“Optimists Change the World” — The Life of Madeleine Kunin

In her cultured, polite and graceful way, Madeleine M. Kunin is angry.

And when an impressive agent of social change such as Kunin becomes angry, it pays to pay attention.

Kunin was the first female governor of Vermont (1985-1991). 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.)

After she left office, she founded the Institute for Sustainable Communities, which for more than 20 years has done successful community-building projects in 24 countries, including the U.S.

She also joined the Clinton administration, first to research vice-presidential candidates, then as Deputy Secretary of Education. Later, Clinton appointed her ambassador to Switzerland, where she prodded the Swiss banking establishment into confronting its financial actions during and after World War II.

She is the author of three books — a new one, “The New Feminist Agenda: Defining the Next Revolution for Women, Work and Family,” comes out this month. She is the mother of four children; the grandmother of five. Many talented women look to her as a mentor. She is currently the Marsh Scholar and Professor at Large at the University of Vermont.

Although Kunin is an accomplished politician, author, teacher, mentor and public speaker — and a master of controlled emotion — when she entered public life she wasn’t even certain that she would like it — or be any good at it.

“But I found it a fascinating world,” Kunin told me. “All different points of view; it was stimulating. You have to be a quick study about a whole bunch of new issues. And I found the interaction with constituents interesting and fun. You may skim the surface, but the surface is huge. Instead of living a life in your own little bubble, you break out of it and see this enormous landscape of life.”

Kunin has won elections and lost elections.

“Losing isn’t easy, and sometimes I took it personally,” she said. “But you have to move on. Politics has its ups and downs. When I lost my first campaign for governor, I was devastated, even though I knew it was a tough race. You get caught by the fever. It’s an adrenaline rush in politics that can be both wonderful and miserable, depending on where you are. But I have no regrets. The risk was worth taking.”

“She is a gutsy, visionary politician,” said Jonathan Lash, who served as Kunin’s secretary of natural resources and is now president of  Hampshire College in Amherst, Mass. “I loved working for her. It was a blast. She’s somebody who makes ‘politician’ not a dirty word.”

To many people around the world, Kunin has become an icon of leadership.

“Madeleine is a remarkably compassionate and visionary leader,” said George Hamilton, the president of ISC. “She has had amazing accomplishments, from writing books to founding ISC to being a role model to women around the world. Most compelling is the way she’s inspired women by example and by writing honestly about what it means to be a leader. I travel with her a lot. I see the response she gets. It’s really very moving.”

One of the young women Kunin has mentored is Vermont Representative Kesha Ram (D-Chittenden 3-4), who was the student body president of the University of Vermont and, at 21, ran for state office and won.

“Madeleine Kunin was very inspirational,” Ram said. “When I first met her, she gave me an hour of her time, and I left feeling ‘Wow! I would love to be involved in politics in a state where a former governor is so warm and accessible.’ She was a reminder that you don’t have to leave who you are when you enter the halls of power. Since then she’s been an incredible mentor and inspiration. What also means a lot to me is that she’s able to inspire women of all ages and backgrounds. She’s someone I would like to be. She embodies strength and courage. She speaks her mind and is eloquent, but she is also humble.”

At 78, I found Kunin to be both feminine and fragile.

When we met to talk at the Burlington home she shares with her second husband, retired Dartmouth professor John W. Hennessey, Jr. she was charming and lovely and, as always, elegantly dressed and coiffed. (Kunin  dedicated her new book to Hennessey: “For John, my first reader, editor, constant support and also — a feminist.”)

The couple’s living room has floor-to-ceiling glass walls overlooking Lake Champlain. A bright red abstract by Vermont artist Emily Mason graces one wall opposite a purple forest painted by Mason’s husband, Wolf Kahn. The two paintings strike a nice ironic balance.

The house is filled with photos of Kunin’s four children, her five grandchildren, her husband’s children and grandchildren, and portraits of her with Bill and Hillary Clinton, Michelle Obama, Geraldine Ferraro and other notables.

When talking about herself, Kunin was thoughtful, patient, honest about herself and diplomatic about others. She has a good sense of humor and isn’t afraid to giggle when something strikes her as funny. She is deeply intelligent. Her focus is laser sharp. She gives a great interview.

“She’s the complete role model,” said Jan Blittersdorf, the president and CEO of NRG Systems. “She always looks fabulous and its never conservative or like ‘a woman of a certain age.’ She’s regal. I think she’s a fine example of a successful woman. I guess I wonder who’s going to follow her footsteps, politically. What’s going to happen coming up? And is anybody going to follow her lead of supporting women in political positions? A man or a woman?”

