People & Places

Q & A with Gov. Madeleine Kunin on “the new feminist agenda”

Madeleine Kunin
Madeleine Kunin. Photo courtesy of UVM

Former Vermont governor Madeleine Kunin will host a conference on women in the workplace at UVM this weekend. The conference, titled “The New Feminist Agenda: The Next Revolution for Women, Work and Family; Balancing a Career and Family,” will also feature Joan Blades, a co-founder of, Berkeley Systems, and, and Jim Wall, Managing Director Talent and Chief Diversity Officer for Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu Limited.

Kunin made Vermont history as its first and only female governor from 1985-1991, and also served as the U.S. ambassador to Switzerland from 1996-1999. Originally a journalist at the Burlington Free Press, Kunin has written two books: “Living and Political Life” and her latest book “The New Feminist Agenda, Defining the Next Revolution for Women, Work, and Family,” which will be published in May.

Conference registration is required and the conference is free, with a $10 suggested donation. For more information, visit or call 802-656-5665.

VTDigger: How do you think that a lack of childcare, family leave policies and flexible work schedules holds women back? Why are we still behind?

Madeleine Kunin: We’ve had a major revolution in the United States in women entering the workforce in record numbers. But we haven’t adjusted society to that reality. For example, upper income women can usually negotiate things like flexible work hours after they’ve had a baby or paid maternity leave or paid family leave, and they can afford nannies. But middle and lower income families, are totally on their own to figure it out. That’s true not only for mothers; a lot of dads would like more time with their kids.

The purpose of this conference is to see how we can enable more families to integrate their work life and their family life. Some of it can be done in the private sector and some of it has to be done by government, but the private sector can do things like offer workplace flexibility. They can enable women to work at home, through telecommuting, which reduces the cost of childcare. And they can recognize that – and this is what Jim Wall from Deloitte is going to talk about – if they don’t invest in retaining women employees they’re losing money on the deal, because it costs so much to train a new employee.

For example for many families, it’s “Do I stay home with my new baby, or do I keep my job?” when what they would really like to do is work part time. An employer who recognizes this will hold on to this valuable employee, and eventually she’ll work full time again. I have concluded this isn’t just a feminist issue; it’s an economic issue. It’s good economics to keep women in the workforce.

VTD: What countries do you see as having model policies for working families?

Kunin: The outstanding countries are the Scandinavian countries, but it’s not limited to these countries. For example, England and Australia have recently initiated policies that are very helpful to working families. They have something called the Right to Request Law, where you can request the right of flexibility and negotiate with your employer and not lose your job. It sounds like a small thing, but it’s a big deal. The employer doesn’t have to give you what you ask for, but you have to negotiate. If you disagree, a tribunal will settle the matter.

The United States is not only different from the Scandinavian countries; it’s different from every other country in the world. Only four countries in the world don’t provide paid maternity leave, they include Somalia and Swaziland.

The biggest step the government could take would be to provide paid family leave. We now have three months of unpaid family leave, which was a big battle, but not everybody is eligible. It’s only for employers that employ more than 50 employees.

The other would be to enact a Right to Request Flexibility Law, which would make this not a special perk for some people, but make it an option for all workers. Another bill that has been lingering in Congress is paid sick leave. One of the hardest things for employees is when their child is sick or they are sick, they still have to come to work. It’s mostly again middle-income and low-wage employees who have to deal with this.

There’s a huge impact on child poverty when women can’t remain in the workforce, and when women and their families – have to pay 20 percent to 30 percent of their income for childcare. So the United States, and this is an embarrassing statistic, has the highest child poverty rate of any developed country — 20 percent. Part of that is due to the cost of childcare, and sometimes women can’t go to work because they don’t have anybody to take care of their children. So they’re not employed when they could be if they had access to childcare. Again it’s an investment. When I was a governor we invested heavily in childcare, because I saw this as a jobs issue.

VTD: Statistically, even women who work outside the home perform more housework and childcare than their partners. Why do you think that is – a cultural, political, or religious reason?

Kunin: I think it’s a strong cultural reason, but it’s beginning to change. It’s still far from equal, but I think more and more partners, male or female, are inclined to share more. At least there’s more awareness of the need to do that … And there are some dads who want to stay home, or spend more time with their children. So the time spent with children is increasing, but the biggest burden is still on women, but I think we’re seeing a slow but certain cultural change where both partners are striving to share responsibilities for the home more equally.

