Madeleine Kunin

Pearls, Politics and Power: How Women Can Win and Lead - April 24, 2008

Madeleine Kunin
April 24, 2008— Ames, Iowa
Mary Louise Smith Chair in Women and Politics
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Kunin spoke at Iowa State University as the Spring 2008 Mary Louise Smith Chair in Women and Politics.

Thank you, Liz. Thank you. It’s nice to be introduced by a new woman leader and to follow that tradition. It’s also a special honor to be here for the Mary Louise Smith Chair lecture, and I almost feel as if I know her. I saw her on television sometimes in the 70s, and I understand she is the only major party national chair at her time and since, so Iowans do make history for women. It is also very nostalgic to be connected to the Carrie Chapman Catt Center, and I congratulate the university for recognizing these pioneer women who really paved the way for people like me and also that you are educating the next generation in the history of women, not only in Iowa but in this country, because I have a strong belief, as you know, that we have to know the past in order to forge ahead. It’s also nice to be in Iowa where I have met in the past and have known Bonnie Campbell, who was your attorney general and ran for governor, and Roxanne Conlin and Elaine Baxter. If you meet any of them give them my regards, because they were strong women and are still in their own right.

As has been noted, Iowa is one of few states that have not elected a woman to Congress or a woman as governor, but you seem to have established a tradition of women as lieutenant governors; I understand that’s been the case since 1987. I have some advice for lieutenant governors, having been one: you can shorten your title. Hopefully someday that will happen soon here, but you are about average in terms of the percentage of women in state legislatures, and I understand you do exceedingly well in women in county offices, with 36 percent, and that you have a very strong law. I just meet Johnny, who is in the legislature for 20 years, who told me that it was a law that she sponsored that requires parity on boards and commissions, so obviously there’s a lot of activism going on in the state even after and before the caucuses than most of us hears about Iowa.

I’m often asked why did I write the book “Pearls, Politics, and Power: How Women Can Win and Lead” and the simple answer is I wrote it to pass the torch to the next generation. When I was elected governor in 1984 in Vermont, I was the first woman governor and the fourth women elected in my own right in the United States, a figure which stills surprises me even as I repeat it. I thought, now the floodgates will open and there will be a whole parade of women marching behind me. As I look over my shoulder, there are some but you can’t call it a parade. There’s no drumbeat. There’s no band playing. The question that I ask is why, and then I try to answer that question and move on into the future.

Before I go further on that, let me just introduce myself a bit more. People ask, why did you go into politics? Sometimes there’s a question behind the question: why did a nice person like you go into politics? You kind of have to explain yourself because politics still has a bad rap by most people’s standards. A couple things happened in the 1970s when I first ran and was elected to the state legislature in Vermont. There were two, as we now look back on them, revolutionary movements: the environmental movement—the beginning of earth day, which we just celebrated—and the beginning of the women’s movement. Both those movements influenced me greatly. Vermont’s a strong environmental state and we had just passed a law to regulate forms of large-scale development which a group of developers immediately wanted to repeal. I wanted to be there to protect what we call Act 250. The women’s movement affected me in two ways. One, it gave me an issue. The issue was called the ERA, the Equal Rights Amendment, which was proposed shortly after women got the right to vote by a woman named Alice Paul. Vermont was positioned to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment. I had lobbied for the Equal Rights Amendment from the outside as a citizen. As I sat there at a table testifying before this all-male judiciary committee I thought to myself, why don’t I get a seat at the table? My timing was good, and timing is very important in much of life. It is exceedingly important in politics. There was a vacant seat and I was able to run.

In addition, the women’s movement also changed my personal agenda. I had grown up in the 50s, a really quiet period, and we had pretty much been brought up to believe you don’t really get out back into the world of work until your kids are grown and in college. I have four children, they were quite young at that time, and suddenly the women’s movement gave me permission and said you can do this now, and I took it seriously. The women’s movement also gave me a network. We would today call that a support group of like-minded women, and we all sat around. We formed a local chapter of the Women’s Political Caucus, which is a national organization, and sat around saying, why don’t you run, and then somebody said to me, why don’t you run? We encouraged each other, and we gave each other not only the nuts-and-bolts support, but the emotional support that is so important in politics or anything new that you do in life, telling us this is normal behavior for a woman to run for office. The women’s movement was very, very powerful in my timing. Of course, when I’d gotten elected I didn’t just deal with environmental issues or women’s issues, I dealt with the whole gamut of issues.