Kunin is far from ready to retire to a rocking chair. What is making her angry now is the fact that decades after the second wave of the women’s movement in the Sixties and Seventies —the first wave gave women the vote — gender equality has still not been achieved in the United States. And even worse, gains made by women in multiple areas of civic society are being threatened or taken away vote by vote, state by state.
It’s 2012, Kunin said. Things should be different.

“I’m angry that a golf course in Georgia doesn’t allow women,” Kunin told me. “How can that be? I thought we would have settled these issues.”
In the introduction to her new book she writes that by this time:

“I 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. 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.’”

Does she think the Republican right wing has declared war on women?

“It sure sounds that way,” she told me. “It’s contraception, it’s choice, it’s violence against women, it’s cutting social programs, cutting Pell Grants. But I’m sure they don’t see it that way. There’s a real disconnect — they just look at issues from the male perspective. We have a huge divide.”

Rick Santorum and Mitt Romney can have many children because they can support them, she pointed out. What about single mothers who can’t support even their smaller families?

“Take the whole issue of contraception,” Kunin said. “I don’t know if I want to say it, but they should remember that Jesus was an only child. Almost every woman and family throughout history has practiced contraception. It didn’t start yesterday. The ability to control when and whether you want to bear children is the most essential thing for family life, not just for women. And making it possible for lower-income women have insurance coverage for that is just common sense, because it also dramatically reduces the number of abortions.”

Kunin is anything but shrill about a current political climate she characterizes as “nasty.”

“I guess I’m still polite in my anger,” she said. “That’s just my nature.”

In her new book she makes strong arguments for equality which she backs with interviews, anecdotes, research, facts and figures. Women have become doctors, scientists, professional athletes, lawyers and astronauts. But where is high-quality affordable child care? Where is maternity leave? Where is equal pay for equal work? Where is political representation?

“The irony is that women are highly educated in ways we didn’t think of 30 years ago,” Kunin told me. “We’re in careers in numbers we couldn’t imagine back then. So there has been a revolution in women in the work force. What hasn’t adjusted is the infrastructure around it, and the real loser is the children. There could be convergence from the left and the right. You have the Rick Santorums of the world saying mothers should be home with their children, but that’s entirely unrealistic for single mothers. But we could converge on paid maternity leave. If we had three months of paid maternity leave for mothers or fathers who want to stay home and bond with that baby — and of course, it should be a year — it would be a beginning. We make it almost impossible for them to do so. If we could get right and left to agree and support paid maternity leave, that would be a great achievement.”

The business community’s gut reaction is to say, “No, it’s too much of an expense,” she said.

“It’s hard for them to look long-term,” Kunin told me. “But if you enable that child to have a bonding experience with the parents, 20 years down the road you’ll have a good employee. And you’ll have a happy employee in the short term. The cost of retraining is about three to five times that of an annual salary. And even a low-level employee has to be trained. Retaining those employees is a good investment. How can we bring it about? People who are doing it should be speaking out. They can be role models for the rest.”

American companies practice an interesting form of hypocrisy in this area, Kunin said.
“The irony is that the multi-national companies, when they do business in Sweden and England and France, play by the rules of those countries and they still do well,” she said. “Yes! So how can they be so outraged when we ask them to do the same thing in their native land?”

This is not to be dismissed as “a feminist issue” or a “liberal issue.”

“The United States has the highest rate of poverty of all developed countries,” she said. “We should be marching in the streets about that. We’re eating our seed corn.”


Kunin’s story is well-known. If nothing else, she has documented it herself in “Living A Political Life,” which was published in 1994 to rave reviews from everyone from Elizabeth Dole to Arthur Schlessinger, Jr.

Kunin was born in Switzerland, where her father, a successful shoe importer and exporter, died when she was three.

“I have no memory of him, and I have some regret about that,” she said. “He would have made a good interview for this magazine.”

When Kunin was six and her elder brother was 10, her widowed mother packed some money, paintings and personal possessions and fled with her children. Although the family didn’t speak English — they spoke Swiss German — they headed for America, where they had cousins.

“We left because of World War II,” Kunin said. “Switzerland was surrounded by Nazi countries. A lot of Jewish families left because they were afraid that Hitler would invade Switzerland. My mother was very courageous, very gutsy.”

