Twenty Years

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(HOST) Commentator Madeleine Kunin reflects on what she – and other women – achieved politically in the last 20 years, and looks to the future.

(KUNIN) It’s been 20 years since I was sworn in as the first woman governor of Vermont and the fourth woman elected, in her own right, in the United States.

Vermont Woman magazine commemorated the event with a cover story and called me an elder stateswoman. I think I prefer saying that in French, even if it is a bit snobbish. I’d like to be called “une femme d’un certain age.” I was alerted that it had been 20 years when one of my St. Michael’s College students told me she remembered meeting me in first grade.

Looking back, I think the greatest power a leader has is the power to empower others. I had an opportunity to appoint a record number of women: the first female Supreme Court Justice; the first Secretary of Civil and Military Affairs; the first woman commissioner of forests and parks, Mollie Beattie. Each woman had a resume that read differently from the resumes of the men who had preceded them. Some lacked administrative experience. Some had gaps in their resumes marking time out to raise children, time to go back to school.

Women’s resumes may be different from men’s, but what is important to remember is that different does not mean less qualified. It may mean equally qualified, or even more qualified, because time spent as a volunteer, as a parent, is a great learning time.

Twenty years ago, Geraldine Ferrraro ran for vice president on the democratic ticket. We thought she was starting a trend, but the trend never happened. No woman has been nominated by either party since.

I was the first woman in 1976 to be elected to a party leadership post. Today, both the majority and minority leaders in the Vermont house are women, and a woman is Speaker of the House. Nancy Pelosi is democratic leader in the Congress.

There are signs of change – many we take for granted, like rape crisis centers, battered women’s shelters, Title IX, which mandates equal funding for women’s sports. The most dramatic shift has happened in education, where women comprise more than half of the under- graduates. Women studying to be doctors, lawyers, dentists and veterinarians are getting close to or above 50 percent.

What women fail to understand is that, if they exercised equal political power in politics, they could – as the saying goes – change the world. Our challenge is to make women believe that.

If half the Congress were Congresswomen, would we have a national paid family leave policy? Would we have affordable, quality child care for all families who need it? Would we have proper pre-natal care for all pregnant women, and would the decision of when and whether to bear children be made by women themselves?

I think the answer is yes, but as an elder stateswoman, I would love to test that theory, just to see what happens.

This is Madeleine May Kunin.

Madeleine May Kunin is a former governor of Vermont.

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