Living a Political Life

Madeleine Kunin writes frankly of her doubts and insecurities as a female seeking office in the male-structured environment of politics, analyzing the difficulties women encounter in finding a political voice. Balancing ongoing family responsibilities with the demands of public life presented an additional challenge. A doctor’s wife who had put aside her career in journalism to raise four young children, Kunin was propelled into politics by her own restiveness and by the emerging feminist movement. In the newly organized Vermont Women’s Political Caucus, she found the approval and advice she needed to declare her candidacy for the all-male Burlington Board of Aldermen in 1972. She lost, but that same year won a seat in the Vermont House of Representatives and was soon elected Democratic Whip. She won the first of two terms as lieutenant governor in 1978, lost her first race for governor in 1982, and came back in 1984 to win the first of three gubernatorial terms.

Focusing on public education and the environment as policy goals, Kunin committed herself with equal resolve to “the quest to govern differently, as a woman,” and succeed on both fronts. She pushed successfully for legislation to protect the environment and regulate growth and was named one of the nation’s top ten education governors by FORTUNE magazine. At the same time she “mainstreamed” women’s issues such as child care by emphasizing the benefits to business, and used the governor’s office as a bully pulpit to advocate the creation of a new family court system. Acutely conscious of being a role model, she encouraged female political networks and appointed women—40 percent—to offices, boards, and commissions, literally putting a new face on state government.