Sustainable Woman

One would expect Madeleine Kunin to seek respite after so many years of public service, but she continues it in the roles of Distinguished Visiting Professor at UVM and St. Michael's College and serving as chairwoman of the board of the Institute for Sustainable Communities, a Montpelier nonprofit she founded.

by Rosalyn Graham

Following several years in the Legislature, Madeleine Kunin, was elected Vermont's first female governor in 1984. After serving three terms, she went on to work on President Bill Clinton's campaign, was appointed deputy secretary of education and then ambassador to Switzerland before returning to Vermont.

The west-facing dormer windows of Madeleine Kunin's fifth-floor office in the Old Mill Building at the University of Vermont provide a million- dollar view of Lake Champlain and the Adirondacks. Her academic aerie is also a vantage point for reflecting on the 20 years since she won national headlines as the first female governor of Vermont and only the fourth female governor in United States history.

Those 20 years were filled with exciting changes, challenges, opportunities and growth as Gov. Kunin stepped from the local sphere of influence to the national and international arenas. Back home in Vermont for five years, she has been sharing, with college students taking her course titled Serving the Public Good, those experiences and the lessons she learned.

"It's so important for young people to keep the faith with the democratic system," says Kunin. "I still believe in that personal responsibility. It's why I'm teaching these courses. With all its flaws, democracy still works, and the biggest danger is in people opting out."

Kunin's belief in the power of the democratic system and her commitment to encouraging its growth around the world are also embodied in an organization she founded soon after completing her third term as governor. The Institute for Sustainable Communities, with headquarters in Montpelier, is "a piece of the solution," she says. It is helping with democracy-building in countries that have no experience of democracy by giving people the experience of dealing with issues at the local level, a true building block of the democratic experience.

The institute grew out of her visit to Bulgaria during her last year as governor, when she headed an election observation team for the country's first democratic elections. "We realized that the people in Bulgaria were very concerned about the environment. These formerly communist countries where environmental policies had been devastating needed a lot of help."

Governor Kunin's response was prompt and practical. "We started this non-govermental organization (NGO) with a $25,000 grant from the Rockefeller Brothers Fund. It now has a budget of $11 million and employs about a hundred people doing environmental education, environmental management, small business development, democracy building and working with local NGOs to try to strengthen them."

Most of the work is in Russia, the Russian Far East, Ukraine and Macedonia, and ISC is looking at expanding into the Near East. As chairwoman of the board, Kunin is not involved on a day-to-day basis, and credits executive director George Hamilton with doing a superb job of making the organization, which is funded largely by the federal government with some private funding, grow and prosper.

Founding ISC came as Kunin was looking for "a life after politics," as she describes it. She had served for six years in the Legislature and four years as lieutenant governor before being elected governor. Gretchen Morse, now executive director of the United Way of Chittenden County, remembers Kunin's inauguration as one of the proudest moments of her life.

"I was overcome with an amazing feeling of pride that Vermont would elect a woman of her stature and quality and incredible record of public service." A week later Morse was asked to become secretary of the Agency of Human Services. "I always felt we were working toward shared goals for how we wanted people served by government, in the best interests of all Vermonters."

Among the accomplishments Morse recalls are making kindergarten universal, establishing the precursors to welfare reform such as state-funded parent-child centers, expanding Medicaid eligibility, creating the Dr. Dynosaur program, and developing the local land use planning tool, Act 200. Act 200 was not always popular, but Morse says the measure exemplified Kunin's willingness to take risks to do what she believed was in the best interests of Vermont.

"She was the first governor to make a strategic effort to place women in places of decision-making," Morse observes. "If you look at the history of women in positions of responsibility, you see a big jump in her administration. She was willing to take a risk with people who weren't already part of the bureaucracy. In her administration, women were not an anomaly; we were part of the decision-making process. The perspective we brought was respected and valued."

With the difficult decision not to seek a fourth term behind her, Kunin divided her time between politics and academe. Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton, whom she knew from governors' conferences, asked if she would help with his campaign for the presidency. "I thought I would risk it," she says with a laugh. She was a member of the three-person committee with Vernon Jordan and Warren Christopher to recommend a vice-presidential candidate, and after the successful campaign, she served on the transition team coordinating the transfer of power.