From a child’s point of view, it was a big adventure, Kunin said.

“I didn’t know the dangers,” she said. “We went to Genoa by train and waited at the port for a few days in this hotel, waiting to get on board the ship. It was supposed to have a cabin for our family, but everything was crowded. There were twice as many people on board as they were supposed to have legally. Everyone who could was beginning to flee.”

Some of Kunin’s relatives, who remained behind, disappeared in the Holocaust.

Later, Kunin wrote that her wartime experience led to her political career. ”On some level that I do not yet fully understand,” she wrote, ”I believe I transformed my sense of the Holocaust into personal political activism. This was the source of my political courage. I could do what the victims could not: oppose evil whenever I recognized it.”

In 2008, Kunin and her brother, the journalist and politician Edgar May, recorded for the VPR StoryCorps the story of their ship’s landing in New York. The ship, May said, was built for 900 and carried 2,000. He remembered seeing the Statue of Liberty looming out of the fog.

“Every person on deck, and there were hundreds, started to yell and shout,” May said. “It was an incredible welcome to the U.S. On the very day we arrived, Italy had declared war and joined Germany in the war. On the dock it was pandemonium.”

Brother and sister vividly remembered what happened next: Their mother took them aside and said, “This is America. Anything is possible in America.”

“Children adapt fairly quickly,” Kunin said. “In the beginning, I was self-conscious about being different. I wanted to dress like everyone else. I was embarrassed by my mother’s accent when she spoke English. That’s how children are. But my mother gave us a good childhood, even though we were aware that there was no father. We were aware that money was a problem, but we were never hungry or homeless. We just were aware that we had to be careful.”

Her immigrant experience gave Kunin a great respect for education.

“Coming to the U.S. as an immigrant, not speaking the language, being in a single parent family, those could be considered hardships that stand in your way,” Kunin told me. “But I am an optimist. And those experiences are what’s shaped me and made me appreciate this country. They made me be a self-starter and makes me put high value on education. It was access to education that gave me opportunity.”

Kunin worked as well as went to school. In high school she had a job in a 5&10 cent store, and after the family moved to Pittsfield, Mass. when she was 15, she worked in a store.

“I was always conscious of wanting to help, and then I worked my way through college,” Kunin said. “I went to the University of Massachusetts in Amherst and waitressed. And every night I would take my tips and make little piles and count them up and write them down. Waitressing got me out of my shyness. I was a very shy girl, and having to be nice to people and be interested and interesting and make small talk was all good practice. Of course, I didn’t know it at the time. You learn a lot about human behavior. Who is nice to the waitress and how you’re treated. So I’m always good to the waitstaff when I’m in a restaurant.”

Kunin said she was the first in her family to go to college.

“My brother went on the GI Bill,” Kunin said. “We just couldn’t afford to pay for my college. My brother did a lot of entrepreneurial things. He delivered newspapers and he delivered kosher beef for a butcher in New York. He was the one whom my mother expected to pick up the gold that was lining the streets of America, but I sort of absorbed the message too. Her goals for me were more traditional: marriage and children. And I always knew that I wanted to marry and have children, but I wanted something beyond that, too.”

(Edgar May has also had a distinguished career. He has been, among other things, an author, a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, a Vermont politician and the COO of Special Olympics International. Springfield’s Edgar May Health & Recreation Center is named for him.)


Kunin took full advantage of the educational opportunities she found in the United States. She earned a B.S. cum laude from the University of Massachusetts and an M.S. in Journalism from Columbia University. (She also holds an M.A. from the University of Vermont and has been a Fellow at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard.)

“First I thought I’d be a teacher, and I knew I didn’t want to be a secretary,” Kunin said. “I tried teaching myself shorthand, but that was difficult. I did teach myself how to type. My mother felt I should prepare to be a teacher as insurance; it was the ‘What if’ career. You see, my mother was really not prepared for a career when my father died.”

Opportunities were limited for women in journalism when Kunin graduated from Columbia in 1957.

“I remember seeing the men in my class getting jobs right and left,” she said. “I got a job offer from the Newark Evening News to write for what was then called ‘the social page.’ I decided there and then that I didn’t want to do that. I wanted to be a real news reporter.”

Kunin was turned down by The Washington Post (she was one of the top three candidates, but they gave the job to a man) and she was offered a cafeteria waitressing job at The New York Times. When she interviewed for the Providence Journal, the editor told her, “The last woman we hired got raped in the parking lot.”

