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What Women Want Now

Will young feminists follow Madeleine Kunin's road map for revolution?


Published May 2, 2012 at 10:21 a.m.
Updated November 19, 2020 at 5:22 p.m.

Indie-music darlings Neko Case and Anaïs Mitchell lent their celebrity to a women’s-rights protest last Saturday in Montpelier. But when Madeleine Kunin stepped up to the podium before the boisterous crowd of some 200, Vermont’s first — and so far only — female governor was even more stirring than the stars with whom she shared the stage.

On the same day, in every state in the country, women were gathering on Statehouse lawns and in city squares to protest the so-called “war on women.” It’s a battle that’s far less pitched in Vermont, protesters in Montpelier acknowledged, but the talk of the day was of solidarity, sisterhood and “standing our ground.”

Kunin’s address — punctuated with catchy phrases met by generous applause — had the feeling of a campaign speech. On access to health care and insurance reform: “Having a pair of ovaries should not be a preexisting condition.” On the importance of women in leadership roles: “If you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu.”

Campaigning for office isn’t all that different from burnishing a political legacy, which Kunin appears to be doing these days, with high-profile appearances, guest commentaries, a documentary in progress. Suddenly, it seems like she’s everywhere.

She’s also promoting a new book, The New Feminist Agenda: Defining the Next Revolution for Women, Work, and Family, which hit bookstore shelves just in time for Saturday’s rally. Part policy manifesto, part research digest, Kunin’s book argues that for all the advances of the women’s movement in the United States, the country is way behind when it comes to family policies designed to support women in the workforce.

“It may seem a retrograde step to suggest that feminists like me, who strove to liberate ourselves from the limited roles of wife and mother, have come full circle to focus, once again, on the family,” Kunin writes. Yet she argues that’s exactly where the country must turn its attention — to early education, quality childcare and paid parental leave.

Saturday’s rally, however, focused less on Kunin’s new feminist agenda than it did on the old standards: reproductive freedom, violence against women, equal pay. Dressed for the cold weather in winter hats, gloves and scarves, the women in attendance were joined by a smattering of men, children and dogs. Scrawled chalk messages decorated the sidewalk leading toward the Statehouse. “May the choice be with you!” read one, illustrated with a pastel-colored Yoda.

Others carried signs: “Don’t Tread on Me” was the headline for a diagram of a woman’s reproductive system. University of Vermont freshman Jess Fuller mugged in front of the golden dome for a picture with a placard reading, “This is what a feminist looks like.” As a photographer snapped a group posing nearby, they shouted “Vagina!” instead of “Cheese!”

With the breeze threatening to carry off their Planned Parenthood flyers, Fuller and some classmates from UVM weighted them down with heavy stones. The women represented the campus chapter of VOX: Voices for Planned Parenthood, which has gained momentum at UVM in the wake of political discourse about women’s health care and access to contraception.

“No one thought we would have to have these conversations again,” said senior Emily Therrien.

“There’s a lot at risk,” agreed senior Samantha Wyman.

Therrien, Fuller and Wyman are the outliers, according to Kunin. In The New Feminist Agenda, her third book, she acknowledges a generational disconnect on the subject of women’s rights. Most young women today seem reluctant to describe themselves as “feminists,” Kunin notes, and she does not “want to become the scold who bemoans how little this generation knows or cares about her years of struggle.”

And Kunin, now 78, did struggle. She linked arms with fellow protesters and marched in favor of abortion rights. In her thirties she took up her own placard, not unlike the women on the Statehouse lawn, and rallied for women’s rights at the nation’s Capitol. In her “maiden” speech as a state legislator, Kunin spoke up in favor of the ultimately doomed Equal Rights Amendment. In response to an old friend who said of the women’s movement, “I was never one of those angry women,” Kunin countered, “I’m still angry.”

And she is, rallying the troops in her senior years, at a time when other leaders might sit back and enjoy their lakefront views. “Why the anger?” Kunin asks in the early pages of The New Feminist Agenda. “What did I expect?”

In short, she expected more. She expected more female leaders in Congress and state legislatures. That more than 3 percent of Fortune 500 companies would be led by women. That “by the year 2011, grandmothers like myself would be able to tell their grandchildren of how life used to be ‘long ago,’ when families had to figure out for themselves how to be both wage earners and caregivers.”