For many people there are certain catalysts that get them involved in politics. One of the local things that got me involved was I lived in a neighborhood where my children had to cross a railroad track on their way to school. I began to become, though I think I always was, a worried mother, but more so as I wondered whether this was safe for my kids. I tried to find out how you get something done. I wanted to get a flashing red warning light. People said, oh you’ll never get that, and then somebody else said you won’t get it till somebody gets killed. Of course that increased my worries, and my motivation! To make a long story short, I found out what had to be done. I had to get petitions from the neighbors. I had to appear before something called the public service board. I’m not a lawyer, but I found out how to do it. The upshot was we got that flashing light, and that was important in a number of ways. One, it gave me the positive feedback that people need when they go out and do something that is slightly risky or new, or to put it another way it showed me you can fight city hall and that you can actually win. I didn’t win everything, but I sometimes look very fondly at that light and say maybe it’s the most substantial thing I ever did. It’s still there. It gave me something else, too. It gave me a kind of organizational skill and a network of neighbors so that the following fall I could run for the legislature. That was not my initial plan, but sometimes people don’t actually plan their lives but things fall into place.

I can’t say it was all accidental either, because I was always a socially concerned person and that may have been the gift of my family. I was just asked by Liz a minute ago whether anybody in my family was in politics, because often when we look at politicians we say well maybe it was a father, a grandfather. Nobody in my family was elected to office. I did belatedly find out that a great-aunt was postmistress in Laredo, Texas. You don’t become postmistress in Laredo, Texas without being political, so she did something. Unfortunately I never knew her. My grandfather in Zurich, Switzerland, ran for office, never got elected. So where does it come from? I don’t know precisely, but if I go beyond the issues and try to peel off a few more layers of the onion, I can come up with two additional reasons. One is I came to this country as a child, almost seven years old, from Switzerland at the beginning of World War II. My mother, who was widowed at the time, and brother and I came over because of the fear of the Holocaust. Hitler had invaded all the countries around Switzerland. That immigrant experience, some of you may have parents or grandparents or be immigrants yourselves, gives you a certain optimism about this country and that is what my mother instilled in both of us. She said what is considered a cliché, but like most clichés it’s true, she said anything is possible in America. This is what we imbibed with our morning cereal: that anything really was possible. Why is that important?

I think to be political you need three things, and if I had a blackboard or if I knew how to do PowerPoint I would show it to you, but if you can visualize three boxes. On this box over here, there is a level of anger. You’re angry about the way things are. That anger has to be at a moderate level because if you’re too angry or if you become red in the face and your voice rises to a shout, two things can happen. If you’re too angry, you’ll say I can’t do anything so you just opt out of the system and you become an observer, a bystander, and often a critic, but not a critic who’ll get off her or his chair to do something about the anger, or you may become a revolutionary and say burn the place down. Nothing is working—we’ve got to start all over again. But if you have the right kind of anger, you can transform that anger into the next box, which is called imagination. You can imagine a future somewhat different from the way it exists today. You can visualize that you have some ideas. They don’t have to be specific, but just a belief and some ideas about how the world could work better, whether it’s homelessness, whether it’s war and peace, whatever. The third box requires optimism—enough optimism to make you convinced that if you take your anger, you imagine a different future, somebody’s going to listen to you. Something’s going to change. That is the important ingredient that my mother gave me—the optimism to believe something will change. In a way I think that’s the most important ingredient—not only to be a politician but to be a good citizen. To be an engaged citizen who speaks up, who votes, who works on campaigns, who fights for causes.

What I do see in this election, and of course you are it, is this generation has recaptured something that we older folks thought had been lost. I think you are recapturing all three of those boxes: somewhat angry, somewhat imaginative, and somewhat optimistic. I am more hopeful giving this talk today than I have been for a long time. My only concern, of course, is your attention span, and I hope it is long enough to stay with it because you can’t just click channels in this. None of us gets everything we want. I didn’t get that red light every day of the week in my 16 years of political office, but you do get something and you sure get more if you’re involved than if you are not. That is how I have stayed an optimist in this system.

