The Center Will Hold: Madeleine Kunin Reflects on Aging and Optimism in Politics

Former Governor Recounts Feelings of Invisibility


Madeline Kunin speaks to students

The current midterm election cycle has seen record numbers of women running for office across the country. There may be few Vermonters more qualified to speak on that topic to Middlebury students than Madeleine Kunin, the first and to this day only female governor of Vermont.

Kunin, who was Vermont’s governor from 1985 to 1991, visited the college last Tuesday to read from her second memoir, “Coming of Age: My Journey to the Eighties.” Kunin was greeted by a room packed full of students and town residents alike.

Ruth Hardy, the executive director of Emerge Vermont and a Democratic candidate to represent Addison County in the Vermont Senate, introduced Kunin. Kunin founded Emerge Vermont, which trains and provides resources for female-identifying Democrats seeking public office. Holding back tears, Hardy recounted her time working with Kunin, with whom she celebrated success and recovered from failure.

Hardy remembered the joy she and Kunin felt at Hillary Clinton’s success in winning the Democratic nomination for the presidency and their sadness at her loss four months later.

A woman in her forties has time to wait for the next big election, while a woman in her eighties may not.”

— Ruth Hardy

“As painful as it was for me, I knew the loss was far greater for Madeleine,” said Hardy. “A woman in her forties has time to wait for the next big election, while a woman in her eighties may not.”

The adversity that Kunin faced, however, has not dulled her impact in Vermont and beyond. As she concluded her introduction, Hardy’s message was simple and perfectly conveyed the success of Kunin’s work as a role model and advocate.

“Thank you for all that you have done for me and for women and girls across Vermont,” Hardy said.

Indeed, Kunin’s work to pave the way for women in politics is significant. Kunin was born in Zurich to Jewish parents and moved to the United States to escape the Nazis as a young girl. Hardy told the audience that as a mother, Kunin fretted for the safety of her young children as they crossed railroad tracks each morning to get to school. Her initiative to find a solution to this problem led her to politics. Kunin went on to serve as the first and only female governor of Vermont, and the only woman in the United States to serve three terms as governor. After her governorship, Kunin continued her work in government as the United States Deputy Secretary of Education and Ambassador to Switzerland and Lichtenstein under the Clinton administration.

Kunin also hopes her memoir will tell a story beyond her political career. “You are caricatures almost in public life,” she said. “You are either liberal or conservative, good or bad […] I think at some level, even though I’m shy about bringing it out to the extent I did, I also want people to know what my life and thoughts were — that I was more than this flatlined public caricature of a woman.”

The perspective is unique because Kunin is able to be more direct, noted Karin Hanta, Director of the Feminist Resource Center at Chellis House.

“She candidly reflects on aging through a gendered lens,” Hanta said. “She no longer feels like her words are ‘filtered through a fine meshed screen’ because her public life no longer depends on public approval.”

If you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu.”

— Madeleine Kunin

Kunin also read from her writings in poetry and prose, which described her experience growing old.

“I want to stay in the brilliance, [but] there is also sometimes a desire to retreat,” Kunin said.

This sentiment was also reflected in her remarks on the importance of political engagement today.

“That is the most dangerous thing — that we get so depressed that we shut the doors and turn off the lights, and we can’t afford to do that,” Kunin said.

Hanta emphasized that Kunin served as a role model for people who identify as women asserting themselves in politics rather than fading into the background.

“In today’s political climate, Governor Kunin’s accounts of strength in the face of adversity — she was sometimes ridiculed and rendered invisible in her political life — inspire women to persevere in playing an active political role,” said Hanta. “By addressing a topic that is not often talked about, she inspires women to have courage and speak their truth.”

When asked about specific advice that she had for women in politics, Kunin responded first saying she was glad that someone had asked. She reflected on the fact that in the United States, progress for women in politics has been excruciatingly slow compared to other countries. 

That is the most dangerous thing — that we get so depressed that we shut the doors and turn off the lights, and we can’t afford to do that.”

— Madeleine Kunin

This year, however, she believes that things are changing. She expressed her pleasure with the outpouring of women running for office this year and believes that we actually have President Trump to thank for this. 

“If you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu,” Kunin said, articulating her belief that the most effective and tangible remedy for the problems women face in the world is running for office.

Such experiences of invisibility in politics are all too familiar to Kunin, who recalled her testimony during the confirmation of Justice Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court.

“It was all men, the whole Senate Judiciary Committee, and we knew they weren’t listening to us,” Kunin said.

She recounted how powerless it felt to look up at the dais and to know that she had no impact. In spite of the adversity and challenges that Kunin sees women facing today, she remains hopeful.

“Despite the dark times, I would urge you to continue to believe in democracy — the pendulum does swing,” Kunin said.

Perhaps the dark times Kunin referenced reflect Yeats’s prophetic line: “things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.” But Kunin concluded with a concise message of hope, elaborating that even in the hardest of circumstances, we must have hope and not give up on democracy.

“The centre will hold, but only if we are vigilant,” she said. 

Kunin’s reading was made possible by The Vermont Book Shop and The Feminist Resource Center at Chellis House. College Democrats and Feminist Action at Middlebury also sponsored the event.

Editor’s Note: Ruth Hardy is the spouse of Prof. Jason Mittell, The Campus’ academic advisor. Mittell plays no role in any editorial decisions made by the paper. Any questions may be directed to [email protected]