In 1972, she ran for the State House. In 1978, she became the Lieutenant Governor. Then, in 1984, Madeleine Kunin became Vermont’s first female Governor. She served three terms. In a dozen years, she had broken through multiple glass ceilings – all before leaving the state of Vermont.
During the 90s, she was a member of the Clinton campaign’s Vice Presidential search committee, and then his administration’s transition team. She served as Deputy Secretary of Education, and as the Ambassador to Switzerland, the country of her birth, helping all sides find a resolution to a major international disagreement – that of Swiss banks and the money they held onto from Nazi Germany.
Though these titles and accomplishments alone paint the portrait of a stunning life in politics at home and abroad, that isn’t what Pearls, Politics and Power is about. Rather, Kunin focuses not on her achievements, but the need to draw more women directly into the political process.
It’s a number she returns to repeatedly throughout the book.
"Women make up 16 percent of the Congress, 16 percent of the top corporate positions, and 16 percent of the lower houses of Parliaments worldwide. These are record numbers for the United States, but they are low compared to many other countries. The united States ranks sixty-ninth in a list of 187 countries in the percentage of women in lower houses of Parliament."
Why? Why do women eschew the political life? What factors keep them out of the halls of Congress or removed from their office C-suite? Kunin identifies 7 obstacles: dealing with dirty politics, dealing with conflict and criticism, the ability to raise money, time, privacy, risk and confidence.
Some of these obstacles are the result of gender norms, impressed upon girls from the cradle and throughout their adolescence, which are hard to break out of to effectively run for office. Women are taught to avoid conflict. We are constantly reminded of the importance of being popular.
While no one likes to be criticized publicly, women in the spotlight face another level of scrutiny that often places an emphasis on personal issues rather than professional critiques. As we grow older, we are expected to juggle the demands of a home and family with that of a professional career – demands that are in constant conflict, making the question of timing all that more complicated.
Yet, despite the obstacles, women can, and do run for office. Women do become politicians, and do find their way into public life. We’ve seen Speaker Pelosi take the gavel. We watched as Senator Clinton made a historic run for the nomination. Yet, we’re still stuck at 16 percent. It’s just not enough.
How do women get started? What do we need to change about our culture to encourage women and girls to see themselves as leaders? What impact will increased participation by women have on our nation and our world?
These are all questions Governor Kunin addresses in Pearls, Politics and Power and some of the topics I hope she will touch on today. It’s an honor to welcome her to Firedoglake’s Book Salon for this important discussion.