Kunin ditched her black hat when she stepped up to the podium last Saturday, and the brisk wind caught at white hair that, in her Statehouse portrait, is darker and neatly coiffed. Her voice rang over the loudspeaker as she reminded those gathered across the lawn that progress rarely follows a straight line, then issued her call to action: “I ask you to be ready to fight the fight that we began and cannot afford to lose. What I’m doing is passing the torch to you. You have the passion. You have the energy.”

Will young women like Therrien and her sign-toting compatriots take up Kunin’s fight?

Gender Is an Issue

The release of Kunin’s The New Feminist Agenda couldn’t have been better timed — in the middle of a presidential campaign season that will be remembered for its failed Republican candidates, each seemingly more conservative than the next.

Talking heads on both sides of the political divide are railing about the war on women. Clicktivism went viral when the Susan G. Komen for the Cure foundation rescinded Planned Parenthood funding. Stay-at-home moms were up in arms when Democratic pundit Hilary Rosen recently dissed Ann Romney for “never working a day in her life.”

Meanwhile, chasing the zeitgeist, the blogerati are dissecting HBO’s new drama “Girls” from 25-year-old wunderkind writer-director-actor Lena Dunham. The show follows a quartet of white, twentysomething women as they bounce between bedrooms and internships in New York. It’s “Sex and the City” for a new generation.

Into this latest flurry of girl talk comes The New Feminist Agenda.

Kunin calls more attention to gender in the book than she ever did in her political days. During her 1984 bid for the governor’s seat, Kunin’s campaign was about credentials, not feminist trailblazing, even though she was clearly “going where few women had gone,” says former chief of staff and campaign manager Liz Bankowski.

The campaign wasn’t interested in making that point. In fact, early polling showed that voters favored Kunin when they learned about her experience as a legislator, but her lead vanished when those same voters subsequently learned about her gender. A commercial early in the campaign led with text that detailed Kunin’s qualifications before unveiling a photograph that gave away the fact that she was female.

“We did our best not to make gender an issue,” says Bankowski, who herself was a trailblazer as one of the first women in the country to lead a statewide campaign for office. Winning debates was crucial, Bankowski says, as was looking and acting like a governor.

As the election drew closer, though, the mood shifted. Women began flocking to campaign events with handmade banners that read “Madeleine,” and the campaign — which had previously shied away from such informality — produced what came to be known as the “lipstick button”: Kunin’s first name scrawled in red on a white background. Bankowski says grassroots support for Kunin as a female candidate finally convinced strategists that it might be OK to have the gender conversation.

“This is why the women who are the first carry so much of the burden,” says Bankowski. “They’re navigating so much more.”

When Kunin narrowly defeated then-attorney general John Easton, she became the fourth woman in the U.S. to be elected governor. She served three terms. “There were so many firsts,” says Bankowski. To her mind, Kunin brought energetic, forward-thinking leaders into government, and women occupied Kunin’s cabinet and personal staff in unprecedented numbers. She appointed the first woman to Vermont’s supreme court. Kunin rolled out universal access to kindergarten in the state, and set in motion the popular Dr. Dynasaur program that still provides free or low-cost health care for children and pregnant women.

President Bill Clinton was a Kunin fan — and still is. He contributed a glowing blurb for the new book. After she left office, Kunin sat on Clinton’s vice presidential search committee and later served as the deputy secretary of education in his administration. In 1997, he tapped her to serve as the U.S. ambassador to Switzerland and tiny Liechtenstein.

As for the work-life balance that Kunin is now championing?

“We had none,” says Bankowski. “There’s always that tug. This is the story of women’s lives, and I don’t know that that’s a whole lot different.”

In fact, Kunin says that very question inspired her to write The New Feminist Agenda. Women are forever asking her, “How did you do it?” What they mean is how did Kunin balance motherhood — she has four children — and an ambitious political career?

She was lucky, Kunin says. She had a supportive husband and the financial resources to hire caregivers when her children were young. Even after she landed a seat in Vermont’s House, she commuted home to Burlington in time for dinner most evenings.

“I thought that if I tossed the balls in the air just right, and was adept enough to catch them, I could have it all — career, husband, kids,” she writes. “Most days I did, some days I didn’t.”

What Kunin realized is that her answers weren’t the answers: Most women didn’t have the same advantages that made her rise to power possible. Kunin came to believe that finding a better answer — to a question that has been relevant since at least the 1960s — was the unfinished business of the women’s movement.

