Madeleine Kunin was in Rutland on Wednesday to talk about the challenges women face as they seek to live productive and rewarding lives with careers and families.
The obstacles facing women have not gone away despite the progress represented by Kunin’s three terms as governor of Vermont. Just as the election of Barack Obama as president has not abolished racism, the institutional, economic and social obstacles in the way of women still work powerfully against them 23 years after the end of Kunin’s last term.
That seems like a long time ago. Young Vermonters may not appreciate the atmosphere of jubilation and near revolutionary fervor that surrounded Kunin in 1985 as she made her way into the Vermont House to be sworn in as governor for the first time. She had worked her way to a position of responsibility in the House and then had become lieutenant governor. In 1984, she was running against a capable Republican opponent, Attorney General John Easton, and it was far from assured that she would win. Ultimately, her winning margin was razor thin.
The satisfaction in electing a woman as governor was as much social as political. Many Vermonters, especially women, understood it was a pioneering step. And yet, as Kunin has subsequently made clear in her writings, her rise to power was far from easy. She had to suffer the indignities and stress of trying to break into the old boys’ club and to excel at a far higher level than would be demanded of a man.
Kunin has continued to emphasize the importance of issues affecting the quality of life — issues that are sometimes denigrated as “women’s issues.” What are the so-called women’s issues? Education, health care, child care, livable income — they are all high on today’s agenda, and politicians, male and female, are still struggling to address them.
One of the issues that fell by the wayside during the recently concluded legislative session was paid sick leave. Advocates, who included workers groups and low-income supporters, had mounted a major campaign to persuade the Legislature to pass a law requiring paid sick leave — or “earned” sick leave, as it is called — for workers at most companies. A majority of House members had pledged support for the bill but apparently became nervous as business interests mounted a counteroffensive.
The bill is a good example of why a measure that might once have been dismissed as a women’s issue is really a human issue. In fact, many of the workers who would benefit from the availability of seven paid sick days each year are women. But so would their husbands and their families. And so would many male workers who get sick or who have family members to care for.
It is the kind of issue that touches the lives of people in a fundamental way, especially people at the margin who are struggling to hold onto a job but who may be forced to make choices that cost them their job. Paid sick leave is a concrete way to give people not a freebie, but an earned benefit that makes work and family life cohere more easily. This is especially important for single mothers.
It appears that liberal members of the House may have felt they were on thin ice, uneasy about the shaky roll-out of Vermont Health Connect and about higher property taxes. They may have also felt overextended because they were already pushing a raft of other liberal issues, such as the minimum-wage hike and several anti-poverty measures.
The business community was not unanimous in opposition to paid sick leave; Vermont Businesses for Social Responsibility backed it. But House members are reluctant to get too far out in front of the business community in imposing an ever-growing list of mandates. Paid sick leave, however, is the kind of mandate that makes life easier for workers, and when life is easier on workers, that is generally good for employers, too.
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