Now I’ll peel off one more layer. I didn’t think of these things consciously when I went into politics. I only thought of them as I tried to explain myself and understand myself, and it’s not something you process every day of the week. What I’d begun to learn speaking of that parade that didn’t take place, is that it still takes something to step over the line from being a private person, where you think you are safe, to being a public person, where you are obviously more vulnerable and subject to criticism, subject to attack, subject to a lot of things that might not be so comfortable. As I said, my family left Switzerland because of fear of the Holocaust. I was fortunate my immediate family was not affected, but I did lose aunts, an uncle, cousins, and people I probably don’t even know I lost from our extended families. I felt a real linkage with the Holocaust experience, and at some point I realized, especially when I was elected governor, that as a woman and as a Jewish woman that I could do things that those who died in the Holocaust and even those who did not—my ancestors, my grandmother—could never have done. The fact that I lived in a privileged time and place made it incumbent on me to use my privileged position to speak out. Politics does mean speaking out, and as we know in many countries in the world not only is it dangerous to speak out, you can lose your life by simply expressing your opinion. This is going on right now. In the United States, we know we are safe in expressing our opinion unless you shout fire in a crowded theater. I felt I should do what they could not do, and this was my way of trying to establish a sort of memorial to those who died.

Back to the book. I wrote some of this in my previous book“Living a Political Life.” Why am I not more optimistic about the percentage of women in public life and why is it important that they be there? A lot of things have changed since I was elected governor. Maybe I’ll just read you an excerpt from the introduction, which tells you the theme of the book. “It is time for a call to action for new political leadership to emerge from the women of America. The stories of the women in this book and thousands of others like them who hold elective and appointive office all over the country are making a difference. Others work for change in their communities as volunteers, as activists. The problem is that they are too few. We need their voices as grandmothers and mothers, wives and widows, daughters and sisters to be heard in the political debate about the future of our country. The debate may be raucous, the process complex, and the rewards not assured, but we cannot stay out of it. Each woman’s experience changes the nature and content of the conversation.”

Politics, as Hilary Clinton said to me, is not for the faint of heart. Today she’d probably put an exclamation point there. But politics is where the decisions are made that determine whether our children will go to war, whether our parents will live in security, and whether earth itself will continue as we know it. We have been bystanders to history for too long. We have no more excuses. We are educated, we care, and we are ready to enter the arena. Times have changed since I was first elected governor of Vermont in 1984. When I walked into the executive office the morning after the election, I scanned the roads of somber male governors’ portraits with names like Ebenezer and Erastus. They stared down at me as if to say, what are you doing here? When nine-year-old Melissa Campbell visited the Vermont State House in 2006 and came upon my portrait, she exclaimed, “Finally! A woman. It’s about time.” It does seem to be about time, and things have changed. We see Nancy Pelosi as Speaker of the House, and just seeing her there sends a different message to young women and young men that girls can do this, that women belong there. Seeing a new president of Harvard, Drew Gilpin Faust. If you go through the halls of the buildings at Harvard or any public building it is still predominately male portraits that look back at you, and these women, women astronauts, somebody won a NASCAR race a woman for the first time in history just recently. I wish I knew her name, but somebody here probably does. We’re having breakthroughs still in places we never have been before.

But then you look at the numbers and the numbers aren’t as good as you might expect. One number kept recurring as I did my research for this book, so you only have to remember one number. It’s 16 percent. Sixteen percent is the percentage of women, today, in the United States Congress, and that’s an all-time high and women, as you know, have had the vote since 1920. Sixteen percent came up again when I looked at the percentage of women in the parliaments around the world. That average number is 16 percent. You might say, well the United States is okay. We’re 16 percent, and the average is 16 percent. But you have to scroll way, way down the list to define the United States of America. We rank, according to a recent United Nations evaluation, 71st out of 142 countries, and you know who’s ahead of us? Iraq and Afghanistan. Iraq and Afghanistan put quotas, at the urging of the women, in their constitution. Iraq met it. Afghanistan exceeded it at 27 percent. One of the top countries, not the top country, is Argentina, the land of machismo. Women aren’t naturally treated equally in Latin American countries. Argentinian women demanded a quota and got 40 percent. So the question is, what’s going on in the United States? I talked to a woman from an organization named Catalysts that places women in top corporate positions either as CEOs or boards of directors or vice presidents, and lo and behold in talking to Ilene Lang, the percentage of women in corporate America top positions is 16 percent. I know this is accidental, but it is an interesting convergence. Since I wrote the book, I came across it for a fourth time. You all know that Title IX has opened the doors for women in sports in a glorious and really momentous way. Sports participation has increased 400 percent in high schools and colleges for women. But the downside of that is women coaches and athletic directors have declined. So women athletic directors and now it’s 16 percent, and that’s another story, which we don’t have time to go into.

