By Kevin O’Connor
WESTMINSTER — The special guest came to the school auditorium with impressive credentials — Vermont’s first and so far only female governor in 1984, deputy secretary of the U.S. Education Department in 1993 and ambassador to her native Switzerland in 1996.
But none of the students who welcomed Madeleine Kunin to the Kurn Hattin campus Wednesday were even born before any of those milestones. Sitting down for a question-and-answer session, they might have wondered: What could she say that would matter to us?
Plenty, Kunin would show both the state’s up-and-coming and current leaders; the latter group gathered afterward for her talk on “Why Family-Friendly Policies are a Good Idea for Employers.”
“Much as we might have sentimental memories of when Daddy went to work and Mommy stayed home, that’s not the way it is,” she said. “It’s a necessity to have two incomes. So what can we do to make life easier?”
Browse the current New York Times best-seller lists and you’ll see such culture-clashing titles as Sheryl Sandberg’s “Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead” and Brigid Schulte’s “Overwhelmed: Work, Love and Play When No One Has the Time.”
None of this is new to Kunin. She has been addressing such issues ever since the self-described “worried mother” who campaigned for a safer railroad crossing first won election to the Vermont House in 1972.
On paper, Kunin climbed the political ladder with ease: She became the state’s first female Democratic whip in 1974, first female leader of the Appropriations Committee in 1976 and lieutenant governor in 1978 (Consuelo Bailey was the first woman to hold the post, in 1954).
All the while, however, Kunin had her hands full juggling home and high office.
Now 80 and a grandmother, Kunin continues to speak out, be it through travel or her most recent book, “The New Feminist Agenda: Defining the Next Revolution for Women, Work and Family.” In it, she calls for a “social revolution” to enact public and private policies to better accommodate today’s world.
“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,” she writes.
But Kunin told local leaders gathered at the school that doing so could benefit everyone — mothers and fathers, their children, workplaces and communities.
She points to the need for equal pay in a work world where women average 77 cents for every dollar that men earn, for equal representation in a nation where women constitute half the population but only 17 percent of Congress and corporate boards, and for equal opportunity in places where women lack pre- and postnatal medicine, affordable child care, early education and paid parental leave.
Speaking with students, Kunin shared her story of emigrating from Europe in 1940 because of the threat of the Holocaust. Although that was nearly three-quarters of a century ago, it resonated at the 120-year-old boarding school for grade 1-8 students seeking what the private nonprofit institution describes as “a secure and supportive haven during a troubled period in their families’ lives.”
“One of the questions people ask is can you have a job and a family?” Kunin told students. “It’s not easy, but it is possible. Wherever you start in life, you can work your way up the ladder. I urge you to try to be optimistic. My message to you is aim high.”