Then David Howe and J. Warren McClure of the Burlington Free Press came to New York for the American Newspaper Association Convention. Her brother was already working in Vermont journalism, and Kunin was able to get an interview.

“The Free Press offered me a real job writing about school news and local government,” Kunin said. “My big brother said I could work there for a year and then apply to The New York Times, which is where I wanted to be, or the romantic place to be then, the Paris Herald Tribune. So I got on a Greyhound bus and went to Burlington, Vermont. To someone from New York, it looked like a very small town and almost the end of the world.”
She grew to love Vermont.

“I was, even then, attracted to the sense of community,” she said.

Kunin worked in Burlington as a journalist, spent a year as a guide at the Brussels World’s Fair, travelled in Europe, came back to Vermont and married Dr. Arthur S. Kunin. She started her family and became a full-time, if restless, mother.

“It was an adjustment to give up the career dream for the time being,” Kunin said. “I didn’t know I could pick it up again later. I remember my 30th birthday in Cambridge, Mass., where my husband was doing some post-doctoral work. My friend and I had just had babies. We were both rocking our babies in a cafe and saying, ‘What are we going to do with the rest of our lives? We’re 30, and our lives are over.’ If someone had tapped me on the shoulder and said, ‘Not to worry, Madeleine, you’re going to be governor of Vermont,’ I would have enjoyed my latte more. It’s been an adventure.”

(She tells this same story in her new book, only the drink is a cappuccino. It’s a good line either way.)

Three months after the birth of Kunin’s fourth child, she re-entered the workforce by becoming a part-time instructor in freshman English at Trinity College. Her husband became more involved in housework and child care. Then the women’s movement came along, Kunin said, “and gave me permission to change my timetable for re-entry into the adult world.”


“The feminist movement really spoke to me,” Kunin told me. “It was what I was thinking, but was not able to express. As most people did in the Sixties, I thought that after my children had grown I would go back and have a career. I was always interested in politics, but I never saw myself as a player. I thought I’d work behind the scenes or get involved in other people’s campaigns.”

In Burlington, a women’s group formed a small outpost of the Women’s Campaign Fund, which was encouraging women to get involved in politics.

“We urged one another to run, and this became what you would call today a support group,” Kunin said. “Burlington did have Democrats, which the rest of the state hardly had, and there were two issues. One was Act 250, which had been recently passed. People wanted to repeal it. I wanted to defend it because I had strong environmental views. The other issue was the Equal Rights Amendment, which was being debated. I had testified on it as a private citizen. I thought, ‘Well, instead of asking all these men to support it, why don’t I try to get a seat at the table?’ And once I had jumped in, I wanted to win.”

In 1972, when Kunin won a seat in the Vermont House of Representatives as a Democrat from Burlington, her children were three, six, eight and 10. She served for three terms and became chair of the powerful Appropriations Committee. She became Lieutenant Governor in 1978 under Gov. Richard Snelling and served until 1982.

When Snelling announced he would not run again in 1982, Kunin immediately threw her hat in the gubernatorial ring. Then Snelling changed his mind. Kunin stayed in the race, took one for the team and was defeated.

But by then she had attracted attention in Washington.

“That era was the formation of the women’s political caucus,” said Liz Bankowski, who would be Kunin’s campaign manager in the coming gubernatorial race and later her chief of staff. At the time, Bankowski was working on Capitol Hill.

“It was the time of a new wave of women brought to Congress, and they brought staff,” Bankowski said. “There was a paucity of women involved in serious decision making in the Congress. One of the offshoots was the Women’s Campaign Fund. Its purpose was to bring women running for higher office anywhere in the country to Washington and have them create a network. It was bipartisan. The women would be shepherded around in groups and a support system was created for them. It was a way to make them credible. I was invited to be on the team when Madeleine came to town.”

The next year Snelling again announced he was leaving office. Kunin quickly jumped into the race.

“It might have been the very day Snelling announced he wasn’t running again — I think it was in his State of the State speech — that Madeleine called me and said, ‘I need a campaign manager,’” Bankowski told me. “My knowledge of Vermont was nonexistent. But being the first woman to seek an office like that — only three women had been elected in their own right in the whole country! — Madeleine understood that part was going to be critical. She needed someone who understood the gender issues and made sure they weren’t the whole of the campaign.”

Kunin ran against Republican Attorney General John Easton. Seasoned party professionals at the national level warned her against having a female campaign manager, but she happily ignored their advice. Her children were still young, and Bankowski, too, had two small children. Yet they mounted a tough campaign based around environmental protection and improvements in education.

