Opinion

Madeleine May Kunin

When Bernie Sanders ran against me in Vermont

Madeleine Kunin took the oath of office in Montpelier on Jan. 10, 1984. An overflowing crowd watched as Kunin became the first female governor of Vermont.

Toby Talbot/AP/File 1984

Madeleine Kunin took the oath of office in Montpelier on Jan. 10, 1984. An overflowing crowd watched as Kunin became the first female governor of Vermont.

Hillary Clinton is not the first progressive Democratic woman to be challenged by Bernie Sanders. He ran against me in 1986 when I was running for my second term as governor of Vermont. At that time he had little affinity for the Democratic Party. When advised that his third-party candidacy might result in a Republican victory, he saw no difference between Democrats and Republicans, saying: “It is absolutely fair to say you are dealing with Tweedledum and Tweedledee.”

Voters did not agree. Sanders received 14 percent of the vote, the Republican candidate, Peter Smith received 38 percent, and I won with 47 percent.

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By any measure I was regarded as a progressive governor. If I was vulnerable, it was for being too liberal. As a legislator, my maiden speech on the floor of the Vermont House was in favor of ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment. My first priority as governor was universal access to kindergarten. I set a record for a Vermont governor’s appointees; women filled half of my cabinet. I sought out talented women, many of whom were the first women to head their agencies.

Women draw on a different network than men and can share an alternative definition of “qualified.” Hillary Clinton’s campaign staff, according to Fast Company, is over 50 percent female. Sanders’ campaign began with a a predominantly male inner circle and continues to face accusation of keeping women out of the top ranks.

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When Sanders was my opponent he focused like a laser beam on “class analysis,” in which “women’s issues” were essentially a distraction from more important issues. He urged voters not to vote for me just because I was a woman. That would be a “sexist position,” he declared.

Sanders has emerged as a more sophisticated and astute politician since those early days, and his message has more resonance.

Thirty years later, women and men assume that gender no longer matters in politics. Now only 8 percent of voters would declare in a poll that they would not vote for a woman president. I remember precisely the time and place when a barber in Springfield, Vermont, ran out to tell me, “I will never vote for a woman.”

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Rare then, even more rare today. But that does not mean that gender no longer plays a role in how we judge a woman’s candidacy for the top job. Women, it turns out, are influenced by gender bias to almost the same degree as men. For example, both Clinton and Sanders have declared they are favor paid maternity and sick leave, and equal pay for equal work. What sets them apart? I believe it is both style and substance. Sanders can shout his message and wave his arms for emphasis. Clinton can’t. If she appeared on stage as angry at the “system” as he is, she would be dismissed as an angry, even hysterical, woman; a sight that makes voters squirm.

An angry female voice works against women but is a plus for men. It demonstrates passion, outrage and power. Sanders bristled when he was accused of sexism after he implied that Clinton was among the shouters. Ironically, it is he who has, according to his doctor, suffered from laryngitis.

Gender adds muscle to substance. How will a female president differ from the men who have ruled the world?

Living in a woman’s body makes the world look different on some – though far from all – issues.

As a new legislator, my first bill introduced in the Vermont House was to increase funding for childcare. I had young children and I knew that finding childcare determined whether or not I could leave my house and come to the capital, Montpelier. And I knew, that for poor women, childcare determined whether they could go to work and support their children. As governor, I saw to it that childcare funding was quadrupled and funding for education doubled. Hillary Clinton’s career follows a similar trajectory. Education reform was her priority as the governor’s wife in Arkansas. A bill to cover children’s health insurance (CHIP) was her achievement as a New York senator. “Women’s rights are human rights and human rights are women’s rights” was the message she sent to every country she visited as secretary of state. Yes, Hillary has been around, she’s been a determined, consistent fighter for children’s welfare and women’s rights. It’s part of her DNA.

She was drawn to these women’s issues – now urgent economic issues – in the same way that I was, by our experiences as working women, wives, and mothers. A number of men will protest: “I believe the same thing as she does.”

What’s the difference? The difference is how do they rank on the agenda. Is equal pay near the bottom of the list, or is it a priority? Is defense of Planned Parenthood an issue that saves women’s lives, or is it only another institution among many? Placement on a competitive agenda is vital to achieve results. I believe that Hillary Clinton will give high priority to equal pay for equal work, not because she has experienced discrimination herself, but as a woman, she can empathize with women who have been discriminated against. It is a kind of empathy that allows no definition, but I felt it every time I made eye contact with the women I met along the parade route or on the factory floor.

One of the criticisms Clinton has received is that she is not authentic, that she is too political (i.e. scheming) and that she has been around for a long time so that she is a captive of various institutions.

If we’re counting from when Sanders was elected mayor of Burlington, he has been around for some time, too: 35 years. In part because he is a man, he can run as the ultimate outsider. Clinton can’t be the outsider even as her very candidacy defies precedent. Ever since women got the vote, we believed, like the good students we are, that the path to political participation, as instructed years ago by the League of Women Voters, was to be informed, understand the system and play by the rules. That’s how we could make it in a man’s world.

That responsibility did not rule out reform, but it did crimp revolution. When I campaigned for governor, I believed that I had to assure voters that I would not be that different from the male governors who had preceded me, even when I knew that I would be. Being the first woman and a revolutionary would be too much for the voters to swallow.

Sanders is brave, pairing Socialist with Democrat. And I agree with him on the growing cancer in America of income inequality and a democracy-threatening campaign finance system. He is a bold truth teller, and I am grateful that he has changed the conversation. He makes the answers sound easy, which in turn, makes him look authentic. But the answers are not simple. The word “complex” does not win applause in a political speech. Nuance is not welcomed. “We need a revolution,” is more powerful than “I have a plan.”

I understand that voters are looking for authenticity; they always have been, asking, “Are you who you claim to be?” A woman, running for a leadership position that has always been held by a man, has to create a new persona. To succeed, she has to play the game as it has always been played, but at the same time, play it differently. It’s difficult to find that sweet spot where a woman is “just right” tough enough to be commander in chief and feminine enough to be mother of the nation..

When we elected the first African American as President, we believed that an African American man would be revolutionary and bring us hope.

Barack Obama, in many ways, has changed the rules, and had new priorities on his agenda, but not to the extent that some voters had hoped and others had feared.

Still, the world seen through the eyes of a black man looks different than through those of a white man. As a result of President Obama’s leadership, we look at him and ourselves differently.

And the world as seen through the eyes of a woman will not result in revolution, but it will mark a change towards greater gender equality. Visualizing Hillary raising her right hand to take the oath of office, and Bill holding the Bible, will tell every little girl and boy, that, yes, women can achieve anything.

Madeleine May Kunin, who served as governor of Vermont for three terms from 1985-1991, is a Marsh Professor at the University of Vermont, and the author of “The New Feminist Agenda, Defining the Next Revolution for Women, Work and Family.”
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