Having a female President “does still matter.”
By Jennifer Hall Lee
That is what former Vermont Governor Madeleine May Kunin said to me on the phone recently. Kunin is 86, and between 1985 and 1991 she served for three terms as Governor of Vermont. She even ran against Bernie Sanders in 1986 for her second term. I wanted to discuss feminism, presidents and power structures with her.
I asked her why a female president is needed. She said, “Feminism derives from life experience. I’d like to live to see the day when we have a female president not only because of feminism, but because there are highly qualified women in this race. You expand the pool of talent when women have equal opportunities to get elected.”
Kunin certainly is experienced in expanding a pool of talent. I researched her time as governor and found an interview in VermontWoman.com. She applied her feminist point of view in her hiring process and created a cabinet that was half women. How did she accomplish that? She saw work experience in a new way. Many women have had the gnawing problem of so-called ‘lost years’ on a resume when they return to a workforce after having raised children. Kunin saw these years as valuable time “Women often bring different backgrounds than their male equivalents because of interruptions in their lives.” In other words, we learn skills through parenting and being part of a volunteer community.
In a 2016 opinion piece in The Boston Globe, Kunin elucidated the existence of sexism when women’s issues are placed at a lower priority to male politics: “When Sanders was my opponent, he focused like a laser beam on ‘class analysis;’ women’s issues were essentially a distraction from more important issues.”
In a male dominated system, raising children is not considered valuable experience for government work. Women’s work traditionally has been relegated to the private sphere–the home–but children’s issues, education, health care, environment and safety are issues for all of us.
Kunin’s perspective on women’s experiences such as raising children, volunteering and her 1986 campaign goal of establishing universal kindergarten in Vermont are good examples of utilizing feminism in government. Representation of all the people is essential for democracy to thrive. If one group historically monopolizes a part of the power structure, as is the case with the presidency, that group creates an informal club that exists only for itself. Without diverse voices, we cannot grow.
Currently, there is a trend to recruit more women to corporate boards. When a corporate board has at least 30% female members, the board generates more innovative ideas according to the non-profit organization Catalyst.
When one considers that the U.S. congress is 23.6% female, one can surmise that maybe this is why we haven’t been able to solve chronic problems such as climate change and gun violence. We need more innovative ideas in our top leadership levels.
The United States ranks at 75 out of 193 countries in terms of gender equality in government according to the Inter-Parliamentary Union. For the first time, the United States is officially a flawed democracy. This sobering conclusion is from a report by the Economic Intelligence Unit of the Economist Group.
Running against Bernie
Women have lived
Kunin discussed her 1986 campaign, “When I was running against Bernie, he tried to outdo me. Feminism….things like funding for childcare were passionate causes for me because I had seen how other women needed this to be able to work and support their families. It was a gut issue for lack of a better word. It was upsetting to see Bernie try to say that he was better at these issues than I was when I had been dealing with them [all] my professional life.”
Did Bernie have more feminist bona fides than Kunin prior to the campaign? I looked, but couldn’t find any.
I agree with Kunin’s opinion: “Men obviously can be feminists too,” and we need men to be feminists. Separately, however, we need women to bring their experiences to the leadership table because they introduce new ideas to the group. Kunin said, “Women have lived through various experiences.” Men can’t duplicate women’s experiences. Gender makes a difference.
The population of women and children combined are not sub-categories to a male population. Our experiences are not subsets to the male experience. When you total up the numbers, women and children create a supermajority. Expanding our minds to include this pertinent fact–that women and children are a supermajority–is a revolution in itself.
Jennifer Hall Lee is a writer and filmmaker residing in Altadena. Madeleine May Kunin is an author; her new book “Coming of Age: My Journey to the Eighties,” is published by Green Writers Press.
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