“I had to keep (current Congressman) Peter Welch and the others who were thinking about running out,” said Bankowski. “This wasn’t a lady-in-white-gloves campaign. We didn’t mess around. We went out and raised a lot of money. We were very disciplined. Madeleine was an untiring candidate. There wasn’t any place she wouldn’t go or anything she wouldn’t do. It was a fierce campaign. What I saw in her was the ability to be the first woman to break through this glass ceiling. I thought, ‘This is a fabulous person to hold this office. This is a highly competent woman. She’s got incredible credentials. This is a tested proven woman leader who has every claim for running for this office.’ I really admired her.”

A very important part of the story is that Kunin was a trailblazer, Bankowski pointed out.

“It’s not as hard for the ones who come after,” she said. “The second woman to run for president will not have to put up with everything that Hillary Clinton did. Everyone who comes after has it easier. But Madeleine embraced it. She was determined. And she felt she certainly would be good at it. She had a pretty ambitious agenda.”

It was “The Year of the Woman,” and many women were running for Congress. Geraldine Ferraro was on the national Democratic ticket as vice-president to Walter Mondale. Yet the election was a Democratic debacle. When the votes had cleared, only Kunin was left standing. For her it was a narrow win but a big victory for state Democrats, who also captured the Vermont Senate and made big gains in the House.

“It was a very big victory,” Bankowski said. “And that’s how we got started. When you’re living through it, you just put one foot in front of the other. But if she had lost, what a price both of us would have paid.”


One of the first things Kunin did in office was call for access to kindergarten for all Vermont children.

“It was also the very first thing Jeanne Shaheen did in New Hampshire years later [as governor],” Bankowski said. “Here was a politician willing to spend her political capital, not hoard it. That was Kunin’s very pro-active agenda around environment and education, and she got right in there. What she said she was going to do, she did. That’s somewhat lacking in politics these days. She didn’t just get there and sit in the chair. She put that capital to use.”

Kunin retired a deficit she had inherited from Snelling. She protected Act 250. She created the Reach Up welfare reform bill that enabled more disadvantaged people to go to school. She worked on the ever-controversial Act 200 — developed in response to a Vermont Supreme Court decision — which was the first attempt to equalize school funding across the state. 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.

“I saw that as a great opportunity, and it continues to be in Vermont,” Kunin said.

Kunin helped create the Housing and Conservation Trust Fund, which made affordable housing more available and protected open space, especially farmland. She created Dr. Dynasaur to give pregnant women and children access to health insurance.

“Which (Kunin’s lt. governor and later governor) Howard Dean always takes credit for,” Kunin said. “He put more money into it, true. Because when you start something, you start small. But we created it.”

She pushed through a maternity leave bill that was somewhat watered down; she had wanted to include men.

“That preceded the Family and Medical Leave Act that Congress later passed,” Kunin said. “I was a bit ahead of the times. But I’m proud of what I did for education. Governors have a lot of flexibility in how they spend their time, and I spent a lot of mine visiting schools. I recognized in my second term that the biggest impact I could have on Vermont was improving education. So I focused on quality.”

Kunin is especially known for the quality of the people — especially the female people — that she recruited to work in her administration. Many were the first women in their positions.

Mollie Beattie, for example, had no administrative experience when she was appointed to head Forests, Parks and Recreation, but she went on to head the Federal Fish & Wildlife Administration. Bankowski became a high-level Ben & Jerry’s executive and now, as chair of the board of New Chapter, is leading that natural herbal supplements company through its acquisition by Proctor & Gamble. In 1987, Kunin appointed the first woman to the Vermont Supreme Court.

“Which now seems so shocking that it took that long,” Kunin said. “But it did.”

Kunin’s male appointees were no less accomplished. Lash was later president of the World Resources Institute before he moved to Hampshire College eight months ago. John Dooley is still serving on the Vermont Supreme Court; when Kunin married Hennessey in 2006, he officiated at the ceremony.

“You’re only as good as the people you appoint and work with, you know,” Kunin said. “It was good timing. By then there were a lot of women who had advanced degrees and some experience.  And we felt the excitement of being in the vanguard. Everyone knew that we were being watched; that we had to do a super job.”

Personnel decisions are difficult, Kunin said.

“Those were some of my hardest experiences,” she said. “About 99 percent of the people I appointed went beyond my expectations, but some were very difficult. Would I do it differently? Probably, I would.”

