Madeleine Kunin of Vermont became the first Jewish woman elected governor in the U.S. in 1985. In 1996 she was appointed U.S. ambassador to Switzerland, just one year after the World Jewish Congress sued Swiss banks to recover the deposits of victims of Nazi persecution during and prior to WWII. Kunin, a Swiss immigrant, is now a professor-at-large at the University of Vermont. Her latest book, “Coming of Age,” was just released in paperback. The Jewish Week caught up with her by phone last week.
Q: For the past several years you have been mentoring future female Democratic leaders who wish to run for public office. Please tell me about that and how successful have you been?
A: The name of the group is called Emerge Vermont. It is a nonprofit organization that is now in 20 states. It started in California. I gave a keynote speech there and that gave me the inspiration to start a chapter in Vermont in 2012. It recruits and trains women to run for local and state office in Vermont. About 100 women have gone through the program, which meets on weekends for several months. They are trained in public speaking, fundraising and the issues so they are well prepared. Eighty-percent of those who have gone through the program have been elected. Women represent more than a majority of the nation’s population and we should have a seat at the table when decisions are made that affect our lives.
Of the 15 Democrats running for president, six are women. Does that suggest gender is no longer a factor in presidential elections?
No. It is a good sign of progress but right now only one woman, maybe two, have a chance of being elected. It is also a good sign that in 2018 a record number of women were elected to office nationwide. Our goal is to be equally represented. … This is a good time for women in politics. People are looking for authenticity, honesty and strength. Women can provide all that. And when you are looking for change, a woman candidate is often refreshing. … It should be not that special. It should be part of what democracy looks like.
What are the dos and don’ts for women running for public office?
First, be yourself. … Women are often held to a different standard. If you become emotional you are criticized. Women have a narrow window of acceptability. If they are too feminine or show emotion or don’t give a yes or no answer, they are considered unfit to be a commander-in-chief. If they are too tough, they are considered not feminine enough. Women have to walk a narrow line.
Look at [German Chancellor] Angela Merkel. She’s a tough leader but is considered humane and fair. Nancy Pelosi is criticized from the right but she is an effective leader of the House who is strong and authentic. Women are also scrutinized in how they look — more so than men.
Is there gender bias among the electorate?
I think it’s pretty subtle at this point. … There is still some subtle bias, but it is not spoken aloud.
When you were America’s ambassador to Switzerland, how much time did you devote to getting the banks to deal with dormant accounts opened by victims of the Nazis?
It occupied me every day I was ambassador. At first, the Swiss banks suggested it was a minor problem, but it exploded as the U.S. became more aggressive about restoring the accounts to the owners. At first, the Swiss said it was a cumbersome process and then asked for the death certificates of those in concentration camps, which of course did not exist. Slowly it dawned on them that it was a major issue, and I pressured the banks to be forthcoming. Eventually, they published a list of dormant accounts that nobody supposedly claimed. My [late] mother’s name was on the list. She had a very small account. It was $150, which my brother and I divided.
Some people thought President [Bill] Clinton appointed me because I was Jewish. That is not the case. I don’t think he even knew I was Jewish. By the time I left Switzerland [in 1999], I realized that maybe I was there at the right time.
In your book “Coming of Age,” you reflect on what you learned over the last 86 years.
I reflect on my own aging process and on life in general. It is not a how-to book. I talk of memory and the basic message that life is still interesting and exciting and about my late husband, John. … I include my observations about life in general and about my life in particular. And I include some poetry. I have another book of poetry that will be published in April. Its working title is “The Kite.” The publisher is Screenwriters Press.
Do you believe it’s better to continue working or to relocate to a retirement community?
That’s a personal decision. I have to still be engaged in life. I still mentor women and I keep up with the news and continue to be engaged in life and issues.
Do you miss politics?
No, I don’t miss running for office. But I’m still engaged in the issues. There is life after politics.