But you say, why are we stuck there when you are the generation who is the most educated—56 percent of undergraduates are women today. You’ve all had sports experience. Most of you’ve had parents who say you can do anything. They used to say if you had a boy and girl and you could only afford to send one to college, it was the boy who went to college. Today everybody in a family that wants to send their children to college usually does. I tried to dig into this and it’s very hard to come up one answer.

Maybe we can come up with the usual answers. Politics is nasty. I’m not seeing this through rose-colored glasses. It is a tough business and getting tougher. It takes money, and a lot of people don’t like raising money or asking for money. You do lose some privacy, and for women it is still harder in some instances, in many instances, to combine family and a political life or any kind of demanding career. Those are things that work, but they’re still not enough of an answer. I think there are some internal barriers that also affect women. One of the things we’ve discovered in studies is that women candidates tend to need to be asked by somebody else to run. The jargon for this is they don’t self-identify. Men are more likely to say, hey I think I can do this job, and women more likely to say, I need to take two more courses, I am not qualified. What many women underestimate is that they are, in fact, qualified to run for office depending, of course, on the office. One of the women I interviewed said any woman who’s organized a birthday party for a five-year old can organize a campaign and it’s true. All those family skills, all those volunteer skills, all those community skills really are what you need in politics.

Probably the most important thing you need is once you get over the nastiness, the money, the loss of privacy, the tension for family life, what you really need is the belief that it’s worth the effort, the belief that you can get something done. As I said earlier, you can’t get everything done. One of the reasons I interviewed so many women for this book is to show that yes, you do make a difference once you are there, and do women make a difference in particular? When you raise that question, people say, “Why should women make a difference. How are they different from men?” Women are Democrats, Republicans, conservatives, liberals, environmentalists, anti-environmentalists, pro-choice, anti-choice (though more women are pro-choice). That is all true. But having said that, women across party lines, both Republican and Democratic women, tend to vote in certain directions. They tend to support some issues more than men. Not all, but you don’t need all to make a difference. They tend to support women’s issues. Before women were in power, there were very antiquated rape laws. There were no rape crisis centers. A family violence was considered a private affair, not a question of public law. There was no research on breast cancer. There was research on heart disease, but it was all done on men until women got into the political arena and said, lo and behold women also have heart disease. It’s somewhat different in women than it is men and it’s the number one killer of women. So women have brought in different priorities. The one thing we all bring into politic—and everything we do in life of course, but it’s more visible in politics—we bring in our life experiences of how we see the world. Women, even in this day of greater partnership, greater sharing of responsibilities, still have slightly somewhat different life experiences. Women are still more responsible for raising children than are men, even though more men are sharing that responsibility. Women still experience pay discrimination in a different way than a man does. Women are still more afraid to go in the parking lot late at night, afraid of being raped. These still are somewhat different experiences that they bring into political discussion.

Let me quote a brief excerpt from a woman in the Congress. I asked, how do gender differences affect policy? Congresswoman Loretta Sanchez, Democrat of California explained, “We think in different ways. We approach things in different ways. When Nancy Pelosi was on the Appropriations Committee, and we had just gone through the whole Kosovo incident, that was a very debilitating conflict for women because many Muslim women had been raped as tools of war. In the Muslim situation, you are shunned or stoned because it is your fault if you were raped.” She realized if we didn’t change that, if we didn’t help the women to become whole, then the family would not become whole and the society was not whole.

What does that mean? It means putting $100 million into mental health for women. This never would have happened if there wasn’t a woman on the committee. Obviously, some men think of those things too, and vote for them. It doesn’t mean men are blind to these issues. They just don’t have the same intensity of feeling which comes from personal experience. In politics, as in much of life, personal stories are very, very important. Statistics matters, studies matter, but if you ever testify before a political committee they also will want to know about your story, why you are there—not only the statistic that you represent—and it is these stories that make a difference.

Let’s look for a moment at what one woman does on the Supreme Court of the United States. We had Sandra Day O’Conner as the only women on the Supreme Court and now we have Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and both of these women seem to do something interesting, one a Republican, the other a Democrat. They brought the interpretation of the law down to the human practical level. What does this mean in somebody’s life? There was recently a case, 5-to-4 decision in the Supreme Court, called Ledbetter versus Goodyear Tire Company. Mrs. Ledbetter worked as a supervisor for more than twenty years in the Good Year Tire Company. Finally she determined that she had been discriminated against, that she made less money than the guys who did the same job she did. In yesterday’s Times it was pointed out that she probably made 40 percent less over that period. She filed a case, and the case was turned down by a vote of 5 to 4 because she had not filed the suit within the required 180 days. This is what Ruth Bader Ginsburg said in her dissenting opinion: “The court’s insistence on immediate contest overlooks common characteristics of paid discrimination. Pay disparities often occur, as they did in Ledbetter’s case, in small increments. Cause to suspect that discrimination was at work only develops over time. Comparative pay information, moreover, is often hidden from the employee’s view. Small initial discrepancies may not be seen as meat for a federal case, particularly when the employee trying to succeed in a nontraditional environment is averse to making waves.” Incidentally, the day before yesterday the Congress voted down a law which would have overturned this decision, and it was a largely partisan vote. I suspect if there had been more women, that would not have been the case.

