BRATTLEBORO—Aging from a woman’s perspective, loss, and death: topics many avoid in polite conversation.
Madeleine May Kunin faces each one in her new memoir, Coming of Age: My Journey to the Eighties.
Readers and admirers filled the Catherine Dianich Gallery on Oct. 13 for an early-morning presentation and book signing as part of the Brattleboro Literary Festival.
“Life doesn’t stop,” Kunin said. “It goes on, and you continue to be curious and make new friends and enjoy the good parts.”
Kunin, who has held many titles ranging from Vermont’s first female governor to the deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of Education to ambassador to Switzerland, writes about her career.
But in her book, she also delves into work she has done under her other titles: daughter, sister, wife, mother.
Between each chapter, she has also stepped into another role: poet.
“I’m so glad people are responding to this book — which is a big surprise for me — but I think many people feel the same way about aging and need more female role models who can do that,” she said.
“I wrote it because I wanted somehow to explain where I am at this age,” said Kunin, who turned 85 on Sept. 28.
The former politician confessed to feeling nervous about readers’ responses to her personal stories and poems.
“A friend of mine told me she was traveling to Florida for her father’s 80th birthday, and I thought to myself, ‘Yeah, that’s really old.’ So you see where I am — denial, denial,” Kunin joked. “But you do have a certain amount of freedom as long as you’re not really in need.”
In politics, wearing gender armor
Kunin’s former campaign manager and friend, Liz Bankowski, shared a few of her memories of their work together.
“Through all her career, as I’ve known her and you’ve known her, she’s been out there sort of clearing the way for the rest of us,” Bankowski told the audience. “And that goes all the way back to when she ran back in 1984.”
Bankowski described the race as “the year of Ronald Reagan’s landslide, it was the year of Geraldine Ferraro, it was one of the first of the ‘years of the women.’”
Ferraro, a candidate for vice president on the Democratic ticket that year, made history as being the first woman major-party nominee when candidate Walter Mondale named her as his running mate.
Kunin won that race and served as the state’s 77th governor from 1985 until 1991.
“And by the end of that night, pretty much everybody had faltered except this race in Vermont.” Bankowski said. “On one level, we both felt, ‘Well, there — we settled that gender issue.’ That isn’t the way it worked out.”
Bankowski remembered how she and her friend sailed the choppy waters of gender issues daily in state government.
During Kunin’s campaign, the two rarely appeared together at events. According to Bankowski, people were shocked seeing a female candidate and a female campaign manager.
Society was not interested in the “soft qualities” that many women brought to leadership, Bankowski said.
“You sort of had to have on this gender armor,” Bankowski continued. “So I want to stress how significant it is for someone to be the first.”
For example, today, candidates and leaders are praised for supporting their families, Bankowski said. But she remembers a time when one of Kunin’s children needed a new soccer ball near the end of the Legislative session.
Kunin left the Statehouse to purchase the soccer ball, Bankowski said. Her staff covered for her.
“So we come to the point now, she’s written this incredibly personal book,” Bankowski said. “It speaks to all of us because we relate to it, it’s our own experience. I’m so glad that she wrote it, and I’m glad you’re all here to celebrate it.”
‘What the hell?’
In her memoir, Kunin writes about crying in the rest room after an insulting interaction with a legislator.
Kunin added, “[Liz] helped me navigate the new waters that we were exploring.
“Sometimes when we were in a group of men, I could make eye contact with Liz,” Kunin continued. “And I knew, here was another woman who understood the subtext of what we were experiencing.”
Kunin joked that she feels nervous when people talk about how personal her memoir is compared to her previous books.
“My God, what did I say?” she laughed.
Kunin noted that age, with its difficulties like stiff knees or failing eyesight, can also bring a level of freedom.
“You know every politician sort of has a sieve through which they pour things and hope to keep out the embarrassing parts,” she said. “And I got to my eighties, I figured what the hell, I don’t have a lot to lose.”
Feeling as if she had nothing to lose also gave Kunin the courage to add her poetry to the memoir, said Kunin, who thanked her publisher, Dede Cummings, and the staff of Green Writers Press in Brattleboro, for their support and enthusiasm.
Cummings said Kunin’s agent approached her about publishing Coming of Age, a project that both parties knew could have appealed to any publishing house.
According to Cummings, the agent said that Kunin had read about Green Writers Press and liked three specific qualities: that the press was women-run, that Cummings herself is a published poet, and that Green Writers Press is based in Vermont.
“I’ve been inspired by [Kunin] since I was a college student in Vermont, and I couldn’t believe it,” Cummings said. “I literally almost fainted.”
Voice for the future
Cummings said she has just turned 60 and read Coming of Age several times. But for her, a big surprise was that most of the young twentysomething freelancers and interns at Green Writers Press also love the book.
“The young women just can’t get enough of it,” she said. “And that was a big surprise for us.”
“I think my biggest takeaway is the hopeful voice for the future at the end,” Cummings added.
Looking to the present, Kunin said, “You can find happiness at any age, even with disability invading your body. I’ve published other books, but none of the other books have impacted the audience in quite the same way.”