Politics and Social Justice Archive


Life and Legacy of Sister Elizabeth Candon

Thursday, February 9th, 2012

When young Hamlet vented his anger against Ophelia, he shouted, "Get thee to a nunnery!" That was what had happened to young women when they were spurned by lovers — their only recourse was to be condemned to a cloistered life.

Not so for Sister Elizabeth Candon. For 74 years, she happily served as a Sister of Mercy, living a life that was far from cloistered.

She had entered into the convent during one period, when sisters still had male saints' names, and emerged in another — when quite suddenly, sisters shed both their habits of clothing and their habits of living. Few made the transition into the modern world more dramatically than Sister Elizabeth when she became a public citizen.

I first met her when I was in my thirties, had recently received my Masters' degree in English literature from the University of Vermont, and given birth to my fourth child. I was ready to step back into the world myself — tentatively.

Sister Elizabeth hired me to be a part-time instructor at Trinity College — I was thrilled, not knowing I would be up half the night correcting 150 English papers.

I remember the tragic day of Kent State, May 4, 1970, when the National Guard fired on unarmed anti-Vietnam student protesters — and four were killed. I went to her office to ask that we cancel classes and have a teach-in. Without a moment's hesitation she said yes.

How did this devout woman,who began her education in a Vermont one-room school house and received a PhD in her favorite subjects — Shakespeare and Chaucer — become such a beloved figure?

For one thing, she gave herself the freedom to say what she believed to be true, whether it pleased the Catholic Bishop or not. For another, she did not wait for her journey to heaven to translate the word of God into action here on earth. When she was appointed Secretary of the Agency of Human Services by former Republican governor Richard Snelling, she seized the opportunity to serve the neediest of Vermont's citizens — not by prayer alone.

She was not your usual rebel — pushing the envelope against established institutions. She might not have marched with the 99 percent Occupy Wall Street crowd, but in her heart, she was 100 percent with them.

Her words were never harsh, her voice never loud, her presence not large. But the aura that glowed around her was huge and powerful. She delighted others with her sparkling Irish humor, even as she lay on her death bed, which did not seem like a death bed at all. She had her visitors laughing with her at her string of hilarious observations; the oxygen tube that helped her breathe could not restrain her.

More than anyone I had ever known, Sister Elizabeth was ready for death. She knew she had lived a full and happy life; and in the process, she enabled countless others to live a better life too.

pearls Madeleine M. Kunin is the author of Pearls, Politics and Power.

States Should Maintain Role in Nuclear Oversight

Tuesday, January 24th, 2012

Governor Peter Shumlin's efforts to challenge the safety of the Vermont Yankee Nuclear Power plant does not mark the first time that a Vermont governor went toe to toe with the plant. In 1985, when I was Governor, I learned that the plant had falsified inspection reports for years and that thousands of unchecked parts may have been installed.

The plant had an unplanned shut down for eight months to replace the entire recirculation piping unit. Both plant officials and the Nuclear Regulatory commission had kept me in the dark. The state's nuclear engineer concluded that probably violations had occurred in the "storage and handling program for safety related materials." Plant officials issued denials. Who was right? How could I assure Vermonters that the plant was safe? That is the same question that is being asked today.

Governors have the responsibility to protect the safety of their citizens. If the plant accidentally releases radiation, the Governor takes immediate action, ordering an evacuation, issuing iodine pills. But the Governor had no power to prevent an accident in the first place.

My first step was to obtain an impartial evaluation of the plant. It was not so easy to get the safety question answered because "experts" were divided into two camps, either anti nuclear or pro nuclear scientists. After many insistent phone calls to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, I reached the New England regional director. We toured the plant together and as a result, he ordered a complete inspection of Vermont Yankee. He was as concerned as I was, and recommended major safety changes in the plant which were implemented. I established a new position–an on site nuclear inspector to act as liaison between the NRC and the state.

I went a step further. I brought a resolution to the National Governor's Association, which stated that Governors should have more authority over the safety of their nuclear power plants. Governor John Sununu was not pleased. He saw this as a direct attract on the approval of New Hampshire 's Seabrook plant, which had been beset by demonstrations. In one outburst, he told my staff person, "I'm going to raise a million dollars to defeat your governor."

When Chernobyl occurred in 1986, calls for a shutdown of Vermont Yankee began. The question remains: how can the public know whether a nuclear power plant is safe to operate? What was underscored in the recent Vermont court case is that safety questions are decided by the federal government. The state, can, however, make an economic argument–a more difficult task.
The best solution would be for a more safety oriented Nuclear

Regulatory Commission to work with Vermont and decide whether Vermont Yankee's lifespan is safe to extend.

