Honoring Kunin

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(HOST) March is Women’s History Month and commentator Cyndy Bittinger looks back at a landmark event that happened 20 years ago.

(BITTINGER) She broke the glass ceiling for women in Vermont when she won the first of her three gubernatorial terms in 1985. She was the first woman to serve three terms as governor of any state and the fourth woman in the U. S. to be elected governor in her own right.

As a child, Madeleine Kunin was very shy and could not speak English when she arrived in America at the age of six with her widowed mother and brother. They were World War II Jewish Swiss refugees. Her life in America began in Forest Hills, New York. She moved to Vermont at the age of 23 to be a reporter for the Burlington Free Press.

By 1972, Madeleine Kunin was a mother of four and wife of a professor of medicine, as well as a journalist and teacher, but considered herself primarily a “homemaker.” A friend, Esther Hartigan Sorrell, founder of the Vermont Democratic Party, encouraged Madeleine to campaign for office. After all, Esther managed to have her fifth child at the age of 41 yet still turned her home into a political command center. Esther and Madeleine were elected to the Vermont legislature that year. With the support of the Women’s Political Caucus, Kunin recalled that they “learned to take one another’s hands and form a chain.” It was time to give women a chance to serve in positions of power in the state of Vermont.

Kunin wrote that the movement “enlarged my sense of personal possibility” and “gave me a public mission and a purpose: to further equal opportunities for women.” She felt that the outspoken feminists of the 1970s were a “vanguard of attack” which opened the way for her candidacy.

Her first speech as a state legislator was for the Equal Rights Amendment and an appeal for the end of discrimination based on gender. In Vermont at least, her side won. She had earned a master’s degree in English Literature from the University of Vermont and her education gave her the confidence to speak and write what was on her mind.

The state was open to change in the 1980s. One-to-one campaigning allowed a woman to make a case for why she should be included in the political fabric. Kunin was told her biggest hurdle in running for a statewide office was that she was from the big city of Burlington, not her gender or party. Once elected governor, Kunin’s efforts helped Vermont rise to first place in the nation for children’s services. She doubled funding for public education and spoke out for kindergarten in all primary schools. She established the Vermont Housing and Land Conservation Trust Fund to create affordable housing and land preservation.

Now, each girl opening a history textbook can read these words: “Women from all across the country converged on the Vermont State House in 1985 to see with their own eyes the inauguration of a woman as governor of Vermont.”

Saturday, the first event of the Vermont Women’s History Project will honor the achievements of Governor Madeleine Kunin.

This is Cyndy Bittinger.

Related Link:
Vermont Commission on Women

Cyndy Bittinger is executive director of the Calvin Coolidge Memorial Foundation. She spoke from our studio in Norwich.

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