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Not-for-Profit, Award-Winning Community News and Views for Windham County, Vermont • Since 2006
Voices / Column

Kunin calls for a truce in the war on women

Dummerston

America has had three female secretaries of state. It has seen a serious female run a serious presidential campaign.

There are three women on the U.S. Supreme Court. (There should be five.)

We’ve had a U.S. Speaker of the House of Representatives, quite a few astronauts (ride, Sally, ride!), and enough professors, writers, doctors, lawyers, and scientists to fill our schools, libraries, hospitals, and laboratories.

Very few women who go on the stage are automatically called “sluts” or “whores” anymore. (They have to earn that epithet. Georgetown law students are another matter.)

So why are we in such desperate need of another women’s revolution?

Need you ask? Don’t the names Rush Limbaugh, Mitt Romney, or Rick Santorum mean anything to you?

Former Vermont Gov. Madeleine May Kunin is so angry she has written a polemic calling for revolution now.

Called The New Feminist Agenda: Defining the Next Revolution for Women, Work and Family, it will be published next month by Chelsea Green Publishing.

You might think that Kunin, now 78, would have slipped into a gracious and well-earned retirement after publishing her last book, Pearls, Politics & Power: How Women Can Win and Lead. In that book, she laid out a ground plan for women who want to run for public office.

But you would be wrong.

* * *

It’s hard to say the words “revolution” and “Madeleine Kunin” in the same breath, because Kunin has always been known for her charm, her grace, her poise, her elegance, and her diplomatic tact.

It is perhaps because of those traits that she doesn’t often reach the public consciousness. But Kunin has some serious chops when it comes to making social change. And this country badly needs some social change.

Kunin served as the first female governor of Vermont from 1985 to 1991. And she was an activist governor, at that. She was the first Jewish governor of Vermont, for that matter. The first Jewish woman ever elected governor of a U.S. state. The first woman in U.S. history to be elected governor three times. The fourth woman to be elected governor in her own right (instead of inheriting the position from a deceased husband).

And did I mention that when she got involved with politics, she had four small children?

During her three terms in office, she started the Housing and Conservation Trust Fund and Dr. Dynasaur. She brought every Vermont child to kindergarten. She was aggressive about protecting waterways and the environment.

She defended Act 250 and created the Reach Up welfare reform bill, which enabled more disadvantaged people to go to school. She pushed through a maternity leave bill that was somewhat watered down; she had wanted to include men.

She gave a huge boost to Vermont’s value-added food industry by developing the Vermont Seal of Quality and having the state sponsor trade shows in New York to show off Vermont products.

When I interviewed Annie Christopher many years ago, long before she sold her million-dollar food business, Annie’s Naturals, she told me that her company would not have succeeded without Kunin’s support.

* * *

Kunin left office, in part, because she did not want her only identity to be “governor.” Yes, there was a deficit and yes, Vermont, along with the rest of New England, was sliding into a down economy, and yes, her opponent would have been Richard Snelling, who had defeated her for governor once before. And yes, it would have been an ugly fight. And yes, there were still those four children.

After she left office, Kunin never stopped working. She founded the Institute for Sustainable Communities, which for more than 20 years has done successful community-building projects in 24 countries, including the United States.

A supporter of Bill Clinton, she joined his administration, first to research vice-presidential candidates with Warren Christopher and Vernon Jordan, then as deputy secretary of education. (She wanted to head the Environmental Protection Agency.)

Later, Clinton appointed her ambassador to Switzerland, where she prodded the Swiss banking establishment into confronting its financial misbehavior during and after World War II.

Many talented young women look to Kunin as a mentor — including two who are now in the Vermont Legislature. She is currently the Marsh Scholar and professor-at-large at the University of Vermont.

* * *

But for all her work for equality and inclusiveness, Kunin believes that our nation has a long way to go.

In the introduction to the new book, she writes that by now, she “did not expect that women would still make 77 cents for every dollar that men earn.”

