The specifics of Madeleine May Kunin’s life, as she herself states in her autobiography, Living a Political Life (1994), hardly suggest a typical governor of Vermont: “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.” Yet her public career as that state’s first woman governor—and the first (and, to date, only) woman elected to three terms as governor of any state—has been shaped in large measure by distinctive aspects of her identity.
Born in Zurich, Switzerland, on September 28, 1933, Madeleine May Kunin was the second child of a German father and Swiss mother, Ferdinand and Renée (Bloch) May. Her father died when she was almost three years old; not until she was in college did she learn that his death had been a suicide. Her mother moved the family several times, finally settling in a small town, Hergiswil, where she thought they might be safer in case of a Nazi invasion. As the German threat grew, Renée May sought a visa to enter the United States. In June 1940, the family arrived in New York City.
Members of Madeleine’s parents’ families became scattered throughout Europe, Palestine, and the United States during the period between the two world wars. Several relatives died in concentration camps. These events left a deep impression on her, as she wrote in her autobiography:
On some level that I do not yet fully understand, I believe I transformed my sense of the Holocaust into personal political activism. This was the source of my political courage. I could do what the victims could not: oppose evil whenever I recognized it. The United States of America would protect me. I lived in a time and place when it was safe for a Jew to be a political person, to speak, to oppose, to stand up.
She graduated from the University of Massachusetts in 1956, with a B.A. in history. She earned an M.S. from the Columbia School of Journalism. As a fledgling journalist, she first encountered career barriers based on her sex. Potential employers unabashedly stated that they would not hire her because she was a woman, while others offered her work only for the “women’s page.” She obtained her first job as a journalist with the Burlington Free Press in Burlington, Vermont, where she became a general assignment reporter. She left the newspaper in 1958 to serve as a guide in the American Pavilion at the Brussels World’s Fair, returning to her native Europe for the first time since fleeing in 1940.
In Burlington, she met Dr. Arthur S. Kunin, whom she married on June 21, 1959. Four children—Julia, Peter, Adam, and Daniel—followed between 1961 and 1969, and for a decade, Kunin devoted her attention largely to domestic concerns. Yet, during those years, living in Burlington, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and in Bern, Switzerland, when her husband was on sabbatical, Kunin was developing skills, contacts, and attitudes that would shape her political career in the years ahead.
Although not employed outside the home, she became, in effect, a community organizer. She and other doctors’ wives challenged the Vermont State Medical Society, arranging a public forum to educate Vermonters about health care legislation that the society opposed but which Kunin and her friends favored. Kunin also organized a program of live music and theater for children in her community. She sought to convince the local board of aldermen to build sidewalks in her neighborhood, losing the immediate battle but gaining fresh awareness of political strategies and networks. These lessons were successfully applied when, having moved to a different neighborhood, she discovered an unmarked railroad crossing on a route used by children walking to school. With a group of neighbors, she petitioned the public service board for—and won—a flashing warning light. With victory came a new recognition of her own political efficacy and the power of the groups of women who had taken part in each of her ventures.
After an unsuccessful bid to become a member of the Burlington board of aldermen in early 1972—a post for which she had not intended to run but for which she was nominated after she made a speech decrying the absence of women on the board—Kunin won her first office, a seat in the state legislature, later that same year. The women’s movement was on the rise, the campaign for the Equal Rights Amendment was in full swing, and Kunin was one of a growing number of women who saw running for public office as a way to translate their blossoming feminist awareness into action. As a Democratic member of the Vermont House of Representatives, she continued her interest in such “traditional” women’s issues as education and the welfare of children and families, but also pursued such concerns as the environment, lobbying reform, and transportation. As a member of the Government Operations Committee, she was heavily involved in the process of reapportionment. She learned the processes, strategies, and traditions of the legislature well, winning, in her second term, the post of minority whip and, with it, membership on the Appropriations Committee. In so doing she became the first woman elected to a legislative leadership position in Vermont. In her third term, she was named chair of appropriations, a position in which she became an expert on the state budgeting process.
Kunin was elected lieutenant governor in 1978. Although it was not a powerful position, it gave her experience in running for statewide office and an opportunity to learn more about the executive branch, positioning her in her later bid for governor. Serving under Republican governor Richard Snelling, she was given little formal responsibility beyond the statutory duty of presiding over the state senate, but she was able to work on issues close to her heart, such as child care, energy, and highway safety. In 1980, she was reelected in the midst of a Republican sweep. As the only statewide elected Democratic official in Vermont, she became the nominal leader of her party.
In 1984, she was elected governor of Vermont in a race for which she had laid the groundwork in an unsuccessful bid two years earlier. In her three terms as governor, Kunin amassed an impressive record of achievements in such areas as education, the environment, the establishment of a family court, and the implementation of a new land-use planning law. She enacted budget cuts and tax increases aimed at stabilizing the economy. She spoke out on women’s reproductive rights.
But perhaps more impressive than any of her specific policy achievements was Kunin’s distinctive stamp on Vermont government as a woman. She staffed her administration with large numbers of women in both traditional and nontraditional roles, repeatedly establishing “firsts” for the state in the executive and judicial branches. She used the symbolic power of her office to promote feminism, bringing portraits of women into the governor’s office and speaking to schoolchildren about her role. Her political leadership was an inspiration for women in the state: Female lobbyists gained prominence when their bosses used them to impress the Kunin administration, and women on welfare found the courage to change their lives as they watched the example of their governor.
When her third term ended in early 1991, Kunin returned to private life, lecturing and writing at Radcliffe College, Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, and Dartmouth College. In 1992, she was active in Bill Clinton’s presidential campaign, serving on the three-person team that helped select his running mate; later, she was a member of Clinton’s presidential transition board of directors. President Clinton named Kunin deputy secretary of education in 1993, a position she held until 1996, when she became United States ambassador to Switzerland, the country of her birth. As ambassador, she facilitated the creation of the Swiss banks’ compensation fund for Holocaust survivors. When her mother’s name was found on the list of dormant account holders, she was drawn into a debate on both a personal and professional level. It was fortuitous that as a Jewish woman she could make a difference for Jewish Holocaust survivors and heirs of victims.
Kunin held the position of ambassador until 1999 and then returned to Vermont, where she teaches and writes. She has a joint appointment as distinguished visiting professor at both the University of Vermont and St. Michael’s College. Her 2004 course at the University of Vermont was entitled, “Serving the Public Good.” Kunin is also chair of the board of the Institute for Sustainable Communities, a non-governmental organization she founded in 1991. She also offers regular commentaries on Vermont Public Radio.
In her life and career, Madeleine May Kunin has epitomized the American experience. As a woman, an immigrant, and a Jew, she has taken advantage of the opportunities American democracy has to offer and, in turn, has contributed substantially to making America a better, more inclusive society.
Butterfield, Fox. “Besieged Vermont Governor Rules Out Race for Fourth Term.” NYTimes, April 4, 1990, and “Leahy and Kunin Defeat Challengers.” NYTimes, November 5, 1986, 27, and “Vermont’s New Governor Confronts Development and Budget Problems.” NYTimes, January 11, 1985, A10; Day, Nancy. “Woman in the News: Madeleine Kunin.” Working Woman (July 1986); EJ (1985–1987); Gold, Allan R. “Governor Offers Vermont a Plan on Controlled Growth.” NYTimes, January 13, 1988; Living a Political Life (1994); Who’s Who of American Women, 1993–1994 (1993).
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Kleeman, Katherine. "Madeleine May Kunin." Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia. 27 February 2009. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on April 22, 2019) <https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/kunin-madeleine>.