Madeleine May Kunin

Madeleine Kunin
Madeleine Kunin

Time Period

1940 to Today

Subject Categories

Government / Politics

Notable Facts

Was elected the first female Governor of Vermont (1984), and held this post for three terms. Served on many government Councils on issues of women, education, and the environment at the state level, and at the national level under the Clinton Administration. Founded the VT-based Institute for Sustainable Communities. Was appointed U.S. Ambassasador to Switzerland (1996). Has held appointments at Middlebury College, Saint Michael's College, University of Vermont.

Personal Information

Date of Birth


Primary Residence






Historical Significance

Madeleine May Kunin made both state and national history in 1984. That was the year the media dubbed "The Year of the Woman" because the Democrats had nominated Geraldine Ferraro to be Vice-President, a first, and more women than ever before were running for state-wide offices, including ten for the U.S. Senate. But, as Election Day came to a close, women had not achieved the anticipated gains. Ronald Reagan won in a landslide. Only the incumbent Republican woman, Nancy Kassenbaum, took a Senate seat. The bright spot was in Vermont where Madeleine May Kunin became the first woman Governor, the third Democrat elected Governor in Vermont, and the fourth woman in U.S. history to achieve this office in her own right.

Trained as a journalist, Madeleine May Kunin had not planned on a career in politics. Like many women, her political activism started in her own neighborhood. In 1972 she was encouraged to run for a seat in the Vermont House of Representatives. Serving for three terms, she was elected to the leadership position of majority whip and appointed as Chair of the important budget-writing Appropriations Committee. She was elected Lieutenant Governor in 1978 and 1980. When Governor Snelling said he would not run again in 1982, she immediately declared her candidacy, and although he changed his mind, she stayed in that difficult race. She did not win, but her credible campaign served her well when seeking the governor's office again in 1984.

In a tight race against the Republican Attorney General, John Easton, she focused on her extensive experience and setting a new direction for Vermont. This included improving education at all levels and making environmental protection a priority. After she won, the first order of business, however, was to restrain spending so that the state's significant deficit would be eliminated. By 1986 the deficit was replaced with a surplus.

In a departure from tradition, Governor Kunin devoted her 1986 state-of-the-state address to the sole topic of education. Within months of taking office she acted to make kindergarten available to all Vermont children. She rarely visited a town in Vermont without visiting a school. She secured enactment of a new state aid formula that provided a greater share to schools most in need. She proposed sharing between high property wealth and low property wealth towns, and while that concept did not pass during her terms, it provided the basic concept behind Act 60, which passed as a result of the Vermont Supreme Court's Brigham decision. She also called for improvements in school facilities, teacher salaries and libraries. In 1990, Forbes Magazine named her one of the nation's top ten Governors for education.

One of her most significant achievements is Act 200, which provides for an integrated land use planning process at the local and regional level. This comprehensive legislation, intended to complement Act 250, Vermont's premier environmental law, was highly controversial at the time. In Governor Kunin's words, this law was "about a vision - a vision of the future of Vermont which holds onto its fundamentally rural character and close sense of community". Another hallmark of her tenure is Vermont's very successful Housing and Conservation Trust Fund that has conserved thousands of acres of land and provided for much needed affordable housing.

Governor Kunin is probably most thought of as a visionary environmental leader. She has a long list of accomplishments in that area. She took actions to protect Vermont's rivers and streams from both direct discharges and from septic discharges; she established a system of classifications for the state's rivers to ensure the preservation of high water quality. She created a mini-superfund to deal with hazardous waste removal as well as a comprehensive waste management program to reduce waste at the source and to encourage removal as well as a comprehensive waste management program to reduce waste at the source and to encourage recycling. She dealt with the environmental threat from underground storage tanks through a program of inspection, removal and replacement. And, long before the spotlight was on global warming, her energy plan called for reductions in greenhouse gas emissions and reduction in per capita energy use through greater energy efficiency.

With families and children in mind, Governor Kunin launched the highly successful Dr. Dynasaur program that provides poor children with access to health care and she introduced the innovative “Reach-Up” Program that provides critical support services for women to move from welfare to work. Recognizing that court proceedings involving families and young children, required special procedures and resources, she provided leadership to the successful effort to establish a family court in Vermont.

During her tenure, up to Forty-five percent of the top jobs in government were held by women. These included a number of firsts such as the first woman Secretary of Transportation and the first woman to serve as Commissioner of Forests, Parks and Recreation not only in Vermont but also in the country. She appointed the first women Justice of the Vermont Supreme Court, Denise Johnson. When she took office, women held about 24% of the positions on the numerous boards and commissions essential to government operation in Vermont. By 1990 that number had jumped to 40%.

Following her career in Vermont, Madeleine Kunin went on to a distinguished career in the federal government. After serving as one of three directors for the transition of President-elect William Clinton, she joined his Administration first as Deputy Secretary of Education and then as United States Ambassador to Switzerland. She was born in Switzerland and fled that country as a child with her widowed mother and brother as the Nazis advanced in Europe.

One of her most poignant experiences occurred as Ambassador when, working with the Swiss government to uncover bank accounts of Holocaust victims and their surviving families, she found an account in her mother’s name. Upon leaving office in 1991 Governor Kunin founded The Institute for Sustainable Communities, ( an international organization, built on Vermont’s ethic of civic participation as the best way to create better communities. ISC works across the globe on problems ranging from environmental degradation to AIDS education and prevention. In 1994 Alfred A. Knopf published her autobiography, Living a Political Life. She has held appointments at Middlebury College, Saint Michael’s College and the University of Vermont where she is presently a Marsh Scholar.

Organizations or Movements

  • Democratic Party
  • National Environmental Education and Training Foundation
  • Institute of Sustainable Communities
  • American Academy of Arts and Sciences


  • Politician
  • U.S. Ambassador


  • B.A., University of Massachusetts, Amherst
  • M.S., Columbia
  • M.A. in English, University of Vermont

Additional Information (Bibliography)

  • Biography- UVM Link

  • "Those Indomitable Vermont Women", essay by Jane Oberg and Virginia Brown Link

  • "The Legacy of Madeleine Kunin" interview; Rickey Gard Diamond Link

  • "Living a Political Life" (1993) autobiography

  • Kunin archives; Dept. of Education Link

  • Women in the Legislature Link

  • Duffy, John, eds. "Madeleine May Kunin." In The Vermont Encyclopedia. University Press of New England, 2003.