Madeleine Kunin looks at the past and to the future in the fight for women’s rights

Madeleine Kunin

Former Vermont Gov. Madeleine Kunin. Photo courtesy of UVM

Madeleine Kunin, Vermont’s 77th governor, is the only woman to have held the position. Kunin also served deputy secretary of education for the Clinton administration, and she was United States ambassador to Switzerland from 1996 to 1999. She is currently a James Marsh Professor at Large at UVM, and she has written two books on gender equality — “The New Feminist Agenda: Defining the Next Revolution for Women, Work and Family” and “Pearls, Politics, and Power: How Women Can Win and Lead.”

Kunin will discuss Betty Friedan’s “The Feminine Mystique” and the changes in women’s rights that have taken place during the 50 years since it was published, at an event on Thursday, April 4, at 4:30 p.m. in Memorial Lounge, Waterman Building, on the University of Vermont campus.

VTDigger: Can you describe what it was like to read “The Feminine Mystique” and what impact it had on your life?

Kunin: I read it first the year it came out in 1963. I belonged to a book club that was meeting in my living room in Cambridge. At the time I was a stay-at-home mother raising two children, one 3 and the other 1½. The women in the book club were split right down the middle between those who felt she was criticizing them for being homemakers and those who felt liberated. Of course you can guess which side I was on. I exhaled and felt understood. It was OK to want more than to be a good housewife and to want to take advantage of my education. The book opened up a dialogue, but the division in my living room is still going on today.

When I was deputy secretary of education, I met Betty Friedan — she was not an easy woman but she was truly an iconic figure. We were both speaking at the same conference, and people kept coming up to her, saying, “You changed my mother’s life.”

She was criticized, too — she was late to embrace lesbian rights for example — but she really started the conversation about women’s rights and their role in the workplace.

VTD: Can you talk more about where that divide is visible today?

Kunin: We are still debating these issues. The debate over abortion, which Friedan didn’t address, as I recall, has divided women. There is still debate about being a stay-at-home mom or a working mom, which I think is exaggerated by the press, because of the majority women do work.

But we’ve had a real sea change. Where we haven’t seen a change, is we haven’t really dealt with the whole question of — and I hate to use the word balancing, because that implies there is a perfect balance — combining work and caregiving. Especially in the United States, we make this very, very difficult, and not just for low- income women, though they are hit the hardest.

VTD: One of the most common criticisms of “The Feminine Mystique” is that Friedan focused exclusively on the plight of middle-class white women. Do we do a better job of addressing the challenges faced by low-income women today or at least including them in the discourse about women’s rights?

Kunin: Probably not good enough, but I think better than my generation did. We have a lot of new voices in this debate. Women like Sheryl Sandberg [chief operating officer for Facebook and author of “Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead”] are missing the point in terms of what women face who are not CEOs and who can’t leave work at 5:30 to have dinner with their children, which she says she does often. It’s great to talk about leadership but if you desperately need a job, you can’t afford to take the risk of turning down the first one you’re offered. I think the discussion that she is started is interesting, but it is too limited. It’s too focused on the one percent and not enough on the 99.

VTD: Friedan spent a lot of time addressing the role of the media and the advertising industry had in propagating the image of a content housewife. Has the image problem for women expanded or gotten worse in today’s media?

Kunin: You no longer have happy housewives smiling deliriously as they open the refrigerator door. But women are still treated as the buyers and consumers. We still let fulfillment and happiness be defined by what used to be Madison Avenue and now is much more diffuse. My teenage granddaughter is very impressed by the media. The sexualization of women is still very common. It’s still easy to stereotype women’s roles, and we have to constantly try to fight back.

VTD: Does the media pay too much attention to the appearance and fashion choices of well-known female political figures?

Kunin: There is still that part that is alive and well. One reason Hillary decided to buy 10 black pantsuits when she was on the campaign trail is that you can only talk about a black suit for so long. That’s my theory at least.

But I must confess, I’m interested in the Obamas’ fashion. It only becomes negative when that’s all you focus on, when people are so focused on hairstyle and fashion that they don’t listen to what you say or pay attention to what you do. I think the media has progressed but we still have a little ways to go.

VTD: Have women lost ground in any way since Friedan published her book?

Kunin: I don’t think so. I don’t think we’ve lost much, even in the area of violence against women. There is some theory that women have come so far that sometime there is a backlash against them but I’m not sure that is documented.

In some quarters, there are still cultural differences throughout the U.S. A woman in the South may have more limited options than a woman living in New York City. Overall we have achieved more options, but that again applies to people with economic means. I’m optimistic enough to believe that the surge of women in higher education is going to bring us long-term benefits. Thirty-two percent of women make more than their spouses — that is very different from the time when Friedan’s book was published, and this is good news because it brings the family income up significantly. What we still haven’t answered is how do we take care of the people that women used to?

VTD: Is it enough to pass laws to require things like flexible work schedules and paid family leave? Does there need to be another cultural shift for men to take advantage of these options?

Kunin: Dads are beginning to say we want this too. Slowly but surely there are more stay-at-home dads. It’s still a small number but it is expanding. Women also have to let them — even if the laundry isn’t folded perfectly, let the dad fold it his way. I think couples in the millennial generation start out by saying they are going to have an egalitarian marriage but they fall back into traditional roles and that’s because the workplace is set in cement, reinforcing the old-fashioned way. In the United States we are still having a rough time because the knee-jerk reaction is, this [flexible work plans, paternity and maternity leave] is going to cost us money, even though we now have data showing that there is a direct correlation between the level of gender equality in a country and the level of economic growth.

I think we are in transition in terms of a cultural shift but have to speed up the tempo. Whenever you look at social change, the question is do the laws need to change first or the culture? The answer is they usually work in concert, in tandem with one another. What it takes is people speaking up — that what’s happened with gay marriage in the Vermont Legislature — people spoke up.

We don’t hear enough stories about how families are struggling, and how children are being affected. This is not just about women’s rights and men’s rights — it’s really about society as a whole. It’s moved from being a feminist issue to being an economic one.

VTD: Do you think a book still has the capacity to fundamentally change the way we think about women in the workplace? Or are we at a point where the problems are too subtle or complex for there to be such a revolutionary work of literature?

Kunin: I think it’s still possible. That is, assuming people keep reading books. I do think they can still be a source of fresh inspiration and fresh ideas, and not just for women’s issues.

Sheryl Sandberg has stated she wants to be the new Betty Friedan. I don’t believe she is, but she has at least restarted the conversation. We are still struggling with this whole question of what is our proper role, and how do we balance work and caregiving and we’ll never get a total solution but I think it’s beneficial to ask these questions. But I think we also have to put more pressure on both the culture and the structure of the workplace and that will take progressive action. In my book I used the word revolution, and I think a revolution is what’s in order.

Alicia Freese

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    Alicia, great interview with Madeleine and I agree with her that we desperately need changes. Looking forward to women bringing us closer to normalcy and not more of the insanity that we have now.

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