Many of her biggest battles were in the environmental field. She fought with Killington over its rapid development plans, including a proposal to used treated wastewater for snowmaking. (One lawmaker had a bumper sticker that read: “Don’t eat yellow snow,” Lash told me.)

Kunin won most of those fights.

“The state was still disposing of garbage in unlined landfills and had a limited recycling program,” Lash said. “So we really got quite a lot done. We passed water quality legislation, toxic waste legislation, major new legislation dealing with municipal solid waste. We dealt with air quality issues and pristine stream protection. I think it was 13 statutes that we passed. During that period, the state was really a leader in innovation on environmental issues. That was Madeleine’s leadership and the fact that there was very strong support in the Statehouse as well. Implementation of the statutes, of course, took longer.”

Kunin lost a fight, however, to run a natural gas pipeline down the state. Some people at the time thought that was why she did not run for a fourth term. Kunin shrugs it off.

“It was just a blip on the screen,” she said.

Kunin was in office during a time of surpluses and she used them well. When she left office, New England’s economy was beginning a downward trajectory. Snelling, who became her successor as well as her predecessor, won office again by running on how to fix the new deficit.

Today’s down economy is worse than the one she faced in the 1990s, Kunin said

“It’s more prolonged, but Vermont, compared to the rest of the country, has been spared the worst of it,” Kunin said. “Some parts of the state have always been depressed, like the Northeast Kingdom and Newport. But look at our unemployment rate; it’s low compared to the national rate. The big danger now is the federal budget. I asked Gov. Peter Shumlin recently what percentage of our state budget is federal funds, and he said 75 cents on the dollar. So if this Paul Ryan budget passes in any shape or form, it’s going to be very difficult on Vermont.”

Kunin declines to offer advice to Gov. Shumlin.

“I’m not sure he needs any,” she said. “I think he’s enjoying the job. He’s very energetic and he’s an activist governor. Some governors have sort of sat back; that doesn’t mean they’ve done a bad job, but they haven’t been as proactive in creating change. I consider the job as one to create change and having an agenda, and Peter does that very much so. The way he managed Irene, I think, shortly after he was sworn in? He jumped into the breech and with every word gave people hope at a time of despair. He carried a message, ‘We’re going to help you. We’re going to do something about this.’ I think he handled it superbly. He’s a very good salesman for Vermont. He pitches the state as a place to do business. But I don’t think former governors should give advice to present governors. That’s like being a back seat driver, and I don’t want to do that.”

Why did Kunin really leave office?    Snelling would have been a tough opponent who had already beaten her once. In “Living a Political Life,” she wrote that she couldn’t take “the intensity hinging on madness” of another political campaign.

“I never wanted to be a career politician,” she told me. “I wanted to write. I wanted to teach. I wanted to try new things. And I guess I didn’t want to feel that ‘governor’ was my only identity. I wanted to be a person, too. When I announced I wouldn’t run again, people looked at me differently. One of the women at the press conference said, ‘Now you’re one of us again.’”

What did she mean?

“As a political person, I guess I was an alien,” Kunin said. “Not just powerful, but maybe power-seeking. You could put your own interpretation on it, but I felt she meant I wasn’t as trustworthy, or maybe not as genuine, as a politician. Now I was like them again. It was a mixed decision, and it’s always hard to abdicate a position of power. But it also opened up new doors for me. You never know what legacy you leave, but in some ways, as Woody Allen says, half of life is showing up. I now meet young men and women who say, ‘You came to my class in fifth grade.’ I think just the image of seeing that women can do this raises a powerful message.”

Just as there is a Vermont way of doing business, there is a Vermont way of doing politics, Kunin told me.

“We can’t totally seal ourselves off from the nasty political climate that has taken over the country, but we still have more of a sense of decency in  in Vermont,” Kunin said. “Democrats and Republicans break bread together in the cafeteria of the Statehouse. You can’t demonize people when you know them and work with them. At least, it’s harder to demonize people. That sense of familiarity leads to greater respect. So Vermont politics definitely is different. Some of that applies to the business community as well. Of course, there are multi-national corporations that don’t feel a sense of community, but I think Vermont-owned business consider themselves not as businesses, but as members of the community. And they want to help improve that community.”


In 1990, Kunin was invited to Bulgaria to monitor that country’s first democratic elections. Inspired, in 1991 she, George Hamilton, Lash and others founded the Institute for Sustainable Communities with a seed grant from the Rockefeller Brothers Fund.