“We were promised so much,” she says. “You know, that you can do it all. But we didn’t really make it possible to do it all.”

Women in the wake of the feminist revolution of the 1970s flocked first to colleges and universities and then to the workforce. Though the National Committee on Pay Equity shows that American women still earn, on average, 77 cents to the dollar compared to men’s salaries, the U.S. hit a historic tipping point in 2010. For the first time in the country’s history, women outnumbered men on the payroll.

About this meteoric rise of women in the workplace, Kunin writes, “The women’s movement sparked changes that far exceeded expectations.”

It’s what came after — or rather, what failed to come after — that concerns her. Whereas many other countries instituted new workplace policies at the same time that women joined the workforce, Kunin argues that the U.S. still operates on a 1960s ideal of family politics — one that assumes there is a breadwinner at work and a caregiver in the home.

“We have succeeded for a long time in kind of a laissez-faire attitude toward families and children,” she says. “But I think that that philosophy of ‘you’re on your own’ is very hard to continue to support.”

Balancing Acts

Cheryl Hanna, a professor at Vermont Law School, could have been a case study for Kunin’s book. She is among the ranks of women who earned an education and professional degree in the wake of the women’s movement. A latchkey child of the 1970s, Hanna watched her mother go to work with other secretaries in the Ford Motor Company’s “pink ghetto.” Hanna says her mother, a single parent, was poorly paid and didn’t enjoy protection against sexual harassment or gender discrimination now guaranteed under the law.

In the evenings before her mother returned home from work, Hanna watched the protests and rallies of the burgeoning women’s movement unfolding on the television news. And she benefited from the social activism it represented. Increased opportunities and protection from certain kinds of discrimination account in part for Hanna’s jump from Kalamazoo College to Harvard Law School to her current position on the faculty at VLS.

Along the way, she found it isn’t easy to balance professional success with raising a family. No matter what the profession, Hanna says, “The minute those [child] car seats go in, the world sees you differently.”

New lawsuits and increased complaints hint at growing dissatisfaction from parents who perceive discrimination in the workplace. Last year, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission marked a 23 percent increase from 2005 in the number of complaints filed by women who alleged unfair treatment due to pregnancy. Hanna has noticed an uptick in so-called “caregiver discrimination.” While certain classes, like race and gender, are protected under the law against discrimination, parenthood isn’t, she says.

“When we talk about what discrimination in the workplace looks like these days, it’s really about caregiver discrimination,” Hanna says.

Lawsuits so far have focused on caregivers in fairly high-powered professional worlds. The allegations tend to be that an equally qualified parent has been passed over for a promotion in favor of a single or childless person. That parent could be male or female, Hanna points out.

The bigger issue, as she sees it, is that some would-be parents aren’t even making it to the point when they might be passed over in favor of another employee. In her work as a professor, Hanna sees young professional women “opting out” too soon. They might choose a career path that they assume will be more family-friendly down the road, even if they don’t yet have children.

“They opt out too early all the time,” Hanna says. “Then, five or seven years down the road, they’re not nearly as far ahead as their male colleagues are, and they don’t have as many choices at that point.”

Hanna is skeptical that policy changes — one of Kunin’s favored tools — can fix the problem; instead, she looks to private companies that are instituting innovative new work-family policies for tenable solutions. Hanna says Kunin is invaluable in this debate because she’s one of very few women who’ve risen to power.

“It’s often women who will be the ones who carry forward these agendas,” Hanna says of better childcare or family-leave policies or flexible work time. “In order to have the world change for women, we need women in power. That’s the bottom line.”

Kunin has made a similar argument in the past: Encouraging women to run for office was the subject of her 2008 book, Pearls, Politics & Power: How Women Can Win and Lead. Now she turns her attention to the agenda these women need to undertake.

Even Kunin had reservations about labeling that agenda “feminist.” She says she fought her Chelsea Green editor about including that word in the book’s title, and the editor won. Ten pages into the manuscript, though, Kunin asks, “In order to fulfill the expectations that feminism promised, do we have to jettison the word ‘feminism’ itself?” Toward the end of her manifesto she makes the case for building a broad-based coalition of women, men, children and elders. Which is to say, everyone.

