell a woman who is seeking political office?

A. I would say, if you have a passion for an issue — if you can visualize change – in a small way in your neighborhood or in a state — politics is still where you can have the greatest impact. It is messy, you don’t always get you want, but the times that you do succeed are so important. And you can have a direct impact on people’s lives. The other thing we forget to mention sometimes is, politics can be fun.

I’m not sure I can say that about the U.S. Senate today, but it can be, and if all of us say this is too tough for me, this is too ugly, then who’s going to be there? Our views won’t be represented. And you don’t have to do it for your whole life, which is a message that’s hard to convey, but you can look at politics as a form of public service. So give it five or 10 years, and in the Legislature there is that kind of turnover. That’s one of the reasons we have more women in the Legislature.

Think of yourself as qualified. Kathleen Sibelius, who I quote in my book, says any woman who’s given a birthday party for a 5-year-old can run a campaign, and there’s truth to that.

Anne Galloway

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