“She was invited to co-lead the delegation to Bulgaria and I went along,” Hamilton said. “We were really impressed with the changes being made in Europe, and we thought we could share some of our experience in the U.S. and Vermont with our counterparts in Eastern Europe. Madeleine’s vision was to focus on the idea that communities around the world have common needs. These are essentially human needs, like access to clean water, clear air, a safe place to raise their children, decent economic opportunity, living a healthy life. And all of these common needs, addressed together instead of focusing on economic development at all costs, can achieve more lasting results.”

ISC projects work the way Vermont communities work.

“We engage the different people in the various communities,” Hamilton said. “Not surprisingly, that’s what Vermont is well known for — linking economic and environmental goals. It’s important to engage people at the community level and have them work in partnership on the environment. It’s important to make sure that people who are disadvantaged in some way have a seat at the table. That was Madeleine’s theory of change. It’s obviously grounded in Vermont’s culture and Vermont’s way of doing things.”

The ISC is successful and the institute has grown. It’s budget this year is $13.5 million. It employs between 80 and 90 people — 30 in Montpelier, three or four in Washington, and several in China, India and Serbia.

“We’re growing quite rapidly,” Hamilton said. “Right now we’ve been invited to focus on helping U.S. cities share best practices and overcome institutional barriers. We’re working with New York, Chicago, San Francisco and Boston. We’re helping them scale up building energy efficiency, develop sustainable economic development strategies, climate adaptation and resilience. We’re helping them prepare for an increasing number of natural disasters. A lot of foundations support our work.”


Kunin supported Bill Clinton when he was running for president. After he won, she served on the three-person committee (the other members were Warren Christopher and Vernon Jordan) that helped to choose his running mate. Although she wanted to be appointed the head of the Environmental Protection Agency, she instead accepted a job as Deputy Secretary in the U.S. Department of Education.

Then Clinton appointed her ambassador to her native country of Switzerland, where she served from 1996 to 1999. While there, she helped awake the Swiss conscience to the art treasures and money stolen by the Nazis during World War II.

David E. Sanger wrote about Kunin’s entry into diplomacy in The New York Times of July 26, 1997:

“Soon after she arrived in Switzerland last summer to become the American Ambassador to the country where she was born 63 years ago, Madeleine M. Kunin cajoled embattled Swiss bankers, urging them to help the heirs of World War II victims and refugees, and particularly to publish a list of long-dormant bank accounts,” he wrote. “At the time, the bankers, appalled at the prospect of breaching their century-long tradition of secrecy, resisted. They publicly insisted that there were few such accounts and that any surviving heirs would know who they were and make claims. When the bankers finally relented this week and published the list in newspapers around the world, Ambassador Kunin settled into a comfortable chair in her office at the American Embassy and scanned the columns listing about 1,800 names. One name leapt out of the tiny type: her mother’s.”

In Switzerland, the reaction to focusing world-wide attention on that country’s collusion with the Nazis was intense — and negative.

“Politicians, diplomats and commentators accuse the United States of acting imperiously,” Sanger wrote. “The bankers have defended their actions during the war but deflected questions about what their institutions did after the German surrender, when the country was no longer at risk of being overrun. In recent months, State Department officials have sought to tone down the criticisms of Switzerland, causing sharp divisions in the Administration. Some diplomats warn of the dangers of a major breach with Switzerland when it is beginning to help track down international drug dealers and money launderers. Ms. Kunin is on the front line, trying to press for more disclosure without fanning the flames of resentment.”

In the end, a settlement was reached between three major Swiss banks and Jewish plaintiffs who were awarded $1.3 billion in restitution.


Kunin’s first book, 1994’s “Living a Political Life,” is crammed full of entertaining anecdotes; it should be required reading in Vermont, if only because it is a fountain of information (and gossip) about most of the people who are still running the state.

Her second book, “Pearls, Politics & Power: How Women can Win and Lead,” which came out in 2008, was praised by Bill Clinton as an incisive analysis of the challenges women face in running for office. Calling Kunin “one of our nation’s finest governors,” Clinton said, “This book is a must for any woman interested in becoming one of tomorrow’s leaders.”

Now comes “The New Feminist Agenda:  Defining the Next Revolution for Women, Work and Family.” With her honed reporting, interviewing and fact-checking skills, Kunin took two years to study, read, interview and write a polemic calling for a new women’s movement.