“I expected that one-third to one-half of our Congress, governors, state legislatures and mayors would be female,” she writes. “I did not expect that in 2010 that number would be 17 percent in the Congress, and the United States would be tied at 69th place in the percentage of women in parliaments, out of 178 countries.

“I expected that one-third to one-half of corporate board members would be women. I did not expect to see that proportion stuck at 17 percent.

“I expected that a high percentage of the Fortune 500 companies would be led by women. I did not expect that figure to be 3 percent.

“I expected that misogyny, rape and other acts of violence against women would be widely condemned and sharply reduced.”

“I expected that by 2011 grandmothers like myself would be able to tell their grandchildren of how life used to be ‘long ago,’” she writes.

Things I learned from Kunin’s new book: The United States has the highest child-poverty rate in the developed world. Only Liberia, Papua New Guinea, Swaziland, and the United States do not guarantee any form of paid leave for families.

In Saudi Arabia — a country where women aren’t even allowed to drive cars, for God’s sake — women are allowed four weeks of paid leave before they give birth and six weeks of paid maternity leave after they deliver. Testosterone levels drop when men get involved with their children.

Enlightened countries offer maternity and compassionate leave.

They pay men and women the same amount of money for doing comparable jobs. They provide high-quality child care so women and men can be productive without having to worry about their children’s daily welfare. They provide health care. Some of them are even closing their nuclear power plants.

All this would cause howls of pain and cries of “communism!” from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

But you know what? When American multinational companies do business in Sweden and England and France, they play by the rules of those countries and give maternity leave and other benefits to their employees. And they still make a substantial profit.

These are not “feminist” issues or “liberal” issues but economic issues, Kunin insists. They might even be issues of national defense. The U.S. Department of Defense, after all, is the biggest provider of high-quality child care in the country. It serves 300,000 children from six weeks old to 12 years. With a voluntary force composed of men and women with families, it has to.

* * *

So what’s wrong with America?

Kunin believes at the root is a philosophical mindset she calls “American exceptionalism.” She defines it this way: Americans believe they “are extraordinary, different from and better than anyone else, unwilling to admit we have a problem and therefore blind to the need for a solution.”

Compare this to the African concept of ubuntu, which says, “I am who I am because of who we all are.”

Or, as former Norwegian Prime Minister Gro Harlem Brundtland told Kunin, “We are interested in solidarity.”

Yes, other countries pay high taxes for high benefits. But our ethos of “he who dies with the most toys wins” is coming close to destroying our middle class, our way of life, and our pursuit of happiness.

Kunin quotes John de Graaf, head of an organization called Take Back Your Time, who thinks that Americans’ work environment is out of the 18th century.

“We’ve made work everything and we’ve gotten completely out of touch and forgotten other values that we hold dear like our family and our community and our health,” he told her.

Seeking solidarity instead of individualism will go a long way to curing some of the ills of the patriarchy.

Kunin asks: How much longer can America continue on its blind path? How can we thrive in “a global economy where every other country we compete with has more advanced maternity policies”?

She recommends that we start learning from other countries. The book is rich with interviews with important figures from around the globe, and she crams in enough facts, studies, figures, entertaining anecdotes, ideas, and arguments to start a conversation, if not a revolution.

Kunin provides road maps for her vision. Build coalitions!, she cries. Vote! Get angry! Then organize! Use your imagination! Get out of the house! Run for political office! Start a business! Make change!

* * *

Kunin, who took two years to research and write this book, has produced a forceful polemic.

“When I started writing this book, I believed we needed another feminist revolution to bring about the social and political changes necessary to support the demanding lives of working families in America today,” she writes.

“I was only half right. We need a revolution. But women cannot lead it alone. We have to broaden the feminist conversation to include men, unions, the elderly, the disabled, religious groups and the unaffiliated.

“Feminists alone cannot get the job done. They took us halfway there — to greater equality and opportunity. The other half of the journey lies ahead.

“To complete it, we must link arms with both friends and strangers as we march in step to create a society in which parents can merge their work and family lives without shortchanging the children, the elderly or the economy.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #149 (Wednesday, April 25, 2012).

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