BRATTLEBORO—Fifty years ago this spring, Betty Freidan’s book “The Feminine Mystique” was published, and roused a generation of American women to seek equality.
Former Vermont Gov. Madeleine M. Kunin was part of that generation. In the early 1960s, she was a young mother living in Cambridge, Mass., and like so many women who read Friedan’s book, it spoke to thoughts she had about her life that no one else had given voice to.
As the years went by, Kunin was part of the change in women’s lives. She embarked on a political career and became the first female governor in Vermont, serving 1985 to 1991, and later, assistant secretary of education and U.S. ambassador to Switzerland during the Clinton administration.
But now, as a woman in her late 70s, looking over five decades of the women’s movement, she said she still feels like too much has been left undone.
Women are still battling for reproductive freedom, more than four decades after Roe v. Wade, as state after state attempt to restrict access to not just abortion, but also contraception and family planning services.
Misogyny, rape, and other acts of violence against women remain too prevalent in our nation, from the schoolhouse to the barracks to the workplace.
But most of all, said Kunin, despite women having entered the workforce in record numbers, “we haven’t figured out how to combine family and work, and reach that impossible, acrobatic balance.”
That battle inspired Kunin to write “The New Feminist Agenda” (2012), a book that lays out a common-sense agenda for helping American women — and men — achieve that balance between family and work, while improving the lives of children and strengthening our society as a whole.
Kunin spoke about her book, and her longstanding concerns about family/work issues, during a talk at the Brattleboro Memorial Hospital Auxiliary’s annual meeting on May 8 at the New England Youth Theater.
She noted that while nearly 60 percent of all college graduates are women and that half the students in our nation’s law and medical schools are female, women still earn only 77 cents for every dollar earned by their male counterparts. They are still underrepresented in Congress (less than 20 percent) and in the corner office (only 3 percent of Fortune 500 companies are led by women).
“If women are so educated, if women are so liberated, why aren’t there more women in leadership positions?” she asked. “If women are so smart, why are these figures true?”
One of the reasons why, she said, is that our nation “really hasn’t succeeded in achieving full gender equality, which means more sharing in the home, more sharing in the workplace."
How do we make this happen? Kunin said she examines three policies in her book that could make a difference in reaching the goal of a more equitable society.
One is workplace flexibility — the ability to take time off from work to tend to issues at home without penalty. Most American workers of both genders can only dream of such a thing.
But the workplaces who do have it, she said, have higher worker productivity, less worker turnover, and are generally more profitable.
“There is a direct relationship between a nation’s level of gender equality, and its level of economic growth,” Kunin said. “This is no longer just a women’s issue. What Betty Freidan could not have foreseen as a feminist is that what she was espousing 50 years ago has become a global economic issue.”
Another is paid time off after childbirth. The United States, along with Liberia and Swaziland, are the only three countries in the world that do not offer paid maternity leave, she said. There is a family leave law on the books in this country, but it is unpaid family leave, and Kunin said financial pressures on families force mothers to return to work sooner they want to.
Finally, access to quality child care is a necessity, she said. “It’s not a question of ‘do we know how?’ It’s a question of whether we have the commitment.”
She spoke of one employer that has the best child care system in the country — the Department of Defense. With more military personnel with families, she said the Pentagon realizes providing proper child care “is a matter of national security.”
Of course, Kunin said, “all of these programs will cost money,” and she knows that given the current economic and political divisions in our nation, it would be nearly impossible to carry them out.
But she compared doing these things for families to another bold act that Congress did nearly 70 years ago — the GI Bill of Rights, which offered the veterans of World War II a chance to go to college or learn a trade, with all expenses paid by the federal government.
“It is generally acknowledged now that the GI Bill helped create the American middle class,” she said. “But it was a very controversial bill at the time, as much if not more so than Obamacare today.”
Just as the Congress of 1944 had to overcome the objections about cost and questions about whether the government should take an expanded role in higher education, Kunin said today’s leaders need to do the same thing and think big when it comes to helping families.
“We have to pour out more funds and more commitment to quality early education, to quality preschool,” she said. “We now have the hard evidence that the years zero to five are the most critical years [for a child], and if we are ever to reduce poverty significantly, that’s the place to begin.”
She cited the work of University of Chicago economist and Nobel laureate James Heckman, whose research found that every dollar spent on early childhood education yielded $7 of economic benefit, and that it is more cost-effective to fund programs for children under age 5 than to pay for remedial programs when children are in their teens.
One reason why Kunin said she is such a strong supporter of early childhood education is because of one very sad statistic — the United States has the highest rate of childhood poverty, 22 percent, of any developed country in the world.
“What this means is that it is very likely that these children will be unemployed, will be high school dropouts, and that there will be a higher percentage of them incarcerated [when they are adults],” she said.
Kunin also cited a couple of recent studies that interviewed adults who came from impoverished backgrounds and had access to quality early childhood education as children four decades earlier.
“They had lower incarceration rates and lower unemployment rates,” Kunin said, “and the reason they did was not because they were better at math and English, but because they learned something in preschool called non-cognitive skills.”
In layperson’s terms, these are skills such as the ability to pay attention, to complete a task, to be socialized and communicative with others. “These are lifelong skills that give a person the capacity to contribute, the capacity to hold a job, the capacity to be a good parent. That is why good preschool is so important,” she said.
Kunin said she believes that if more women were in positions of power, our nation would be a lot closer to gender equity and policies that support working parents.
“Women [in politics] tend to be less partisan and more practical, and to identify very strongly with children’s issues, with family issues, with health issues,” she said. “Life experiences shape political and social views to a great extent.“
Despite the turmoil in Montpelier and Washington, D.C., Kunin says she is optimistic.
“You have to permit yourself to imagine change, that something different will happen if you act. Optimism gives you the courage to do it. Nothing happens without energy, without demands, without evidence, without people telling the stories of their own lives.”