Madeleine Kunin

It is time to assess the career and life of former Vermont Gov. Madeleine Kunin.

Now well into her 80s, Kunin should be celebrated as a person of monumental accomplishment who changed Vermont forever. I have long thought Kunin has never received what she deserves — the acclamation and admiration from a state she served loyally and never left for another state.

Perhaps it’s how we treat women. Perhaps we just take people like Kunin for granted now. Perhaps we don’t value public service the way we used to. I think it’s all three. But it’s worth saying out loud before she leaves us — Madeleine Kunin changed Vermont forever in a lot of very good and important ways. And, it is worth reading her latest book, "Coming of Age: My Journey to the Eighties." Order it from a local book store. She is honest and profound about love, marriage and life in older age.

Here is my short list — I have missed some — of what makes her a very special Vermonter and American.

As an immigrant — the daughter of Jewish parents who fled the Holocaust. She brought this perspective to positions such as state representative, lieutenant governor, governor, ambassador, deputy U.S. secretary of Education and founder of several nonprofit groups that now have a major impact on the life of this state.

As a politician — Kunin is the result of a demographic tsunami that hit Vermont in the ’60s and ’70s, the hippie migration from the suburbs. Those young people who came here for freedom from their oppressive parents eventually grew up and took over select boards and school boards, created food co-ops, made films, went to college here and started businesses. Most of them voted for a young mom who served in the state Legislature and then ran for lieutenant governor. And then they voted for her for governor in 1984. Kunin’s election would usher Vermont into the modern day. She is the first woman in U.S. history to be elected governor three times.

As a writer — she has now published a string of very interesting books. Her first, "Living a Political Life," is a major achievement and contains gold nuggets for anyone interested in politics. It is filled with examples of outright misogyny in which men tried to push her to the sidelines. Yet she persisted.

As a parent — her example of leaving small children at home to commute to the Legislature is a searing reading experience.

As an entrepreneur — Kunin founded the Institute for Sustainable Communities after she left office. ISC is an international consulting firm that helps other countries learn and practice democracy. She also founded Emerge Vermont, which encourages and trains women to run for office.

The list goes on. If you are political at all, you can generally run into Kunin at events around the state. When you do, say thank you. Much of what Vermont is today is because of her.

Kevin Ellis is a lobbyist who lives in East Montpelier. This article first ran on his blog Conflict of Interest.

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