To succeed, the NRC would have to change course from being a nuclear energy salesman to being a nuclear cop.

This was originally published on The Huffington Post.

pearls Madeleine M. Kunin is the author of Pearls, Politics and Power.

Occupy Congress

Friday, December 9th, 2011

There will be no more sleepovers in public spaces for Occupy Wall Street. The tents and camp stoves have been picked up and carted away — gone. But the impact of this upstart political movement remains. The voices of students, union members, the disenchanted, the disenfranchised, the angry, and the ever hopeful have entered our public conversation.

When we mention the 1 percent and the 99 percent, everybody now knows what we are talking about. It's part of our vocabulary. How quickly these numbers jumped from the sidelines to the center. I first heard them from Carol Shea Porter, former Congresswoman from New Hampshire. Fighting for the 99 percent was her campaign theme. I thought she was on to something, but I suspect even she, had no idea that fighting for the 99 percent would become the mantra for a new grass roots movement.

The wildfire spread of the Occupy movement, both here and abroad, amazed us. It touched a nerve of discontent with the status quo. The huge disparities in income growth between lower, middle and upper income groups offended our sense of fairness. The Occupy movement succeeded in expressing a general feeling of discontent that many Americans have felt building up over the last several years. We had no way to express it. Occupy enabled us to let off steam. The result is: "We're not going to take it anymore."

What "it" was — that we're not going to take — continues to be debated. Is "It" high student loan debts, is "It", new anti-union laws, is "It", joblessness, is "It" global warming? There is no single message connecting the movement. But that may not be entirely bad, for the short term.

But what about the long term? Could Occupiers shape an agenda that would be a counterweight to the Tea Party? Should they also support and defeat candidates?

I believe it is time for the Occupiers to focus. If there is one issue, that cuts across all the others — it is need to curb the power of money to influence politics. Money often determines not only who gets elected, but what gets done. Which voices do lawmakers listen to, the banks or home owners, coal companies, or asthma sufferers, the CEOs or the unemployed?

Without putting the brakes on out of control campaign contributions from individuals and corporations — it will be business as usual, with 1 percent of Americans pulling the strings. To give power back to 99 percent of Americans, we need a grassroots campaign for a constitutional amendment to reverse recent Supreme Court decisions on limiting campaign contributions. It's time for Occupy Wall Street to morph into Occupy Congress.

This was originally posted on The Huffington Post.

pearls Madeleine M. Kunin is the author of Pearls, Politics and Power.

E Pluribus Unum or Social Darwinism?

Tuesday, November 15th, 2011

This past weekend, hundreds and hundreds of Vermonters responded to the governor's call to help clean up the debris left behind by the onslaught of tropical storm Irene. We may never get the exact count–it doesn't matter. What we got was another affirmation of the Vermont sense of community. Ever since the rivers overflowed their banks many Vermonters brimmed over with empathy for their neighbors, and often, for complete strangers.

Why did they leave their own comfort zone to comfort others? And why does this generous spirit seem to only surface in our small state, when the country at large is in need of a similar sense of neighborliness? Is it because we are a small state where a lot of people know one another; is it because we can see the devastation with our own eyes, and do not rely on anonymous photographs and statistics that are scrubbed of all emotion? Or is it, as we may be tempted to conclude, that we in Vermont are simply better than those in other far flung states?

I doubt that we're that much better. We're all, basically made of the same stuff: generosity and selfishness, goodness and greed. If we believe that the human condition is not that different from one place to another, how can we accept or explain the recent agenda in the Congress–to cut winter fuel subsidies, to chip away at the Medicare and Medicaid, to cut food programs, at a time when the coming winter will again be cold, people will continue to get sick, and a shameful percentage of Americans–especially children—have to go to bed with gnawing tummies.

Why can't that sense of neighborliness, which works locally, work nationally? In theory, it should. The great seal of the United States of America has spelled out the Latin words, E pluribus Unum, since it was adopted in 1782. Out of many one.

The state of Vermont's seal is similar. "Freedom and Unity."

Unity is our local and national theme. Whatever conditions confront us–good times or bad–the message is, we are in this together. For better or worse, we stand side by side.

