University of Vermont

Vermont Quarterly

Feminism's Unfinished Business

Madeleine Kunin

Madeleine Kunin

It’s time for a new revolution. So says the first chapter of Madeleine Kunin’s latest book, The New Feminist Agenda. While the feminist movement of the sixties and seventies paved the way for women to join the workforce in record numbers and gain increasing representation in leadership roles—as Kunin herself did when she served as the first female governor of Vermont from 1985 to 1991—that revolution, she says, has fallen a bit short. A renewed feminist agenda, Kunin argues, is not solely in the interest of women, but would improve conditions of employment for all, quality of life for families, and the economy as a whole.

The book, released this year by Vermont publisher Chelsea Green, was written during Kunin’s tenure as a James-Marsh-Professor-at-Large, a UVM program that appoints top scholars and internationally known figures as visiting professors to enrich the scholarly life of campus. To that end, she’s organized panel discussions, lectures, and conferences at UVM on her particular areas of expertise: women, power, and politics.

Kunin took time out from her office hours, speaking appointments, and media calls to speak with VQ about the book and her vision for the next phase of feminism.

What has feminism accomplished, and what’s left to be done?
 Well, it’s accomplished a great deal. Just look at the enrollment at the University of Vermont, which is typical of universities around the country. About 60 percent of enrollment is female, and when I went to school, it was probably just the opposite, that roughly 40 percent was female. So that’s a big achievement. And women in the workforce in record numbers, partly as a consequence of their education. And women in leadership positions. If not in the numbers one would have expected, many women are in positions as “firsts.” Hillary Clinton is the third female secretary of state, and that in itself is phenomenal. And she’s probably the first secretary of state to emphasize women’s issues globally. So, as I say, that’s the good news.

What hasn’t adjusted is the way work is structured. Work in America is still based on the assumption that moms are home and have the time to take care of the children, the elderly, the sick. What we still have to do is change the way work is structured, to accommodate not just women but all working families.

One of the policies at the top of the list is paid maternity leave. We have unpaid leave now, but it’s not a realistic choice for most new mothers to take six weeks off from their job and give up their paycheck. When you have a new baby, that’s when you have the greatest increase in expenses. So paid maternity leave would be good for babies; it would be good for parents. It would have an impact on the health of both mother and child and on the development of mother and child.

And the other key issue that women, and increasingly men, really need to make their lives more integrated and less stressful is to have some form of workplace flexibility. If you have to pick up your child at preschool at five o’clock, you can get there. If you have a mother who has to go to the doctor, you can take her. Some employees do have that, but especially those at the bottom of the pay scale—or even in the middle—often don’t.

The third issue for most families with young children is affordable, quality childcare. It’s very scarce in the United States. It’s expensive, especially if you’re at the middle or low income. It can chew up a huge portion of your earnings.

And the whole idea that families are part of domain, that none of us should interfere there—sure, it’s a part of domain, and nobody wants to dictate parenting, but it is the responsibility of society to make sure the next generation is prepared to carry on, and that’s where we’re slipping.


You devote a section of the book comparing U.S. policies to the rest of the world. How do we stack up?
We always say we are the greatest, we are the best, we are exceptional. We say that about our healthcare, even though the facts tell us our healthcare is the most expensive but not necessarily the best in the world. So we believe this about how we treat families, but we’re one of four countries that doesn’t have paid maternity leave in some form. We’re not just talking about Scandinavian countries, we’re talking about all countries. So we’re in very odd company. It seems the richest country in the world should not belong in that subset.

I’ve found that most people don’t know how different we are. They just think, “Well, it’s always been that way. It’s my problem. It’s my fault if I can’t balance this thing.” It’s really not your fault; it’s that our society hasn’t recognized its responsibilities toward families. And the whole idea that families are part of domain, that none of us should interfere there—sure, it’s a part of domain, and nobody wants to dictate parenting, but it is the responsibility of society to make sure the next generation is prepared to carry on, and that’s where we’re slipping.

You also link the lack of family-friendly benefits to higher rates of children living in poverty. What’s the correlation?
The best anti-poverty program is still a paycheck.  And sometimes women have to quit their jobs because they can’t afford daycare. They can’t work part-time, which they might like to do, and still receive pro-rated benefits. So, in that sense, it makes it hard—especially for lower-income women or middle-income women—to work. 

