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Madeleine Kunin in her Burlington home
Madeleine Kunin in her Burlington home

Women and the Workplace: An interview with Madeleine Kunin

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Discussion of women in the workplace was reinvigorated several weeks ago when Democrat Hilary Rosen chastised presidential candidate Mitt Romney's wife, Ann Romney, for--quote--"not working a day in her life." That set off another round of "mommy wars": sharp discussion of whether women are better off working to provide for their families or staying home with their children. And it raises an important question - why, 40 years after the women's movement, it's still so difficult for women to balance their families and their jobs.

Madeleine Kunin was Vermont's first female governor in 1985. She's now 78 years old and has published a new book - "The New Feminist Agenda: Defining the next revolution for women, work, and family." The book issues a clarion call for women, men, businesses, and government to make sure that workplace and family rights for women top their agendas.

Sarah Harris spoke with Kunin about her book.

Correction: Madeleine's age was initially reported as 79. She is in fact 78 years old.

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Sarah Harris
Reporter and Producer

Kunin: I was prompted to write it because I’d been speaking a lot about women in politics and encouraging women to run for office and I was often asked how did I have a political career and have four children and a family and I knew that this was the question when I was a young mother and I was surprised to learn that it’s still the question today for many parents, both women and men, and I searched for an answer. 

Harris: What surprised you when you were doing your research?

Kunin: One of the statistics that surprised me is that the wage gap is obviously there between men and women but there’s an even larger wage gap between mothers and women who aren’t mothers. There’s kind of a mommy penalty. And the other surprise is that the United States is an outlier. We are one of four countries and we have strange company with Somalia and Papa New Guinea and other far-flung countries in that we don’t have paid maternity leave. 

Harris: What family is in the United States is a really flexible idea. By the same token, family, or rather family values, is like a really loaded word. Is it even possible to reclaim that debate?

Kunin: That’s the real challenge. How do we recapture the term and define it more broadly. It has been identified with very conservative values – women should stay home, being anti-gay and lesbian, we know that that’s kind of the popular agenda of family values. But what about what happens in terms of prenatal care? What about what happens after that  child is born—I think here’s a possibility and I realize it’s slim—there’s a possibility for some dialogue to take place. 

Harris: How do you even start to make changes when changing the discussion is so difficult? 

Kunin: I think these conversations about how to manage how to have a family and a job are taking place all the time. They’re taking place at the beauty parlor, in book groups, they’re taking place over coffee. But we haven’t had a public conversation. And so that is what I’m trying to achieve in this book. 

Harris: I just htink this is a really interesting project for you to undertake at this stage in your career. You've had that slog, you've done that struggle, you've had your political career. For someone who's parenting now, is it worse? Is it better?

Kunin: its both the same and different. People still feel torn. When I was at work I felt should be home, when I was at home I felt I should be at work. So that tension still exists. What’s different is that so many more people are experiencing it. In my early childbearing years you had the traditional portrait of the family: daddy goes to work and mommy goes home and wears an apron and there are two perfect kids standing beside them. You know the women’s movement changed my portrait of what the family should look like. But it’s different because so many people are facing this. And the other part that’s different is the enormous number of single parent families.

Harris: This conversation has started, in fact it's sort of catapulted into the forefront of the public debate after the whole Hilary Rosen/Ann Romney thing. But there was a lot of vitriol. And as there's feminist discussion there's also really flagrant pushback from people like Rush Limbaugh. How do you change that? How do you make this whole dialogue pallatable and civil at all?

Kunin: The press loves to see women scrap and fight. It's the old cliche, they're scratching each other's eyes out like cats. There's a certain delight in seeing women go after each other even though I think the mommy wars are grossly exaggerated. I think we have to have what you call a civil conversation that isn't whipped up by the media or by those at either extreme. 

Harris: I think about this because I am a young professional and I'm beginning a career that I find really rewarding. Like most young women I think a family would be good and important and exciting at some time and it's a little bit scary. My mother has done that dance, I've seen it in colleagues—you see it all the time, that constant juggle. 

Kunin: When someone gives a campaign speech, just raise your hand and say, 'what are you going to do about child care?' If it's mentioned at all its a foot note. And it's often answered with a pat on the head—'yes dear, that would be nice, but we just can't afford it.' When you feel something should be different because it effects you personally, that's when you can reach out to others and say 'I may be powerless, but we could have power if we act together. And that's the basics of political action and I think when that happens and it's happening in small increments now, when it happens on a large scale change is possible. So yes, it's a tough slog. But I don't think we should give up on that. 

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