Paid maternity leave is the law in every country except Papua New Guinea and Swaziland
Madeleine Kunin protested anti-feminist policies and ideologies in Washington, D.C., in her 30s. Now, in her early 80s, the former governor, ambassador and deputy secretary of education joked Tuesday that she may get back out there to burn her metaphorical bra.
In the 1960s and ’70s, the feminist movements swept the nation and opened doors everywhere. But now, decades later, U.S. women are not where they thought they’d be, Kunin said Tuesday at the Jewish Community of Greater Stowe.
Women still earn only 77 cents for every dollar men earn, Kunin said, quoting statistics from her book “The New Feminist Agenda,” published in 2012. The U.S. ranks 69 among 178 countries for the number of women holding significant political offices. Just 3 percent of Fortune 500 companies are run by women, according to Kunin.
“That number may have risen to 4 percent” since publication, she said. “Don’t get excited.”
What’s keeping women from holding these offices, these positions, from earning those equal paychecks? Kunin says many women are held back by the difficulty of balancing a career and a family.
“Feminism means something different to young people,” Kunin said. Today, it means “true gender equality”: at home, in the workplace and in the political arena. “Having both a family and a career” is important for young women today.
“Many women who have careers that they might never have imagined for themselves are still flummoxed by the age-old question,” Kunin said: “How to have a job and take care of their families.”
In the ’70s, Kunin said, women were encouraged to just walk out the door and into a corner office. It was assumed that someone would take care of the children.
Today, that’s harder to do. “It’s not gender bias but the reality of caregiving,” Kunin said. “Whose responsibility is it? We are more broad-minded today. We’ve changed our definition of what constitutes a family.”
Policies on child care and family leave are part of what today’s women struggle against when considering their careers. Paid maternity leave is the law in every country except Papua New Guinea and Swaziland, Kunin said, but in the U.S., “we thought it was a big deal to get three months unpaid leave.”
In Quebec, Kunin said, expectant mothers are granted one year’s paid leave after giving birth, no questions asked. To do otherwise, Kunin said, deprives both mother and child of crucial bonding time during the first year. “Here, even paid sick leave was a battle hard won,” she said.
Finding high-quality child care after the mother returns to work is another piece of the puzzle of women’s rights in the U.S. “Finding child care is hard,” Kunin said. Today, according to her book, 70 percent of families include two working parents, meaning children need to be trusted to caregivers until 5 p.m.
In Kunin’s perfect United States, early childhood education and child care would be like Social Security — available to everyone and an integral part of the country’s system. That’s not likely to happen, she says, because people think that the costs would be too high and that government shouldn’t be involved in family lives.
Kunin says the high cost of nationally subsidized child care would be worth it. A study compared children who grew up attending high-quality child care centers with up-to-date equipment to children who grew up without. Children who learn what Kunin calls “noncognitive skills” early in life — such as social skills and empathy for others — are more likely to be employed, she said. “If we lose our children at this early age, we will never regain them,” she said.
“We know the answers,” Kunin said. “What we don’t have is political will.”
Kunin praised organizations such as the Lamoille Family Center, which she says offers services like home visits and prenatal care as well as a small child care for infants.
“They do it right,” Kunin said. “We don’t need fancy equipment. It’s right there before us.”
Despite the predicament of today’s young women when faced with the daunting prospect of raising a family and having a career, Kunin says she’s optimistic. “I still have hope,” she said. “There is room for optimism and change, change for the good.”
Kunin closed with a personal story to encourage other people to get involved.
“When my children were young, they had to cross a train track to get to school,” Kunin said. “That made me a worried mother, which, by the way, is not a bad start. I wanted a flashing red light.”
Kunin describes the process by which she learned to navigate her town’s government.
“We got the flashing red light,” she said. “I learned that if you fight, you might win. If you stay at home wringing your hands, you won’t get anywhere except more gray hair and wrinkles.”
“We all have to become activists,” Kunin said. Three things are necessary: anger, imagination and optimism — “the belief that something is going to happen if we use our voice.”
“In a way, the world is a depressing place, but it’s also a hopeful place,” Kunin said.