It affects poverty in another way, too. If we have really high-quality childcare, because of what we know now about brain development, there will be a better chance at having the right stimulus and the right education so that those children (without high-quality childcare) don’t fall behind the minute they enter school. Good early childhood education really has lifelong effects. We’re always trying to figure out how you reduce poverty, but there are ways that work. Good childcare is one of them.

What are the roadblocks?
The hardest part, I think, is to convince policy makers to make a long-term investment in children and early childhood education. The business community is also hard to get on board. The instinct is to look at today’s costs and say, “I can’t afford it. I can’t afford to offer sick days. I can’t afford to offer paid leave. I can’t give you flexibility; it’s too much trouble.” But if we look at the long term, the cost of neglecting the next generation is enormous—both in terms of dollars and in terms of morality. We are one country, and we shouldn’t just passively accept the great divide in income and opportunity. I still believe that access to achieving your dreams has to be maintained because that’s what made this country, and that’s what’s going to continue to make us strong.

But there are business people who are far-sighted, who are already implementing these policies. And we have to give them more of a spotlight and get them to speak up that this is, in fact, an economic policy. It’s simple common sense that if you treat your employees well, they’ll treat you well. They’ll be loyal and work hard.

People say, “How can you talk about this? More government involvement, more spending, more requests from the private sector.” I say there’s never going to be a good time. Sometimes when things get really bad is a good time. What I basically say is that the feminist movement should take on these issues. But not feminists alone. You don’t have to self-identify as a feminist to think these issues are important. And of course I ask for a coalition of men, the elderly, the disabled, everyone to join the parade.

You talk about the need to put divisive issues, like reproductive choice, aside and instead unite around shared goals. You ask, “Instead of two groups shaking their fists at one other, can we march together for the benefit of fathers, mothers, children, and grandchildren?” What does your experience in politics tell you about the likelihood and the tactics necessary to achieve this?
It’s not going to be easy. I think we all know that. And I think even in recent years, the divisiveness hasn’t gotten better. When I say put them aside, I don’t mean don’t work on them. Because I still see choice and the ability to determine when and whether you have children as a very personal issue. But I don’t think they need to enter every conversation. In my most optimistic moments, I can see a conversation about paid maternity leave, for example, between a conservative and a progressive. Conservatives want women to be home with their children, but in order for that to be a reality, you have to have paid maternity leave, and you have to create a structure. So I’d like to experiment with that and see if we can make some headway and find some common ground. The first words out of your mouth don’t have to be “I’m for choice” or “I’m pro-life.” Let’s find where we agree, instead of where we disagree.

Did you have a moment when you knew you had to write this book? When was that?
I kept being asked by students, “How did you manage work and family, having a career and having four children?” I realized this is very much on their minds. It was on my mind in my generation. In some ways, I think it’s gotten easier for this generation. The expectation is that they will work, at least for part, if not most of their lives. The expectation in the fifties and sixties when I got married (I got married in 1959) was, at least for middle class women, that you would be a stay-at-home mom. Now, the tables have turned. People ask, “Why are you at home?” The assumptions have changed. And yet, the policies haven’t.

What do you hope for?
I wrote the book, really, to start a conversation, and to elevate that conversation in volume and in breadth so that it becomes a topic that we talk about not only at the playground or the water cooler, but also in the public arena. I’d like to build on the coalition idea, to see if we can really make this more than an asterisk on the agenda on both parties. I realize it will be harder among the Republicans, but Democrats haven’t really pushed these issues either. And even with people who call themselves liberals, you don’t see childcare on the list. So I’m going to make an effort to at least be a catalyst for that kind of concerted, unified action. As a result of this book, I’ve been asked to be part of different groups, and there’s a group in Wisconsin that works on the state level to try to translate family work research into public policy. So I think there are little lights going on, and whether they’ll really grow and be serious issues, it’s too early to know. But I find myself now in this new territory of family and work, and a lot of people are interested. I think if we can develop a common agenda, even if it’s limited, we’ll have made progress.

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