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Now Is the Time for Women, Governor Says

Reflecting on her two decades in politics, Vermont's chief executive urges more women to enter the fray. INTERVIEW: MADELEINE KUNIN

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KUNIN made her debut in the political arena in 1972 when she was elected to the Vermont House of Representatives. After a six-year stint, she was elected lieutenant governor in 1978, and reelected two years later. In 1982 she was defeated in a race for governor against incumbent Republican Richard Snelling, but came back to win the office in 1984.

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Kunin believes a woman brings to any political office a strong feeling for certain issues because of her personal experience. In her early political career, Kunin's experience as a mother helped spur her to get local legislation passed, she says.

``My first foray in the political world - and I didn't know it - was really local issues,'' she says. ``One was to get a flashing red light at a railway crossing so I wouldn't have to worry about my children on their way to school. I didn't think I would achieve that, but I did. I got a petition and public hearing and went through all the steps necessary to do that, and I realized that I had the capacity on the small scale to make something happen. And that's how you begin.''

She says the political climate is becoming more inviting for women as many of the domestic issues gaining importance are ones women are well versed in.

``I think the post-cold war era and the emergence of the democracy movement and the emergence of the global environment movement is an excellent time for women to move in in huge throngs. I also think the whole debate about abortion will encourage a lot of women to become political,'' she says.

During her terms, Kunin helped move a significant number of women into Vermont government. The state ranks third in the country - after New Hampshire and Maine - for the largest number of women legislators, according to the Center for the American Woman and Politics at Rutgers University in New Jersey. ``I think that using her visibility in her position of leadership on behalf of advancing women in politics is one very distinctive feature of her personality and her career,'' says Ruth Mandel, director of the center.

Kunin says there is no single formula for women to succeed in politics.

``I think if there is a general quality it is the desire to change something - to create some sort of change, political change - and then to find the courage to do it. And, I think you have to be resilient. ... You have to not be easily discouraged.

``But it is enormously rewarding and exciting. I certainly strongly encourage others to take such steps. I think women often underestimate their own abilities and their own confidence in this area as well as a lot of other areas, and that when they do step into the political arena, they are usually very well received.''

The slender governor, who radiates a quiet confidence, says she is stepping down after almost two decades in public office to concentrate more on the issues that interest her. Besides plans to reflect and write a book, she wants to get involved with global environmental issues and encourage more women to get involved in politics.

Her advice for aspiring women politicians? ``Start slowly to build up confidence, and value your volunteer and community experience, because those often demand the same skill as political organizing does.''