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Book Review: Madeleine Kunin’s Pearls, Politics and Power

Pearls, Politics and Power: How Women Can Win and Lead
By Madeleine Kunin/Book Review by Rob Williams
Chelsea Green; 2008; 233 pages

“Remember the ladies.”
– Abigail Adams

“Well-behaved women rarely make history.”
- Laurel Thatcher Ulrich

Vermonter Madeleine Kunin has led an extraordinary life.

Born in Zurich to a Jewish family, she moved to the United States as a girl, studied journalism in school, and developed an interest in literature, women’s rights, and politics. She chose to enter Vermont politics in the 1970s, and in 1984, ran and won the office of Vermont governor, serving for 3 terms before declining to run for another term in 1990. Shortly after leaving the governor’s office, Kunin found herself appointed Deputy Secretary of Education by the Clinton administration, a post she held from 1993-1997, when she became ambassador to her native Switzerland. All this, and she found time to raise four children, to boot.

And now, with the publication of Pearls, Politics, and Power, Kunin reflects on all of these experiences in a thoughtful book-length meditation about “how women can win and lead” in the public sphere.

The book is really two books in one. For much of the monograph, Kunin uses her own experiences in public life as a springboard to explore the struggles women face as political leaders, as well as considering women who have “made it” in the political world, from Hatshepsut, the first female pharaoh of Egypt, to Hillary Clinton, whose failed 2008 presidential bid offers lessons for anyone interested in a serious consideration of the relationship between women and politics. She then concludes with a final chapter entitled “Where Do We Go From Here?”, which functions as a sort of “step by step” guide for supporting women as they consider involving themselves in formal politics.

Throughout the book, Kunin shares the stories of a wide variety of women who recount their own path to political office, and this is one of the best reasons for reading her account. Even in the 21st century, in the male-dominated world of formal politics, women must work that much harder to demonstrate their credibility and qualifications for the job. “The issue of competence is one that men seem to get an advantage on. For a man, either because he comes from an executive background, or just because he appears to be competent, there’s an assumption that men now how to run things and that women are compassionate and understand your feelings, but may not have executive ability,” CBS news political editor Dotty Lynch recounts to Kunin, who agrees with Lynch’s conclusions, based on her own gubernatorial run in the early 1980s. “We found that once you got a woman governor, it was a lot easier for the next one.” Indeed, and Kunin’s book provides a valuable service as inspirational text for any woman considering public life.

As a male observer, I found Kunin’s last chapter most helpful. How do we prepare more young women for public life? She offers several suggestions. First, teach community service and support programs to do the same (interestingly, the Teach for America program, which Kunin references as a good model, was started by Wendy Kopp, a college classmate, growing out of her educational work done as part of completing her undergraduate thesis). Second, reinvigorate feminism as an exercise in collectively imagining what is possible, politically speaking, for women, and make public office a civic virtue. Third, educate girls to exercise power, encourage community participation, and ask women to run for office. Fourth, think structurally, and fight for campaign finance reform and other institutional changes that open up more opportunities for women to lead. One final suggestion, and it a good one – establish a mentoring bank to create possibilities for female leaders to encourage up-and-comers – a wonderful idea.

“Education, the culture, and laws have to change,” Kunin concludes, “to open the doors wider to the halls of power and to reprioritize the decisions that are made within those halls to achieve the government that more accurately reflects the will of the people.” Easier said than done, of course, but Kunin’s own example provides a compelling case for what is possible when women are more able to participate in public life, and her book offers us some blueprints for a way forward.

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