VTD: Why do you think that in spite of advances in education, and expanding population of the workforce that woman are still underpaid and underrepresented in higher power positions?

Kunin: It’s a tough question, and it’s improved over the years. When we first started measuring what women earned to a percentage that men earned it was 59 cents, now it’s 77 cents. But that’s still not good enough. Some people say that’s because women are still inclined to work part time, but it’s still true when you compare apples to apples. Pay disparities continue to take place even in academia and places you wouldn’t expect it.

I think there’s still a cultural expectation that women don’t need as much money, even though so many women are the sole support or key co-support of their families. It’s unfortunate. There’s a bill pending in Congress, I think it’s called the The Paycheck Fairness Act, which was passed by the House but is stilled in the Senate. We still need stronger rules and legislation to prosecute the cases where women are paid less than men for the same job.

The other thing, and it’s a more subtle observation, is that women sometimes hesitate to ask for more money because either they’re afraid they’ll get fired, they lack self confidence, or they’re not as aggressive as men are. So I think we have to teach women it’s OK to ask for a raise, it’s OK to put high value on your work.

VTD: One of the criticisms of second wave feminism was that educated middle class white women dominated the discourse. How do you keep that from happening in third wave feminism?

Kunin: I know we’re accused of that, and there has been some truth in it, but it did result in change for everybody. I think there still is a question of whether there is a third wave. What may be happening and we see it in this campaign in the Republican primary, is that a new generation of women is waking up to the fact that rights you thought you had won can be taken away.

Stories like that of Sandra Fluke may have ignited a spark among college-age women. I’m hoping, and I’m an optimist, that we will see some more activism. They don’t have to call themselves feminists to take action, but I hope people realize women are still vulnerable. We have to protect what we’ve gained, but we have to continue to move forward. And by moving forward I mean addressing the family work issues. Women can’t and shouldn’t lead the charge alone. It’s a battle that has to be joined by men, by the elderly, by labor and the disabled. A lot of elderly would like to be able to work part time, and many men would like to home with a newborn. All of these groups have to coalesce to take the next step. Admittedly this isn’t a great climate for change, but we can’t fold our hands and do nothing. We have to continue to push forward at the same time as we protect what we have.

VTD: Off college campuses it seems feminism still has a negative connotation – why?

Kunin: Many reasons. The word “feminist” has an aggressive ring to it. Many college students think everything has been accomplished, there’s nothing more to do. Sometimes women think the word “feminist” will turn off men; they see it as the work of past generations. Again, I see a little flicker of light – there are a couple of organizations at the University of Vermont, which are getting organized around these issues. For example. I was at a meeting with an organization called Vox, it’s an offshoot of Planned Parenthood, and these young women were fired up.

And maybe we need new language. I think when women are in college they are very optimistic that they can do it all: they can have a family and a job no problem. But the minute they have their first child, suddenly it becomes a big issue. Or the minute they ask for a promotion, they realize there’s some inequity here. Maybe it happens a bit later, which it did for our generation too. I wasn’t aware of inequality at an earlier age, or at least not as strongly. The awakening occurs a bit later.

Let me just make a pitch here: Young women could be the key to the upcoming election this November. Single women vote less than married women, so the potential of reaching those women, and getting them engaged in the issues over time is enormous. We have to enable them to feel strongly enough to vote.

I never dreamt that contraception would be an issue in 2012.

VTD: Can you comment on the recent campaign against women’s reproductive rights?

Kunin: I think it’s shocking, and it just shows you that the battle is never over. One has to be continuously vigilant. I think I can understand why abortion is still a hot issue, though when Roe vs. Wade [won] we all thought, “Well that’s it.” The first three months of pregnancy everything’s legal.

But we never thought access to contraception and insurance coverage providing that access would become an issue. That goes back to the 1940s the 1950s. And of course access to contraception dramatically decreases the rate of abortion. It is a powerful argument, but that logic doesn’t seem to be accepted by the opposition. Nobody really wants to have an abortion. So contraception should be applauded by all sides as a way to have healthier families and fewer abortions.

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Erin Hale

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