TWELVE of Vermont's former governors - all men - peer stoically from portraits on each wall of her state house office here. But Swiss immigrant-turned three-time governor Madeleine Kunin seems undaunted by their presence. ``You look at all these men here, and they didn't think that I'd be here, but they didn't think that Nelson Mandela would be there either, or Vaclav Havel,'' says Mrs. Kunin, a Democrat who was elected the first woman governor of this rural, traditionally Republican state in 1984.
During an interview in Vermont's small, gold-domed capitol building in this city of about 9,000, the poised and eloquent chief executive of the Green Mountain State talked about her experience as a woman in politics, and how women bring a unique perspective and intensity to public office and to so-called ``women's issues.'' The increasing importance of these issues in a post-cold war era makes now a ripe time for women to move into politics, she says.
Kunin, who decided in April not to run for a fourth term, made what traditionally have been known as women's issues - the environment, education, and human services - a priority in her three terms. During her administration, Vermont passed strict environmental legislation on water quality, land conservation, and waste management, and she is credited with increasing state aid to education and child-care programs.
Vermont has received national recognition this year for efforts on these goals: the Children's Defense Fund rated it as the No. 1 state for children's services, and a North Carolina regional policy organization ranked it No. 1 for environmental health. Recently, Fortune Magazine named Kunin one of the nation's 10 ``education governors.''
Although she has been criticized within the state as a poor manager during flush fiscal years and for stating ambitious goals without following through, the Vermont leader says she will retire in January with a sense of accomplishment.
``She'll be regarded fondly as a person who retired the deficit, as a person with a strong commitment to energy, environment, education, and women's issues,'' says Garrison Nelson, a political scientist at the University of Vermont in Burlington.
Part of what has shaped Kunin's goals and philosophies is her background. A Jewish immigrant, she fled Europe and came to New York City with her mother and brother in 1940 when she was six.
``The whole proximity to the Holocaust ... strongly influenced my values and my thinking,'' she says, settling into her chair. ``I think it has made me even more appreciate the democratic system and the openness of it.''
After graduating from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and then Columbia University's School of Journalism, Kunin worked for a year as a reporter for the Burlington Free Press in Burlington, Vt. In 1959 she married Arthur Kunin and followed the traditional women's role of staying home and raising children.
But in 1970, as the women's movement in the US was gaining momentum, this homemaker and mother of four spent a year in Switzerland with her family and physician-husband on sabbatical. While there, she came face to face with the Swiss women's struggle for the right to vote.
``It was like opening up a page of history of our suffrage - only in a much more calm manner. I watched some of these debates on television, and I went to some women's suffrage meetings, and then I realized that we'd had the right to vote since 1920 and that we really hadn't done much - we hadn't elected many women to public office. So I met some elected women and I just was determined when I got home to the US that I would get involved in politics,'' she says.
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.
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.''