In Vermont we've had the opportunity to translate those words into action. In Washington, the translation of E Pluribus Unum has been lost. The belief that we are one nation–united in purpose–caring about and for one another is no longer the practice. The budget battles reveal that the new motto is: Each man and woman for him or herself has become a form of social Darwinism–survival of the fittest and forget everybody else. Providing help to those who need it is a sign of weakness, not strength.

Why did programs like Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, and unemployment insurance exist in the first place? It was not because we were a rich nation; it was because we were a caring nation. We knew how to walk in someone else's shoes and could feel where they pinched. It is time to resurrect that sense of neighborliness on a national scale, so that E Pluribus Unum gains meaning once again.

pearls Madeleine M. Kunin is the author of Pearls, Politics and Power.

Memories of 9/11

Sunday, September 11th, 2011

"Ah, we're almost half way there," I said to myself as I got up to stretch my legs on the flight from Moscow to New York on September 11, 2001. A group of us were returning from a site visit to an environmental project of the Institute for Sustainable Communities, an organization which I had founded 20 years ago.

The pilot's voice came on the air. "I wish to inform you that we are turning around due to a problem."

A problem? I am not a happy flier. I immediately thought of the worst. A mechanical problem. We might crash.

I looked at the anxious faces around me. The flight attendants conveyed no emotion. It seemed a very long three and half hours before we landed. Where would we land?

Dublin, Ireland. Well, this can't be that bad. As soon as we deboarded, the word spread down the line of puzzled passengers. All planes had been grounded. An airplane had crashed into the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center. My first thought was that it was an accident. After we were bussed into town to a hotel, we turned on the TV and saw the second plane crash into the tower. The full import of a terrorist attack began to penetrate.

I wanted to go home and be with my family. I felt imprisoned by tragedy. There was no singing in Irish pubs during the three days we were there -everyone was focused on the television screen as it played and replayed the horrendous scene of the tower crumbling and bodies falling. Each day in Dublin one of us went to the airport to check on flights.

When we finally got home there was relief, but not jubilation. The United States we had returned to was different from the one we had left. Fear had spread over the whole country like the dust that had settled over lower Manhattan. A week later, I wrote in a commentary that we will measure time as -before and after 9/11. Ten years later, that observation still holds true.

The site of the destroyed Twin Towers has been cleaned up but not rebuilt, the photographs of the funerals are now in albums but not forgotten, the country has moved on, but it has not healed its wounds. In the midst of the recent earthquake, the first question was: "Is this a terrorist attack?" Fear–of the unknown and the unexpected, has penetrated our borders and refuses to leave.

pearls Madeleine M. Kunin is the author of Pearls, Politics and Power.

Compromise Is Not a Dirty Word

Wednesday, July 27th, 2011

The widening schism between Congressional House Republicans and the president and Senate Democrats is more than a debt ceiling crises. It is more than a budget balancing crisis.

The inability of the two sides to reach a compromise reveals crises in the workings of Democracy itself.

The United States has always been diverse with lots of separate factions, both of geography and belief — north and south, east and west, conservative, moderate and liberal. James Madison, wrote in the Federalist Papers how factions can serve to bring about a "tyranny of a minority" thereby harming the democratic interest of the majority. The miracle of American democracy is that — despite our differences — we could come together when needed, guided by our constitution, the Bill of Rights and an American sense of fairness.

The only disastrous exception was the Civil War which resulted in the deaths of 620,000 Americans.

We have since avoided such divisive calamities because we have learned to compromise, to give and take, to see the other person's point of view and respect it. Children refuse to compromise. Adults learn how. Compromise, contrary to popular opinion, does not mean selling out one's principles. Compromise means working out differences to forge a solution which fits the diversity of the body politic.

I learned the art of compromise in the Vermont legislature. Often, what I strongly believed was the right answer to a problem, turned out not to be perfect. In the legislative process one is forced to listen to and work with to the other side. The outcome may not closely resemble what either side had first proposed, but in the hard work of compromise, the result often turns out to be a better solution than what was originally proposed.

Sometimes compromise is painful. When I chaired the House Appropriations Committee I had to compromise with the Senate Appropriations Committee over the budget for the state of Vermont. The House then was controlled by Democrats, and the Senate by Republicans. We had our differences; we had our pet projects. How did we manage to compromise and produce one budget? The process was not sophisticated. We split the difference, almost straight down the line. It worked. Both sides were satisfied because we had given and gained equally.

In the debt and budget crises that is looming over us right now, there is no give and take. One side has given by acceding to significant budget cuts that will be hard for most Americans to absorb. The other side has refused to consider any revenue enhancement, not even closing tax loopholes for the wealthiest Americans. The result is a bitter divide that is tearing the country apart. Taking the debt ceiling hostage is a dangerous gamble which threatens both our economy and our democracy.