Let me try to prove that to you. If you imagine a United States Senate made up of 40 women and 60 men, and imagine that the Senate was voting on a law as to whether the United States should have a paid family leave policy. Now every industrialized country in the world today has paid family leave. That means if you have a baby, most cases either the mother or the father could take time off from work, or an adoption or an aging parent, for six months, in some countries a year, without losing your job or without losing your income. All the Scandinavian countries have very, very expansive policies on these issues. Okay. The vote is up. Out of the 40 women, 30 vote for paid family leave. Not all. Some still have reservations. Out of the 60 men, half vote for paid family leave. You can do the math: 30 men and 30 women, you got 60 votes. More than you need. So you don’t need unanimity amongst women to create a change. More women can provide a tipping point on these issues and most of the controversial issues of our time are decided by very close votes—whether it’s expanding children’s healthcare, whether it is ending the war in Iraq, whether it is global warming—the votes are close, and women tend to vote more on the environment. They tend to be more inclusive of people who are on the outside. I say tend because there are other factors at work, too, and of course as I stressed earlier there is great diversity amongst women, which is only natural that you would expect to see that.

What do we need to do to get this point across more strongly, more effectively? I think we need to tell our stories, as I have tried to do in this book, but I think we also need to build greater confidence amongst women, greater skills beyond the academic skills, skills in debating. One of the interesting statistics that many of you may have heard is that women make less money than men. That is still true today. For similar jobs, not quite comparable, women make about 77 cents of the dollar today that men make. Why is that? Is it just pay discrimination? Some of it might be. But studies have shown that often women don’t negotiate for higher pay. They don’t demand higher wages. Now there are some good reasons for that sometimes. If you really need a job badly, you don’t want to jeopardize getting that job by being demanding. You want the job, and you may know that they can get somebody else at that lower wage, but that is not always the case. In experiments when women have been given permission to negotiate—told you have so much money, you can demand so much money—they still demanded less.

What’s negotiating got to do with politics? It means you’ve got to get out there and think of yourself as valuable, valuable enough to be a leader, valuable enough for somebody to vote for you. It is this inner quality, which we can’t manufacture, which no course can give you. So my answer to it is to listen to your own voice. Listen to your own ideas and dreams and don’t give up on them, and also listen to your own anger and your fears. The country—this is a hard question, unless you happened to come upon this information. Can anybody guess which country has the greatest percentage of women in its parliament?

[Audience: Australia.]

No, but it’s done well. It’s actually a very hard question because it’s an unexpected answer. Rwanda. Rwanda’s parliament has 48.8 percent women, and I called a senator who’s serving in Rwanda and I said, why is this happening? How can this happen? And she said, after the genocide—I assume you’re familiar with what happened in Rwanda in the genocide, 800,000 people were murdered—the women went to work to help rebuild their communities. They helped build houses. They helped unite families, and when the constitution was written they were insistent on having a quota of I think a 33 percent. As you can see, they exceeded it. I said, tell me a bit more, this is so unusual. She finally said a sentence which I can’t forget. She said, we knew we had to do this for the survival of our children.

I would suggest that we in the United States have to do this for our own future, for the survival of our children, because so much is at stake in this country. If we are to be a viable democracy, to have a government which expresses and reflects not only some people’s views and concerns but all people’s views, then we have to take the risks to participate. My wish and my hope is that within your enthusiasm for this campaign and this election season, some of you will take the next step either to run for office or help somebody else run. It is equally important to support somebody, to back them up not just with money, but by telling them, you’re doing the right thing and I’m going to work for you. That’s how the statistics will change—if we work together, if we have a campaign not only for women. We don’t have enough African-Americans in the political system. We don’t have enough Hispanics in the system. We don’t have a lot of people in the system who are now left out, and it will take a determined revival of democracy to be the kind of government we really must become. Thank you very much.