On a cold winter day in Montpelier, as the 2013 legislative session was getting into full swing, a group of women met to answer one question — how can we elect more women to office in Vermont?
This story truly begins three decades ago, on November 6, 1984. That day is but a footnote in American history, remembered for Ronald Reagan’s trouncing of Walter Mondale in his bid for re-election. But in Vermont, one of the 49 states Reagan carried, something monumental happened — the state elected its first female governor, Madeleine May Kunin.
Kunin served three terms, during which she appointed the first woman to the Vermont Supreme Court, created the state’s family court system, and paved the way for other women to follow in her footsteps.
And then… well, nothing.
In the 12 gubernatorial elections since Kunin declined to seek another term in 1990, Vermont has not elected another woman. Barbara Snelling served two terms as lieutenant governor in the 1990s, but is one of only two women other than Kunin to hold that position.
Vermont, which prides itself on its progressivism — the state that led the nation on civil unions and again on same-sex marriage, is one of only four states never to have elected a woman to Congress. It is one of only 13 states without any female representation in the Senate or House of Representatives.
Burlington, the city that once voted for Socialist candidate Bernie Sanders over both a Republican and Democratic candidate, has never elected a female mayor. Neither has Rutland, Barre or Winooski. Of the eight cities in the state that elect a mayor, only one currently has a female mayor.
Kunin, who was supposed to be the last crack in the glass ceiling now seems to be the exception to the rule.
Kunin stayed involved in politics after her tenure as governor. She served in the Clinton Administration, first as the Deputy Secretary of Education and then as the U.S. Ambassador to Switzerland and Liechtenstein.
Since leaving public office more than a decade ago, Kunin, now 79, has remained an advocate for women in politics.
In 2008, Kunin authored Pearls, Politics and Power: How Women Can Win and Lead, in which she argued that the United States would benefit from more women serving in public office. In it, she interviewed a variety of women in power, including then-senator Hillary Clinton, then-governor Kathleen Sebelius and future senator Tammy Baldwin.
Around that time Kunin was invited to speak at events hosted by Emerge America, an organization formed in 2002 to promote Democratic women in politics. She thought such a group would benefit Vermont, and in January of this year assembled a group of women legislators to seek their input. That group included Rep. Kesha Ram, Rep. Sarah Buxton, Rep. Maxine Grad, and Rep. Jill Krowinski.
The response, Kunin said, was enthusiastic. The group agreed to meet on a monthly basis.
In the spring Sarah McCall was brought on as interim Executive Director of what the group hoped would become an affiliate of Emerge America in Vermont. A New Jersey native, McCall had recently moved to Vermont from Washington, D.C., where she worked for the Victory Fund, an organization that provides training and campaign support LGBT candidates and elected officials.
In order to be recognized by Emerge America, the national organization, McCall and Emerge Vermont’s founders had to raise $25,000. By August, the group had succeeded, and have raised nearly $50,000 to date.
“Emerge Vermont will not directly involve itself in campaigns, or donate to candidates,” McCall said. “It is strictly about training and leadership development.”
Instead, Emerge Vermont will host one comprehensive training program per year. Participants will meet one Saturday a month for six months, and each session will have a different topic, such as fundraising and strategy.
“It’s going to be a statewide organization devoted to recruiting, training and mentoring women candidates,” McCall said. “We’ll be networking out to build a community of women.”
Emerge Vermont’s goal is to have women ready for the 2014 elections who have graduated from the program in time to register before the campaign filing deadlines.
While all women can apply, Emerge America specifically promotes Democratic candidates.
Governor Madeleine Kunin at her home in Burlington. p. Ben Sarle
The importance of women in politics
Kunin said it is important to have women in political office because they bring a unique set of life experiences to the table. She argued women are more likely to care about issues like healthcare, childcare and education, and pointed to how women rallied this year behind a bill in the Vermont legislature that would require employers to give every worker seven paid sick days.
“It was the women legislators leading the charge,” Kunin said.