It's time to recognize what compromise means: no side wins or loses all. The real winner of compromise is not either fighting party — it is the American people.

pearls Madeleine M. Kunin is the author of Pearls, Politics and Power.

Thanks for Paving the Way, Gerry

Wednesday, March 30th, 2011

My most vivid memory of Geraldine Ferraro, who died recently, is when we were on the stage together at Memorial Auditorium in Burlington for a Democratic rally. It was the fall of 1984. She was making a campaign stop in her race for vice president and I was running for Governor. The photo of the two of us, hands raised and clasped high in the air in a V for victory sign still hangs on a wall in my house.

After the speeches the crowd gathered around us. One man, with a little girl perched on his shoulders was eager to introduce his young daughter to both of us. "I want her to know what women can do," he said, as we both took turns hugging the child.

We knew we were making history. The New York Times headline for Gerry Ferraro's obituary declared: "She ended the men's club of national politics." Yes she did, but what we did not know is that the club would issue few invitations to women candidates for the highest offices.

It took 24 years before another woman, Sarah Palin, would be nominated by her party to seek the vice presidency. And we thought that a woman would certainly be elected president of the United States in our life times.

Ferraro's resume was stronger than Palin's, having been an experienced three-term Congresswoman from Queens, before she was selected by Walter Mondale to be his running mate. Still, she was barraged by criticism about her qualifications and her stand on the issues. I remember a marathon two hour press conference about her husband's finances where she answered every tiny detail before a relentless paper shuffling press corps.

Her performance was considered a triumph, but the idea that she was culpable for her husband's actions continued to stick despite the fact that no charges were ever brought against him.

In one debate with George H. W. Bush, the incumbent vice president, he said words to the effect of "What does she know about throw weights?" in a blatant attempt to show her lack of knowledge about military hardware, and therefore, unfit to be the understudy for commander in chief.

As I followed the campaign, I could not help but ask myself, would they have treated a man the same way?

It's a question I continued to ask when Hillary Clinton was running for the Democratic nomination for the presidency. All that emphasis on hair, hemlines and husbands means that women have to lug that extra baggage from one campaign stop to another. Perhaps that's one of the reasons that the percentage of women in the Congress continues to be so low — now just 16 percent.

Still there is good news. The first women who broke barriers will make it easier for others. In states like Vermont women are almost equal members of the club, comprising 38 percent of the legislature.

And that little girl who met Gerry Ferraro 24 years ago might imagine a great future for herself, because she met a woman running for vice president. Gerry, we're sorry to lose you, but thank you for clearing the way.

Read the original article on The Huffington Post.

pearls Madeleine M. Kunin is the author of Pearls, Politics and Power.

Boys Can Cry

Wednesday, November 17th, 2010

When John Boehner cries, as he did at a press conference the morning after the election as the anticipated new Speaker of the House, he wins plaudits. So different from the time when Senator Muskie ran for President and was pilloried for shedding a tear in a snow storm in defense of his wife. But was it a tear or a snowflake? No matter, it made him look weak.

Boehner's tears were different. They revealed his humanity, showed he's a good guy. A headline called him " John the Weeper." Critics went so far as to say what a pleasant contrast this was to the "steely" Nancy Pelosi. No show of emotion, what a pity.

What if Nancy Pelosi had cried when she first became Speaker of the House? We know the answer; she would have been toast. An emotional woman, third in line for the Presidency? No way.

If there was ever a question whether gender stereotypes still exist, that question was answered in the post election press coverage of the out-going and incoming Speakers.

Remember when Hillary Clinton had a "welling up of tears" moment the day before the New Hampshire Primary in 2008? The media went wild. Can she be Commander in Chief, John Edwards questioned. Others commented that at last the Ice Maiden had melted. Or, was it a ploy to gain sympathy?

Women in leadership cannot cry without raising a storm of commentary. When I held a press conference to announce that I would not be seeking a fourth term as Governor, it was an emotional moment for me. Was I doing the right thing by leaving my position, voluntarily? As I stood at the top of the stairs, waiting to go down to the first floor of the Vermont State House where the press was gathered, I told myself, "Don't cry, whatever you do, don't cry."

I got through it without a tear, until the very end when I looked at my weepy staff. I reached for a handkerchief, just in case. That's when the camera flash went off. That was the photo they used. I hated it.

