CAMP 2013: Madeleine Kunin at Legacy Luncheon

By 2013 JAWS Fellow Emily Douglas

Three-term former governor (and first female governor) of Vermont Madeleine Kunin joined JAWS CAMP 2013 for this year’s Legacy Luncheon, telling JAWS campers that she “probably never would have become governor of Vermont if I hadn’t been turned down for a job by several newspapers outside of Vermont.”

Describing JAWS CAMP as a “large ladies’ room, where you can say what you have to say,” she recounted the outrageous roadblocks she faced as a woman seeking a job in journalism in the late 1950s—and the unrealized family-friendly policy goals that would level the playing field for all women today.

JAWS, Madeleine Kunin
JAWS CAMP participants joined Gov. Madeleine Kunin for personal conversation after her luncheon address. Photo / Ellie Van Houtte

After graduating from Columbia Journalism School in 1957, as one of 16 women in a class of 60, she was offered jobs only on the “women’s pages.”

“I knew I didn’t want to spend my life writing about bridal veils,” she told us. Instead, she looked for a “real reporting job.” She interviewed at the Providence Journal, where her prospective boss told her “the last woman we hired got raped in the parking lot.” She interviewed at the Washington Post, where she was told they gave the job to a man instead. At the New York Times, she was offered a position in the cafeteria (“You have experience waitressing!”).

(Once she became governor, she returned to the Times for an editorial board meeting. A male member of her security detail was warmly greeted: “Welcome to the Times, Governor!”)

Finally, she settled at the Burlington Free Press.

“There’s a convergence of values between journalists and politicians,” she told us. Both have a desire to “live large, rather than small, skim much of what’s going on, and enter worlds you would otherwise never be invited to enter.”

As she discussed obstacles still facing women in the workplace today, Kunin pointed out that the solutions, which she calls for in her new book “The New Feminist Agenda” — workplace flexibility, quality affordable child care, paid family and medical leave, paid sick days—are obvious, and not new.

“Upper-income women, those with good bosses, can now negotiate those things,” Kunin said, “It’s considered a favor, a perk. We need policies to make those things available for all women, especially lower- and middle-income families.”

But Kunin is calling for a new understanding of these issues, not as women’s issues but as family and economic issues. After all, as Kunin pointed out, there is a direct connection between the level of gender equality in a country and its level of economic growth and political stability.

“What was once called feminism is now an economic and political movement that benefits fathers, sons, brothers as well as mothers, daughters, sisters,” she said. “Feminism is not a selfish movement — though it is thought of as ‘you and your freedom and your access and your problems.’ It’s much bigger than that.”

Why can’t the United States keep up with France, Germany, England, and Canada on work/family issues — let alone Scandinavian countries? The popular concept of American exceptionalism is a stumbling block here, said Kunin.

“It’s hard to start a discussion when somebody says, we’re perfect, we don’t need to change.”

Individualism, too, is partly to blame. It can be a good thing — people in the United States “inhale a sense of opportunity, that the future can be molded” — but, as Kunin asked, how can a 3-year- old denied access to Head Start really pull herself up by herself?

Who opposes these policies? The business community, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which claims they’re too expensive and burdensome for employers. Well, Kunin responded, companies operate abroad, and somehow survive. Plus—do they factor in the cost of turnover, when qualified and experienced employees move on because they can’t get the flexibility they need at work?

“The replacement cost of an employee is five times the salary cost,” says Kunin.

She challenged journalists to make these less expected economic calculations tangible. And the best publicly-funded childcare in the United States comes from the Department of Defense, which runs a network of nationally certified childcare centers. DOD calls offering childcare to members of the military a “matter of national security,” said Kunin. “The future of our children and families is also a question of national security.”

E.J. Graff speaks with Gov. Madeleine Kunin at CAMP 2013. Photo / Madeline Drexler
E.J. Graff speaks with Gov. Madeleine Kunin at CAMP 2013. Photo / Madeline Drexler