“As a feminist, an immigrant, and a Jew, I was perhaps too different from the average Vermont voter, yet it was this identity that inspired me to enter public life and shaped my values.”
In light of both last week’s horrific attack on Jews who were simply praying at their synagogue in Pittsburgh, as well as the highly anticipated midterm elections on Tuesday (VOTE NOV 6!), I decided I wanted to write about a Jewish Groundbreaker in politics, since I haven’t written about anyone Jewish yet. After doing some searching, I came across Madeleine Kunin, who I’m honestly surprised I’ve never heard of before. She is not only the first Jewish and female governor of Vermont, but the first Jewish woman governor of any state and the first woman of any state to be elected 3 times (among many other things!). And she is my first Groundbreaker who is currently living, at age 85.
Madeleine May Kunin was born in 1933 in Zurich, Switzerland. After the death of her father, which she later learned was a suicide, her mother moved the family around Switzerland, trying to escape the threat of the Nazis. Her mother eventually applied for a visa to enter the United States, and the family arrived in New York in June 1940, while many of her relatives died in concentration camps during the Holocaust. It was this early experience that would later shape her career path (see Jewish Women’s Archive and Kunin’s autobiography).
Kunin received her bachelor’s degree in history from the University of Massachusetts Amherst, a master’s from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, and another master’s in English from the University of Vermont. She later had a series of jobs and became involved in local community groups in Vermont, particularly dealing with women’s and children’s rights, and literature. While looking for work in journalism, she often experienced sexism or limited opportunities. After marrying her first husband and raising four children while living in Burlington, Vermont, and after several local community organizing victories, she finally decided to enter local politics in the early 1970s.
Kunin’s first political position was as a state representative in 1972, serving on the Government Operations Committee. She was elected Minority Whip in 1974 and during her third term was appointed Chairwoman of the Appropriations Committee in 1976, the first woman to hold this position. She also spoke in favor of ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment and increasing funding for childcare and education. She experienced this struggle firsthand as a mother of four who was also working (see Boston Globe article).
In 1978, Kunin was elected Lieutenant Governor of Vermont, serving with a Republican governor even though she is a Democrat. During her time in this role, she helped produce studies on energy and day care which she presented to the Governor and Legislature. She ran against the incumbent governor in 1982 and lost, but in 1984 ran again and was elected governor, and would serve three terms, becoming the first woman in US history elected governor of a state three times.
While in office, Kunin had many important accomplishments, including working on environmental, educational, and children’s issues, particularly universal access to kindergarten (see Boston Globe article). She also appointed the first woman to the Vermont Supreme Court and created Vermont’s family court system, promoted women’s reproductive rights, and helped stabilize the state’s economy (see Jewish Women’s Archive).
Most importantly, however, Kunin used her opportunity as Vermont’s first female governor to advocate for women’s inclusion in government. She hired women for various positions in the executive and judicial branches, promoted feminist ideas, hung women’s portraits in the governor’s office, and speaking to children about being governor. She was also an inspiration to countless other women around the state (see Jewish Women’s Archive).
Kunin decided not to run for a fourth term in 1990. In 1993, she was appointed deputy secretary of education under President Bill Clinton, and in 1996 she became US Ambassador to Switzerland, where she was born, and later to Liechtenstein. In this role, she helped establish a compensation fund for Holocaust survivors in the Swiss banks. She returned to Vermont in 1999 (see Jewish Women’s Archive).
More recently, Kunin teaches at the University of Vermont, continues to write, and makes various TV and radio appearances. During the Democratic primary in 2016 she supported Hillary Clinton over Bernie Sanders, which on one hand, with her ultra-liberal track record, is perhaps somewhat surprising, but on the other hand makes sense, since I’m sure she as much as anyone would have wanted to see the first female president elected in her lifetime. Perhaps she will still get that chance.
And forever devoted to issues important to average people, Kunin recently wrote a book called Coming of Age: My Journey to the Eighties, which is both a memoir and a discussion of the physical and emotional effects of aging.
While Madeleine Kunin is not exactly obscure, why isn’t she more of a household name? Just like the first black president, we should know more about the first women and Jewish Americans in high political offices, like Jeannette Rankin of my last post. Especially since she’s devoted her career to helping the most vulnerable in our society, she should be a role model not only for young women, but for anyone looking for people who have tried to make society better through government. She also has the (relatively) unique experience of being a woman in charge of an entire state government, and the societal and psychological consequences of that (see more in her Boston Globe piece).
And while her being female seems to have made more of an impression on her life than being Jewish, her experience fleeing from the Nazis in Europe at a young age and having family members murdered in the Holocaust surely influenced her worldview and how she prioritized her policymaking.
As we look to the elections this coming Tuesday, I hope you can be inspired by the story and legacy of Madeleine Kunin, who always did her best to serve the people who elected her. With all the corruption and messiness that is politics today, I am hopeful that the people who are elected on Tuesday and beyond are more like her.
Learn more about this Groundbreaker!
If you have found what I’ve written about Madeleine Kunin interesting and/or inspiring and are curious about learning more, I would encourage you to look into some of the books, articles, websites and podcasts I’ve included below and in the course of my post. This is hardly an exhaustive list, but will definitely lead you to other sources.
Wikipedia bio: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Madeleine_Kunin
Entry in Jewish Women’s Archive encyclopedia: https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/Kunin-Madeleine
Piece in Boston Globe about 2016 Democratic primary: https://www.bostonglobe.com/opinion/2016/02/04/when-bernie-sanders-ran-against-vermont/kNP6xUupbQ3Qbg9UUelvVM/story.html
Personal website: http://www.madeleinekunin.org/
Living a Political Life, her autobiography
Coming of Age, recent memoir on aging