When women and men can shed an equal quantity of tears in public, that's when we'll have equal power.

Read the original article on The Huffington Post.

Madeleine M. Kunin is the author of Pearls, Politics, and Power: How Women Can Win and Lead.

Where Are The Women?

Monday, November 8th, 2010

I already miss Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

During the President's state of the union addresses it was reassuring to see her sitting behind him. It will take some time for me to get used to John Boehner, not only because of his different politics, but also because once again, the Congress is returning to an old boys club.

The House Republican leadership, known as Boehner's boys, is - well, yes, boys. Nancy Pelosi is running for minority leader, so there may be one female face in the huddles around microphones in Congress.

But for the first time in 30 years, the number of women in the U.S. House of Representatives is likely to drop.

In 2010 women comprised 17% of the Congress, giving us the distinction of placing 73rd - yes - 73rd - in the world.

The Republican sweep was the big story of the mid-term election, but a sub-text is that it was not a good year for female candidates of either party.

Yes, women got a lot of press, and much of it was not good. Extreme candidates like Christine O'Donnell in Delaware, Sharron Angle in Nevada and Linda McMahon in Connecticut didn't make it. Wealthy candidates, Meg Whitman and Carly Fiorina, who spent bundles of their own money, didn't succeed in California. But the perception was that women were running everywhere. In fact, a few more women ran for office, but a few less won.

Republican women, like Republican men, did better than before. In 2010, 56 democratic and 17 republican women have been in the House. That proportion will change slightly as seven new Republican and four new democratic women will take their seats. A Republican woman, Kelly Ayotte, was elected to the Senate from New Hampshire.

News was made in South Carolina, which had the distinction of having zero women in the state Senate, but now has made history by electing a Republican woman of color as Governor.

The first woman of color from Alabama was elected to the U.S. House.

The conclusion of this election cycle is that there was a lot of noise about female candidates, but not much action.

We had assumed that women were making progress towards the goal of equal representation. The numbers tell us, we have to work harder, to inspire more women to run, at every level. Coming off of one of the most negative campaign seasons in history, this may be a hard sell.

Our only alternative is to give political leadership back to the boys, and so far, they haven't done all that well in responding to America's hopes and fears. No mater how nasty politics is, and it's not about to change soon, women and men have to work for more women to win more seats at the tables where the decisions about jobs, global warming, education, health care will be made. We can't afford to be marked "absent."

Read the original article on The Huffington Post.

Madeleine M. Kunin is the author of Pearls, Politics, and Power: How Women Can Win and Lead, available now.

Don't Ask, Don't Tell

Thursday, September 23rd, 2010

The Senate vote against the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” was more than a repudiation of equal rights for our gay and lesbian citizens; it was downright unpatriotic.

I know we in Vermont have high expectations on this subject, having been the first state to create civil unions ten years ago and more recently, we were the first state to give legislative approval to legalize gay marriage, even over-riding a Governor’s veto. Since then, the majority of Americans have come a long way. Vermont is no longer alone. Polls indicate that 57% of Americans believe that gays and lesbians should be allowed to serve openly in the military.

Still, why not let people serve their country when they are eager and qualified to do so? The argument that allowing these men and women to be open about their sexual identity might weaken our military strength does not stand up under scrutiny. Rather, the opposite argument is more credible—we are losing thousands of talented people with special skills, like translators, which undercut our military capability. Besides, when have lying and secrecy been highly regarded values in this country? That is exactly what we force these gay men and women to do in order to retain their right to serve under”don’t ask don’t tell.”

It’s hard to take seriously the claim that military preparedness would suffer if “don’t ask, don’t tell” were repealed when both Secretary of Defense Gates and Chairman of the Join Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mullen, have supported it.

Susan Collins, who voted for the repeal in Armed Services Committee, voted against the bill when it came to the Senate floor with an impassioned speech about procedure. It is difficult to accept that excuse when no Republican voted for the bill—once again falling into the lock step of Republican opposition to any Democratic or Obama initiative—regardless of the merits of the legislation. We’ve seen this video before.

Republicans and anti-gay groups can claim a short term victory by defeating this measure. It is a pyrrhic victory which will haunt Republicans when the light of history will shine on them. This is a defeat, not for Democrats, who will rally to this cause once again, but it is a defeat for what this country should stand for—to permit every citizen the equal right to serve his or her country without having to wear a virtual burka to cover their own identity.

That, to me, is un-American.

This article appeared originally on The Huffington Post.