At the federal level, Kunin argued that the higher number of women in Congress has brought a host of new issues into the national discussion. She noted the success the Senate Armed Services Committee, which has a record seven female members, has had in putting a spotlight on sexual assaults in the military.
“Sexual assault is nothing new,” Kunin said. “But for the first time it’s becoming public, and it’s because women are leading the charge.”
Kunin said a lot of successful women working in the nonprofit sector should consider running for public office. She noted that while nonprofit groups have great influence over public policy, elected officials are closer to the power structure.
“You can be knocking at the door asking to be listened to, or be in the room, at the table where the decisions are being made,” Kunin said.
While many women have the credentials and experience to run, Kunin said they are less likely to promote themselves or think they’re qualified.
“The difference between women and men is women often have to be asked to run,” Kunin said. “Emerge will ask!”
As to why Vermont has never elected a woman to Congress, Kunin pointed to the small size of Vermont’s delegation, just three members, and the fact that seats open up infrequently. Since Patrick Leahy was elected to the Senate in 1974, there have only been four elections in which the incumbent was not running — in the Senate in 1988 and 2006, and for the state’s at-large seat in the House of Representatives in 1988 and 2006. In both of these instances, a senator retired and the incumbent Congressman ran for the open Senate seat.
Kunin said there is more opportunity in the governorship, as terms are only two years.
“I do think there are a strong group of women who have the credentials to run for governor in the future,” Kunin said. “I don’t think they’ll challenge Peter Shumlin, because he’s held in high regard within the party, but there are women who have given being governor very serious thought.”
Rep. Kesha Ram is a rising figure in the party and knows firsthand what it’s like for a young woman to enter politics. After serving as president of the Student Government Association at the University of Vermont, Ram was elected to the Vermont House of Representatives in 2008 at just 22, becoming the youngest member of that body, as well as the youngest state legislator in the United States.
Ram called Kunin a mentor and a friend and said the Governor was instrumental in helping her campaign as a political newcomer.
“I had an informal organization of help,” Ram said. “Women getting into politics have to know the right people and figure out everything themselves — a lot of them don’t know where to start.”
Ram said that Emerge Vermont is going to formalize this process — the organization will provide support, education and training for prospective candidates.
“We need to think about the entire pipeline, and get young women into politics,” Ram said, noting how most members of Congress entered politics at the local level at a young age and worked their way up. Thus, the need for young women in politics is imperative.
When Kunin first approached her about creating a chapter of Emerge in Vermont, Ram was on board.
“When Madeleine asks, you’re ready to answer,” Ram said.
Ready to launch
There are encouraging signs of future success for women in Vermont. Forty percent of state legislators are women — only Colorado has a higher percentage. Emerge Vermont hopes to grow that number, and also increase the number of women at the local level, serving on town selectboards, school boards, and city councils.
Emerge Vermont is currently forming a board of directors, and will select a permanent executive director. McCall currently works in a part-time consultant capacity during her interim as Executive Director,
“Our bread and butter is the training program,” McCall said.
McCall said Emerge Vermont will not have any formal ties with the state Democratic Party, but said party leaders will probably serve as advisors and trainers.
“Their leadership is on board with what we’re doing,” McCall said.
Julia Barnes, the Executive Director of the Vermont Democratic Party, echoed McCall’s enthusiasm.
“I think that Emerge’s curriculum will bolster our ability to find and support new candidates and is a very welcomed addition to our community of Democrats in Vermont,” Barnes said. “Their mission to recruit, train and mentor Democratic women to run for public office is a great endeavor.”
Kunin said she will remain involved as Emerge Vermont takes its baby steps, but said she will eventually pass the torch.
For McCall, the goals Emerge Vermont has set are well within reach.
“One day a state-wide or federal position will open and we’ll have viable candidates to run for that seat,” McCall said.
Emerge Vermont will have a kickoff event Tuesday, Sept. 24 from 5:30-7:30 p.m. at Hotel Vermont in Burlington. Gov. Kunin will host the event, and will be joined by state and local officials.