Once a Refugee from Nazi Europe, Madeleine Kunin Takes Charge as Vermont's First Woman Governor
04/01/1985 at 01:00 AM EST
The chauffeur—a state policeman in plainclothes—wheeled the small green Plymouth out of the traffic, nosing slowly toward the entrance to the annual Vermont Farm Show in Barre. He drove quickly to the head of the line. A parking attendant, noticing the nondescript auto, sauntered over to give the intruder what-for and leaned on the window. "The Governor," murmured the driver. The attendant straightened to something like attention. In the cramped backseat of what passed in unpretentious Vermont for an official limousine sat slender, blue-eyed, 51-year-old Madeleine Kunin, who giggled. "Isn't this fun?" she whispered to a companion. "You have to remember this is still a bit new to me."
Indeed, as Governor Kunin entered the Barre Auditorium—surrounded by exhibits of hay, honey and homemade bread—there was enough newness that day to go around for everybody. The first woman governor in the state's history, only the third Democrat to hold the post since the Civil War, and a European immigrant who wasn't even born in Vermont, Kunin just three hours earlier had replaced the state's agricultural commissioner with her own appointee. The farmers were not overjoyed. The new man had lived in Vermont only 12 years, and the agricultural purists just did not consider him one of their own. Kunin mingled with 300 dairymen and their wives, tucked into a hearty country lunch and delivered a speech that she felt drew a lukewarm response. As she slipped back into the little green Plymouth for the 15-minute ride back to the state capital she was thinking about having dismissed the commissioner. "I felt like such a meanie," she lamented.
Still, Vermonters admire spunk and determination, which may be why Kunin's election defied all Yankee laws of logic. Her inauguration as governor this year inspired a celebration the likes of which hadn't been seen in decades in Vermont's diminutive (pop. 8,241) capital city of Montpelier. Traditional morris dancers performed in the statehouse lobby, chamber musicians played Handel's greatest hits on the floor of the House of Representatives, and horses bedecked with bells pulled sleighs on the statehouse lawn. "People seemed to feel a sense of history about my being the state's first woman governor," says Kunin. "I was amazed at how deep that emotion was."
Many of the nation's politicians are amazed at Kunin herself, who emerged from last November's election in what had been called the Year of the Woman as the lone female to win such high office. With Kentucky's Martha Layne Collins, she is one of only two current women governors and only the fourth elected in U.S. history whose husband had not previously served. Intense, intellectual and reserved, Kunin is a feminist who wants to hit the right balance between loyalty to her sex and overemphasis on feminism. She already has appointed a record number of women to state jobs, and two members of her five-person cabinet are women. "The object is to be who you are," she says. "If being a woman is a factor politically, it's usually not because of a conscious bias, but because women are a novelty."
Like Geraldine Ferraro, the other woman to make big political news in the last year, Kunin credits much of her achievement to a strong mother and the encouragement of her family. Born in Zurich, Switzerland to a German businessman and a Swiss mother, she and her brother landed here in 1940, speaking no English. Her widowed mother had decided that even Switzerland was no longer safe for a Jewish family like theirs.
By an odd coincidence, she spent her first 10 years in America living in Geraldine Ferraro's district in Queens. Kunin's mother managed to support her family as a seamstress, French tutor and baby-sitter. "Somehow I got the feeling at an early age that I had to do something important with my life," says Kunin. At her inauguration she evoked memories of her mother and her "limitless dream of what this country could offer her and her children." (Both have done well. Kunin's brother, Edgar May, won a 1961 Pulitzer Prize for reporting and is now a Vermont state senator.)
Kunin became the first in her family to graduate from college, with a history degree from the University of Massachusetts and a master's in journalism from Columbia University. But then, she recalls, she found the world was not desperate for women journalists. "One editor told me that the last woman he hired had been raped in the parking lot," she says with lingering disbelief. "And that was the end of the interview." It was also the beginning of the politicization of Madeleine Kunin.
"I wasn't exactly a conscious feminist then," she says, "but I felt the unfairness." Stubbornly Kunin kept on job hunting and finally landed a job with the Burlington (Vt.) Free Press. Marriage to her physician husband, Arthur, soon followed, as did four children, who put Kunin's career on hold for eight years. But in 1970 she and her family went to Switzerland for a year, and the old feelings of "wanting my life to make a difference" were revived. "I saw that Geneva had a woman mayor," she says, "and I thought, 'The women here don't even have the right to vote in national elections yet, but they're doing more than American women.' I came back ready to go."
Two years later Kunin won her first political race for a seat in the Vermont Legislature. She stayed for three two-year terms, plugging for human services, education and protection of Vermont's countryside. In 1978 and 1980 she was elected lieutenant governor, but when she made her first try for governor, in 1982, she was soundly defeated. Last fall she tried again—and won.
"You have to build your credentials as a candidate, not just as a woman," she says of her political progress. "You also have to be willing to exercise power. We've been educated to be mothers, peacemakers, but we must learn that we can't please everybody."
Kunin might add one further word of advice to women politicos: Choose for a husband a warm, outgoing doctor who enjoys cooking and campaigning. During Madeleine's campaign last fall, Dr. Kunin, 59, handed out leaflets and carried a sandwich board on the streets of Burlington. At governors' conferences, he attends the wives' meetings, and at home he pitches in with the housework. "As a boy, I always cooked and helped bring up my three younger brothers," he says. "It's just no big deal." Adds Madeleine: "He has his own career and a sense of purpose, and he's genuinely excited about what I do."
The governorship has come at a good time in her family's life, Kunin says. Her three eldest children, aged 19 to 24, are away at college or working. Daniel, 15, is a public high school sophomore in Burlington. Since Montpelier boasts no governor's mansion, the Kunins live modestly in nearby Burlington in a modern house they helped design 15 years ago.
Although Kunin is sometimes criticized for being too aloof (says one loyal Democrat, "She's so Swiss"), she delights in the occasional absurdities of campaigning. Last fall she was visiting the elegant Woodstock Inn. "I was shaking hands with everybody in sight," she recalls. "At the door a guy came walking in dressed in work clothes. I grabbed his hand and said, 'Hi, I'm Madeleine Kunin and I'm running for governor.' He said, 'Hi, I'm running from the sheriff.' And," she chuckles, "he really was. The blue lights were flashing outside." It was one vote Kunin may not have won—but if she didn't, she will doubtless keep trying.