Former Vermont Gov. Madeleine Kunin has worked since 1972 to get more women into elected office in Vermont.
In September, she will launch a new organization, Vermont Emerge, to recruit and train women to run for public office.
“There is still a need for more women in public office at all levels,” said Kunin.
The former governor, who served from 1985 to 1991, remains the only woman to hold the highest elected office in the state. “I thought I’d have a successor as a woman governor long before this,” said Kunin during an interview at her Burlington home Tuesday. “I’d like to have company.”
When it comes to women and elected office in Vermont, “there’s good news and bad news,” Kunin said. “The good news is we’re No. 2 in the percentage of women in the legislature.”
Vermont has long been one of the leading states in the country for electing women to the state legislature. There are nine women in the 30-member state Senate, down slightly from 2004, when there were 13 female senators.
The number of women in the state House of Representatives is at an all time high. Sixty-four of the state’s 150 representatives are women.
Women do head some of the most powerful committees in the legislature, including three of the four committees in charge of budget and taxes. In the House, both the Appropriations and Ways and Means committees are headed by women. Women also serve as the vice chairs of both committees. The Senate Appropriations Committee is chaired by a woman, and women are four of the committee’s seven members.
No woman has ever served as president of the Senate, although a woman has served as Speaker of the House. Currently, every branch of Vermont’s state government is headed by a man.
Kunin suggested the success of women in the state legislature is partially the result of the legislature being perceived as “more of a public service than a political post.”
“There’s still some hesitancy about [women in] executive positions,” Kunin said. Although two women sought the Democratic nomination for the governorship in 2010, the nod ultimately went to current Gov. Peter Shumlin.
Vermont is one of only four states that has never elected a woman to Congress. The others are Delaware, Iowa and Mississippi.
Women do not fare much better at the local level. In Franklin County, there are 75 seats on selectboards, village boards of trustees and the St. Albans City Council. Only eight of those positions are held by women.
Only two communities in Franklin County have women heading their legislative bodies. Linda Collins chairs the Richford selectboard, and Liz Gamache is the St. Albans City mayor.
Only six of the county’s 16 municipal legislative bodies have a female member, and only one, Montgomery, has more than one woman on the board.
According to Kunin, Franklin County’s municipalities aren’t that unusual.
“Women, more than men, need to be asked to run,” Kunin said. “They don’t put themselves forward.”
While unqualified men often don’t hesitate to step up, “so many women who are qualified will pause” when asked to run, she said.
Kunin herself hesitated the first time she was nominated for elected office. She spoke at a Ward 5 caucus in Burlington in 1972 about the need for women on the then all-male Burlington Board of Aldermen. Kunin’s point was simply “there’s never been a woman, and I hoped there would be.”
An audience member nominated her for a seat on the board. “My first reaction was I don’t want to do this,” Kunin said. “My second reaction was I don’t want to not do this.”
Kunin ended up in a race against incumbent Clarence Meunier. “Clarence was quoted in the paper as saying I wasn’t serious. That made me serious,” she said.
She lost, but that fall Kunin was elected to the House of Representatives where she served for six years before becoming lieutenant governor in 1978.
She was elected governor in 1984, serving three terms.
“Even after all these years it’s difficult to separate out the gender bias,” Kunin said. “You know it’s there.”
“You have a higher burden of proof,” she added. “You’re just conscious of that extra piece of luggage you’re carrying around.”
“Men can be emotional in politics,” Kunin continued. She pointed to the different standards for current federal Speaker of the House John Boehner and his predecessor Nancy Pelosi. “John Boehner can cry whenever he wants to … Nancy Pelosi can never cry.”
Kunin herself avoided emotional displays. “I felt a need for emotional control,” she said.
“I had the universal experience, which I think many women have, where I’d make a comment and a man would repeat it and people would say ‘isn’t that clever,'” Kunin said. Eventually, she learned to respond by pointing out the man’s agreement with her position.
She governed in a manner similar to her predecessors 90 to 95 percent of the time, Kunin said, but there were some differences.
Kunin emphasized childcare: “Because I was a mother and I had children, I realized childcare could determine whether a family could put food on the table,” she said.
“Women still have different life experiences,” she said. And those different experiences can provide a different perspective on issues before the government.
“I remember when a marital rape law was passed in the Senate, and there were snickers,” said Kunin, with some male legislators wondering how it could be possible for a man to rape his wife.
In the same vein, she points to the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee, which has five women on it for the first time in history. Despite years of repeated scandals involving sexual assault and harassment in the military, military leaders have never before been forced to truly try and stop the violence. That’s because the female Senators on the Armed Service Committee are insisting on change, Kunin observed.
“Everybody’s life experiences influences their judgment,” Kunin said. “Diversity isn’t just a feel good political concept. It’s what democracy should look like to be effective.”
But there are challenges in getting women to run. Women still do the lion’s share of household chores and child rearing. Kunin pointed to Pittsfield, Mass. where residents who were dissatisfied with the local selectboard helped to elect a woman, not by providing money for a campaign, but childcare and meal preparation. “It’s not just campaign contributions; it’s real life contributions,” she said.
Women also need to be encouraged to run and to believe that they can make a difference. In Kunin’s experience, men are more likely to enjoy the rough and tumble of politics for its own sake, while women are more focused on results.
“It’s also encouraging women to remain optimistic and believe the system works and they can get things done,” she said. “Ask them, encourage them, and show them the ropes so they’ll be prepared not only to get elected but to govern.”
Kunin sees plenty of issues to draw women into politics. There are the numerous legislative efforts to limit abortion access in states around the country. “Regardless of your views on abortion, the government should not be the decider,” Kunin said.
She anticipates the laws will continue to create a backlash. “I think there is a wake-up call going on,” she said.
In her most recent book, “The New Feminist Agenda: Defining the Next Revolution for Women, Work, and Family,” Kunin sees a need for better policies on paid leave from work, access to childcare, flexible work hours and other issues of concern to working women and their families.
Vermont still lacks legislation guaranteeing workers paid sick days, for example.
“Family/work balance is the next big issue,” Kunin said. “If we change the way work works, men will benefit too.”
Editor’s note: This story originally ran in the Saturday, Aug. 24 issue of the St. Albans Messenger, an Independent sister publication.