Kunin has run out of patience and it's good

This pre-publication review first appeared in Vermont Woman, WINTER Feb-March, 2012.

I began reporting on Madeleine Kunin soon after she first became Lt. Governor of Vermont  in 1978.  I was then editing a newspaper committed to poverty issues for Community Action. I remember my first time interviewing her on these subjects, finally turning off the tape recorder to remove my reporting hat. I had no intention of being objective when I told her how much her election had personally meant to me as a young woman. I was inspired.

In 1985, a year after Kunin became the first woman governor of Vermont, Sue Gillis began a new newspaper for Vermont women; I became its editor and aimed at women’s empowerment. Governor Kunin was right there for us, supporting the effort with a personal letter that still hangs in my office.

This past week I read the galleys of Kunin’s third book, expected to be out in book stores early in May. We’re the first to report on it—thank you, Chelsea Green Publishers—because, again, I am inspired.  I want every young parent and every grandparent to read it. Look for A New Feminist Agenda: Defining the Next Revolution for Women, Work and Familyas soon as spring arrives.



Here is why the book matters:

After serving as governor, Kunin became Deputy Director of the U.S. Education Dept. and was later appointed ambassador to her native Switzerland. When Hitler had risen to power, her widowed mother had brought Madeleine and her brother to the U.S. for safety; they were Jewish. Kunin writes frankly of her mother’s doing piecework at home to make ends meet, and of her gratitude for public schools and colleges that made her education possible.

Kunin’s first two books, one the memoir of her time as governor (Living a Political Life) and the next her account of U.S. women’s political history (Pearls, Politics and Power) are both solid reads that every young woman and every library ought to own. But I confess neither of these were page-turners and in places disappointed me. I was angry for her when I wished for more outspokenness. I thought maybe it was just our different upbringings. She was from a better neighborhood in Switzerland, while I was raised in a working-class Italian home. Maybe that accounted for my wanting more passion and a few more zealous hand jabs.

Cutting to the Chase

This third time out, however, the Governor delivers. She remains an elegant and cool ambassador; never once does she use that old label, sexism. But she gets in some good zingers. And she minces no words for what is needed: revolution. This time she emotes and argues and chats and gossips and asks frank and thoughtful questions of a surprising range of eloquent women and men. They grant us memorable answers and some very smart strategies. Her work brings us a life-time of research and experience.

Now 78, Kunin perhaps grows aware she hasn’t that much more time to make changes she sees must be accomplished. Perhaps she had stronger support in her second spouse, credited in her dedication: “For John, my first reader, editor, constant supporter—and a feminist.” However you account for it, Kunin gets off some sharp comments, completely keeping in style. She remains the grand dame of politics for the benefit of women and families; a believer in government by and of and for all of the people—half of them female and nearly a quarter of them children.

Families and U.S. economic competitiveness is her topic.  She has run out of patience. Early in the introduction she writes about the unprecedented pressures that make family and work an easily-tipped balancing act for American parents.

“Marches, Tweets, letters, lobbyists—every possible means has to be employed to convince the country that these issues are not only “women’s” issues, not only “children’s” issues, which can easily be dismissed with a gentle pat on the head. These are gut economic issues.” Yes, the lady said gut. Yes, she means bucks.

Kunin says this to a nation she describes competing in a global marketplace against workers in over a 150 other nations with strong work support programs: job flexibility, family leave insurance, early education excellence and affordable childcare. She examines the diversity of those other nations’ governments and businesses, their solutions and their problems, always in the context of possibilities here. Our working families run a handicapped race, she argues, forced to pass their children back and forth like balls in play, convinced by our culture that they are in this economic race alone.

This is good neither for workers nor business and certainly not good for developing human capital, our children, and our economic future. Investing in struggling families would not only increase the available talent pool for American business, it would enable women to participate more widely in leadership. She cites numerous studies and numerous financial allies who gained greater economic success with more diversity. This isn’t fantasy: companies lose money and needed skills when they fail to see and support their employees’ whole lives.

Kunin draws on many business leaders, as well as academics and international experts. She believes how well we address these issues today, both through government and private action, “will determine how well we do as a nation tomorrow.”  Some surprises in this included the details of funding what American women have been told is unaffordable. She goes behind the political action of small American successes in California, Washington and New Jersey to discover methods for winning what I would have believed unwinnable.

Building coalitions of more than the usual suspects, her sources inform. She aims at bipartisan support and even bridges the divide between conservative evangelicals and feminists. Her approach doggedly seeks knowledge of what has worked and of what might possibly succeed.

Some Surprises

Early on, she writes this. “Caution: You cannot be too angry.” For instance, she reveals American corporations which operate in other countries must provide family benefits befitting a host-nation’s legal standards. In other words, they grant foreign employees extended paid parental leave, remaining quite profitable, while at the same time they exclude their own American workers. Here whenever a baby is born, parents are forced to punt, out of their own savings, and get back to work as soon as possible, baby be damned.

Babies are our future, she says—and by that she doesn’t mean only our personal babies, our personal future–but the nation’s babies, which equal the nation’s future. We know more now than ever about the crucial significance of those early years’ learning and brain development. Undervalued children become expensive adults. She cites a 2008 Dept. of Defense study of 17-24 year-olds in Mississippi. The study found that 75 percent of them would not be fit to serve as privates in the Army. The three most common reasons for their unfitness was failure to graduate from high school, a criminal record, and physical unfitness, most often obesity.

By contrast, exactly the kind of quality childcare services most American families cannot find—especially at affordable rates—are already being provided to 300,000 lucky American children and their families. The Department of Defense again, seeking an advantage for attracting volunteer soldiers, has quietly been building exactly the sort of licensed childcare support system that American parents would die for—but should they SET ITAL have END ITAL to, literally?

Theirs is an excellent model, Kunin reports, providing a “gold standard” for what is possible. Twenty years ago, 70 percent of their facilities were cited for fire and safety hazards. Today a full 98 percent are top-rate licensed education centers for children six-weeks-old to 12. This licensure rate (with a raft of standards) compares to 8 percent for private daycare. The centers also provide good-paying jobs, not minimum wage ones, with benefits for educators well-trained in child development. Good jobs for early childcare educators not only assure job-readiness for an important workforce, but better assure a smart and ready future. It would make equally good economic sense for other sectors in our country.

One of the most important things Kunin did when she was governor was to appoint women to key cabinet positions, even when their resumes didn’t look the way they were supposed to. SET ITAL Vermont Woman END ITAL got noticed when we first noticed that story, missed by other media. Women worked differently, we said, and Kunin demonstrated this in her priorities, not only naming an unprecedented number of women, but expecting her whole team to collaborate, more than jockey for power, as she coordinated government departments in new ways. Kunin discusses this candidly in her book. For her, politics was not the same old warfare, but something more inclusive and systemic. We thought this a female trait.

But Kunin says now that women alone can never create the needed change. She remembers her own political mentor, the surprising Emory Hebard, a conservative Republican who first gave her a chance. And in that same spirit, she calls on young fathers and grandparents, business owners, financiers, churchgoers and governors to become more conscious and join in a similar collaboration—giving another kind of chance. This one is for young American families and their potential for productive, innovative work. All of us have a country and an economy at stake in this book.