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September 28: Madeleine Kunin

September 27, 2015

aa-kuninMadeleine Kunin, the first Jewish woman elected as a governor of a state (Vermont, from 1985 to 1991), was born in Zurich, Switzerland on this date in 1933. She moved to the U.S. with her mother in 1940 (her father died, a suicide, when she was 3), and worked as a journalist for the Burlington Free Press before going into politics. As three-term Democratic governor, Kunin worked on environmental and educational issues, established a family court, spoke out on women’s reproductive rights, and enacted budget cuts and tax increases. She also “staffed her administration with large numbers of women in both traditional and nontraditional roles, repeatedly establishing ‘firsts’ for the state in the executive and judicial branches,” writes Katherine Kleeman at the Jewish Women’s Archive. “She used the symbolic power of her office to promote feminism, bringing portraits of women into the governor’s office and speaking to schoolchildren about her role. Her political leadership was an inspiration for women in the state: Female lobbyists gained prominence when their bosses used them to impress the Kunin administration, and women on welfare found the courage to change their lives as they watched the example of their governor.” Kunin served as ambassador to Switzerland from 1996-99, where she facilitated the creation of the Swiss banks’ compensation fund for Holocaust survivors. Today, she teaches and writes in Vermont, and is chair of the board of the Institute for Sustainable Communities, which she founded.

“On some level that I do not yet fully understand, I believe I transformed my sense of the Holocaust into personal political activism. This was the source of my political courage. I could do what the victims could not: oppose evil whenever I recognized it. The United States of America would protect me. I lived in a time and place when it was safe for a Jew to be a political person, to speak, to oppose, to stand up.” —Madeleine Kunin