She argues that America is lagging in competitiveness — not to mention in happiness — because of its lack of public family support systems. With such a high proportion of American families having two adults in the workforce, what happens to young children, old people, sick people and poor people, she wants to know.

“This is not a feminist issue,” she told me. “It’s not a women’s issue. It’s a basic economic issue.”

Young children need quality day care, for example.

“How are we going to have a work force that is capable of holding jobs?” Kunin said. “It’s not only test scores we need, but something called cognitive ability. The ability to finish a task. The ability to focus. The ability to communicate with others. Those are skills we learn early in life, and they’re as important as math. We now have long-term studies that show that 40 years later, very poor children who had quality child care are more likely to be stable, to be married, to hold a job. So when people think the country is going to hell because of the Sixties, they miss the point that it’s education and upbringing that is critical to lifelong success.”

Cutting programs like Head Start, cutting childcare subsidies, not offering generous maternity leave programs and work flexibility — these things are cutting America’s throat. So is focusing on cutting the budget instead of shoring up American families.
For this Kunin blames “American exceptionality,” or the thinking that Americans “(A)re extraordinary, different from and better than anyone else, unwilling to admit we have a problem and therefore blind to the need for a solution.”

As a result of this blindness, America has the highest child poverty rate in the developed world. It also leads in teen pregnancies “because of a lack of access to birth control and in some areas, legal abortion.”

Other countries — Argentina, Germany, the Scandinavian countries, even Saudi Arabia — are doing things very differently.

“Paid family leave is the norm in the rest of the world,” she writes. “Only Liberia, Papua New Guinea, Swaziland and the U.S. do not guarantee any form of paid leave for families.”
Yet America is one of the most charitable nations in the world. Change is possible, Kunin believes.

“We must learn from other countries, although the United States doesn’t like to do it,” Kunin told me. “England and Australia have the right to request flexibility — after you have a baby or if you have a sick parent, or even if you’re elderly and want to work longer, you can ask your boss for time without fear of being fired. He or she can agree or disagree. Then you can negotiate, or a tribunal will settle the issue. And it works beautifully. Why do employers like it? They didn’t at first. But now it means they can retain their talented and valuable employees. We need to make flexibility a policy, an excepted way of doing things.

Now you can only do it if you have to have the right boss.”

Kunin is hoping her book will start a national conversation.

“Why are we different from other places in the world?” she said. “Why can’t we invest more in our families and our children? Why can’t we recognize the consequences of the great divide between wealthy and poor? Occupy Wall Street movement got our attention, but the next step is to take action. I see this as the coming agenda.”


As she has done so often in her life, Kunin is trying to lead the way to cultural change.

“We have to begin to change the way we do things,” she told me. “And it will take many voices to make that happen. We have to move from believing this is the way things have always been and the way they will always be, to believing that things can be different. The enlightened business community is doing that.”

Anger can lead to change, Kunin said. She has devised a three-part program, or “boxes.”
“What makes a person become energetic and activist and decide he or she is going to speak out and try to right a wrong?” she said. “The first stage, the first box, is anger. You’re mad about something and you want to change it — whether its traffic on your street or you want to stay home with your newborn. Then you have to do something with that anger. Go to the second box, which I call imagination and empathy. Allow yourself to imagine a different situation or different world. What if? What if I could stay home with my child for six weeks or six months? That gives you the energy to move on. Some people stop and don’t even imagine. And empathy is being able to feel for others.”

The third box is optimism.

“You have to be optimistic enough to feel its worth spending the energy, the time, the risks, to work for change,” Kunin said. “That’s my advice. Don’t deny your anger, but do something with it.”

Kunin sees reasons for optimism now. She draws hope from the recent outrage over talk show personality Rush Limbaugh’s condemnation of a Georgetown law student who testified in Congress about the need for insurance coverage for contraception. The thunderous outpouring of support for Planned Parenthood after officials at Susan G. Komen for the Cure decided to stop donating, is another sign. That those top officials were forced to resign is still another.

“I think all this is acting like a wake-up call to some young women,” Kunin told me. “I see that at UVM. I think it’s a wake-up call to this generation that what we have gained can also be taken away, and you have to fight to hold on to what you have. There are glimmers of light and you have to focus on them. I’m not always optimistic, but it’s the only way anything changes. You have to have a fighting spirit. If you just fold your hands and lock the door and sit in the dark, nothing’s going to happen. Sometimes in my speeches, I say that pessimists are usually right, but optimists change the world. And that’s the truth.”

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