The first time I had a conversation about Madeleine Kunin was with my daughter Anya. She was in 4th grade, studying Vermont history and assigned to make a biography poster of a famous Vermonter. The class was given a list of the usual suspects, only two of whom were women – Ann Story and Dorothy Canfield Fisher. I said, what about Madeleine Kunin? Anya asked, “Who is she?”
So we checked out several of Kunin’s books from the library and read excerpts together. Anya made a poster and a timeline of Kunin’s life. My German-speaking, half-Jewish, violinist daughter was most intrigued by the fact that Kunin came from Switzerland, spoke German, escaped from the Nazis, and loves classical music. Anya liked her curly hair too. She was proud to come up with her own famous Vermonter and be able to tell the other 10-year-olds who Madeleine Kunin is.
Two years later I met Madeleine Kunin in person for the first time, at a job interview. I put on my best suit and traveled to Montpelier to try to convince a former governor that I could train women to run for public office. I didn’t think I’d get the job, but I was thrilled to meet Madeleine Kunin.
The next day, I received a call from Madeleine Kunin, letting me know that she was offering me the position of Executive Director of Emerge Vermont. I could not contain my excitement. The first person I told about the offer was Anya. She was in awe that famous-Vermonter Madeleine Kunin had called her mother.
I have only known Madeleine Kunin as, by her own definition, “an old woman.” I did not know Madeleine when she was middle-aged and serving as our state’s first (and still only) female governor. I didn’t know her when she was a pioneering legislator and had regular lunches with another future governor, Jim Douglas, as the minority and majority leaders in the Vermont House.
I didn’t know her when she was a young mother who fretted for her children’s safety because they had to walk over an unmarked railroad crossing on the way to school. So Madeleine worked to improve the crossing, propelling herself into politics. I didn’t know her later in life when she was Assistant Secretary of Education or Ambassador to Switzerland.
I have only known her after she had come of age and reached her eighties. I have not been with her on the journey, but I feel blessed to have come into her life after her 80th birthday. I feel that perhaps I’ve gotten to know the most raw and frank and wise Madeleine Kunin.
Over these past three years with Madeleine, we have raised money and raised hell together. We have trained women to run for office, celebrated their victories, and unfortunately mourned so many of their losses too.
We adorned temporary tattoos, waved signs, and celebrated with thousands in Philadelphia when Hillary Clinton accepted the nomination for president, and we sat in stunned silence together after Clinton lost the election four months later. As painful as that was for me, I knew the loss was far greater for Madeleine. A woman in her forties probably has time to wait for the next big election, while a woman in her eighties may not.
This year, I sat shiva with Madeleine after the death of her beloved husband John and eight months later I helped her celebrate her 85th birthday. I have been with her during times of joy and grief. I cannot imagine it another way.
I am so grateful to you, Madeleine, to have you in my life now, during my forties, and to be in yours, during your eighties. Thank you for all you’ve done for me, and for all you’ve done for women and girls across Vermont. I know there are hundreds of Ruths and Anyas out there whom you’ve inspired and mentored, as you’ve come of age.