Semantics aside, Kunin covers a lot of ground in The New Feminist Agenda. She outlines policies that other countries have implemented — often with great success — that encourage a healthier balance of work and family life. Those include more generous family leave, especially after the birth of a child, and better access to early-childhood care and education. She makes the point that these policies aren’t just about making individuals happier or more relaxed, but have economic and social ramifications.

“We’re such a quarterly-report, bottom-line country,” Kunin says. Bring up family leave or mandatory sick leave, she says, and someone is bound to shout, “Jobs killer!”

In her book, Kunin points to the work of Nobel Prize-winning economist James Heckman, who has calculated that every dollar invested in early education brings a return of $7. She writes about case studies at private companies where paid maternity leave has led to increased employee retention.

Kunin draws a correlation between the country’s staggering rate of childhood poverty — nearly a quarter of U.S. families with children under the age of 6 live in poverty today — and what she calls the “lack of enlightened family-work policies.”

“We cling to the romance of the self-made man (woman) who succeeds on his (her) own,” Kunin writes. She argues for rethinking this “treasured American credo” altogether.

Her goal is a lofty one. And connecting the dots between Kunin’s goals and on-the-ground action will be difficult, she admits, especially since those who stand to gain the most from more humane family and work policies aren’t yet paying attention.

“I think a lot of young women think, I don’t have to worry about this yet,” Kunin says.

Divided We Rant

It may be that young “feminists,” if that’s what they choose to call themselves, are divided on the relevance of Kunin’s work-life agenda.

On the one hand, there’s Caroline Bright, 21, a St. Michael’s College senior and former Miss Vermont who gushes about her ambitions for a political life. She has known since she was 10 years old that she wanted to be a politician someday — a strange choice, she admits, for a grade-school kid.

“Some girls are like, ‘I want a pony,’” she says with a laugh. “I was like, ‘I want a gavel.’”

Bright has been a Kunin acolyte since her first visit to the Statehouse, when she noted the portrait of the “proud, strong woman in this blue suit.” As a teenager, Bright read Kunin’s Pearls, Politics & Power and realized, “It felt like there was someone out there who believed in what I wanted to do.”

“I think that’s the reason so many young people gravitate toward her,” says Bright, who shows up for interviews wearing pearls. “She is this living, breathing, physical embodiment of what is possible for us to achieve.”

Across town, at UVM, sophomore Maura McGovern agrees that Kunin is a role model — “I really appreciate all that she’s done,” she says — but she’s skeptical about Kunin’s latest agenda, and not nearly as inspired as Bright. McGovern is a member of Fed Up Vermont, a grassroots campaign in Burlington that organizes for women’s reproductive rights and to end sexual violence. Like many young women, she says it’s hard to connect to issues of the work-life balance at this point in her life. McGovern is more worried about the prevalence of rape and sexual violence on college campuses. She bristles at attacks on women’s reproductive health.

“We’re sinking back so quickly,” she says. “Time and time again, women have been let down by the government in this country. It’s really disheartening, and it makes it hard for me to believe in the system working for women.”

Kunin has spent some time mulling over a similar question in the lead-up to her book’s release: Can we afford to fight for a new feminist agenda when it seems like the old one is still under attack? Kunin says yes — that if women only defend the territory they’ve won, they won’t make any new advances. She also argues that deep-seated cultural problems around caregiving, childcare and family leave are among the biggest challenges facing women today. “Until we find a way to sort out how to share these responsibilities — between spouses, partners, employers and governments — gender equality will remain an elusive goal,” she writes.

Still, it’s a hard sell in a year when sexier women’s issues are front and center. At Saturday’s rally, Sen. Bernie Sanders railed, “We are not returning to the days of backroom abortions,” and the crowd went wild. These were the issues they’d showed up to defend, the agenda that merited sign making and chanting.

Kunin gets that: “Abortion and violence are the fundraisers,” she writes. “Paid family leave and childcare are not.”

She’ll have to make the case that her new feminist agenda deserves the same kind of rally. And Kunin will have to win over skeptics, some of whom are the young and energetic banner-carriers of today’s feminist movement — such as McGovern.

“It’s awful having to make hierarchical choices about what is more important. Everything is important,” McGovern says. “But it’s a bummer that we live in a society where there’s push back. It’s always very reactionary. It’s hard to make gains when everything is always being taken away.”

At Saturday’s rally, Therrien acknowledged, “I think we all get bogged down in how angry we are. And we are angry.”

Here, at least, the new and old feminists find common ground.