As I walked into the crowded House Chamber for my inauguration as the first female Governor of Vermont, on January 10, 1985, I felt physically uplifted by the crowd. A group of women from other parts of the country who had traveled to Vermont to see a woman Governor inaugurated were cheering from the balcony. The sound of applause – not just for me but for women rising to a position of power – reverberated through the hall, like the sound of an orchestra.
I had wanted to wear winter white because it felt festive and celebratory. As I raised my right hand to take the oath of office given by the Vermont Chief Justice, I rested my other hand on a stack of old prayer books, held by my husband. The books had belonged to my mother, my grandparents, and my great grandfather. I wanted to place my hand on the weight of Jewish history and connect with the generations of men and women who helped bring me to this moment. I felt a powerful link with the women in my family who had been strong in their time and place and would have achieved what I had achieved if the same doors had been open to them. I also felt gratitude to my country, having arrived here on June 10, 1940 from Europe, and now proving what my mother had always believed to be true, that “anything is possible in America.”
Chief Justice Allen and I stood with our hands raised, he robed in black, I dressed in white. We created a startling image: gubernatorial power was being transferred to a woman. I was the same, and I was different. This had always happened, and it had never happened. Tradition had been continued, and it was being broken.
Madeleine Kunin was born in Switzerland and immigrated to the U.S. in 1940. She began her political career as a state legislator, and then became the first woman Governor of her home state, Vermont. She is the only woman to have served three terms as governor of a state. As Deputy Secretary of Education in the Clinton Administration, Kunin established an Office of Educational Technology and developed a more efficient student loan system. She also worked on a series of legislative acts that includes the Goals 2000: Educate America Act and the Safe and Drug-Free Schools Act. Kunin served on the President’s Interagency Council on Women and was a delegate to the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing. She also served on the President’s Council on Sustainable Development, the board of the National Environmental Education and Training Foundation, and founded the Institute for Sustainable Communities, an international environmental non-profit organization. Kunin served as U.S. Ambassador to Switzerland from 1996-1999.