This was also a time for reflecting and teaching for Kunin. She taught a course on women in politics at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H., where she was a Montgomery Fellow. She began thinking about writing a memoir, encouraged by the advice of Carolyn Heilbrun and Jill Conway, who said it is important for women to write forthright autobiographies so that women can learn from one another. At the Bunting Institute at Harvard University, she found the ideal environment for writing. Most of her autobiography, Living a Political Life, was written there.

With Kunin's personal experience in education focused in the post-secondary worlds of Trinity College in Burlington where she taught three sections of freshman English when her children were small Dartmouth and Harvard, the invitation to become deputy secretary of education in the Clinton administration was a step into an exciting and challenging new world.

"I really learned a lot about the United States and some of the deplorable conditions for schoolchildren," she says. "I had never seen poverty like that or segregation like that not just pockets, but whole cities where schools are overwhelmingly minority and great differences between city schools and suburban schools."

Kunin was responsible for the management of the department and spent time testifying before Congress and promoting legislation by visiting various parts of the country. She founded the Office of Education and Technology and confronted issues of gender education and science education. "The biggest challenge was to energize the bureaucracy, to get people to be innovative and efficient," she says.

She believes she was fortunate to have been in government before she was in the Education Department. "Sometimes federal officials have no clue about how things work at the state and local level. I was able to bring that practical viewpoint to the process." She created a Principal in Residence program; Val Gardner, principal of Champlain Valley Union High School in Hinesburg, was the first to spend a year in the post. Gardner says that Kunin's determination to make changes that were relevant for all children, and her concern for education as an essential tool for fighting poverty resonated through whatever she did. "She recognized that we needed to be talking about issues affecting families and the community; that if you are going to improve school, it's not the school by itself."

After 31/2 in the Education Department, Kunin found her life story coming full circle as she was named ambassador to the country of her birth, Switzerland. What could have been a glamorous nostalgia trip to a high-profile, prestigious job, was in fact the challenge of a lifetime. She became ambassador during the only period in modern history when there was real tension between the United States and Switzerland.

The United States was supporting the campaign to resolve the issue of Swiss banks' refusal to turn over to survivors and heirs the money deposited by German Jews before and during the Second World War. When Kunin arrived in Switzerland in August of 1996, she found herself in the midst of a contentious issue, and when she opened the newspaper one day to find a list of dormant accounts including one in her own mother's name, she became personally involved.

"It was a real challenge to remain objective," she says. "Switzerland was the country of my birth, and I had sentimental feelings about the country, but I was also shocked at things I had learned.

"I felt that I was there at the right time. It was very helpful to be able to speak Swiss German and French," she says. "People don't realize how important diplomacy can be even in these days of faxes and emails and the Internet. The face-to-face discussions are still very, very important. It was a very rich experience."

Today, with four years of teaching first literature and then state and local government at Middlebury College, and this year as a Distinguished Visiting Professor dividing her time between UVM and St. Michael's, the governor/secretary/ambassador experiences provide a backdrop for observations of the issues of the day. The same concern that compelled her to go to a local Democratic caucus meeting in Burlington in 1972 is one of her continuing crusades: a dearth of women in elected office.

Then, it was the fact that no woman had ever been elected to the Burlington Board of Aldermen (now called the City Council), and she found herself a candidate. Now it is that women are so under-represented in Congress.

"I'm disappointed we don't have more women in politics. We're 57th in the world in percentage of women in Congress," she says. Faced with increasingly expensive and nasty campaigns, women find it hard to get into the system. One strategy she says would help is the one she used in Vermont 20 years ago when she chose talented women to join her cabinet.

Kunin says one of the high points of her time as governor of Vermont was discovering that she had become a role model for women and girls, encouraging them to have dreams of their own. Perhaps her greatest legacy will be to teach a new generation of women and girls to dare to take risks, to knock on doors and ask for their vote, to speak in public about things they really care about. It is a lesson she learned from her mother.

"I attribute my desire to do something about things to having come to America as a child. We were typical of immigrant families, in that my mother taught me and my brother anything is possible in America. You can accomplish something, you can get something done. It should be an issue in this campaign to make this American dream accessible to everyone."

Originally published in June 2004 Business People-Vermont