Kunin sees past generational, political divides in Pittsfield talk

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PITTSFIELD — One minute, she was praising 16-year-old environmental activist Greta Thunberg and ruminating on selfies. The next, she was commending 86-year-old Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and reflecting on 1950s attitudes towards gay rights.

During an hourlong question-and-answer session Monday night at Pittsfield's South Congregational Church, former Vermont Gov. and U.S. Ambassador to Switzerland Madeleine May Kunin articulated an ability to look across generational divides for both inspiration and insight.

Arriving nearly one year after the publication of Kunin's memoir, "Coming of Age: My Journey to the Eighties," the event was the latest edition of The Berkshire Eagle's Conversation Series and was held in cooperation with the church and the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at Berkshire Community College.

Throughout the evening, Kunin shared passages from her book and fielded questions from Berkshire Eagle Executive Editor Kevin Moran as well as audience members about writing, politics and aging. Early on, the 1952 Pittsfield High School graduate indicated that she was going to be candid.

"Now I have this total freedom, being away from politics, and I can say whatever I damn please," Kunin said, prompting a roar of laughter.

Recently, she has done so through her prose and verse; the book's chapters begin with poems, a few of which she read to the scores in attendance. While her latest book isn't "prescriptive," the 85-year-old Kunin hopes that her experiences with aging resonate with readers. She mentioned the importance of remaining curious and being open to adventure while also carrying the fear of "the dreadful fall."

"I think we all go through a transition as we age," she had said.

For Kunin, that shift included liberating herself from politics. Born in Zurich, Switzerland, Kunin began her professional life as a journalist, but the women's and environmental movements during the 1970s eventually drew her into the political sphere for decades to come. She became Vermont's first female governor, serving three terms from from 1985 to 1991. Moran described her as a "trailblazer."

"I've always had a passion for gender equality or opportunity," Kunin said.

Today, the author of "Pearls, Politics, and Power: How Women Can Win and Lead" helps women seeking public office through the Emerge Vermont program. She said that she wants to see a Congress that's at least 50 percent female.

The women vying for the Democratic presidential nomination have recently lifted Kunin's spirits. The Democrat isn't ready to formally support any of them or any other candidate, she said. But "informally," she's backing Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a candidate who is no stranger to selfies.

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"I think she's genuine, and I think people are looking for authenticity," Kunin said before adding, "The downside is: Is she too far left to win?"

Kunin said that the country should avoid veering toward the extremes. During her time as an ambassador from 1996 to 1999, Kunin was impressed with Swiss politicians' ability to work together.

"If we could have more consensus-building in government and less divisiveness like we see today, we'd have a better world," Kunin said.

Kunin is optimistic. One of her heroes is Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and she thinks that today's youth have what it takes to lead, citing Thunberg's climate change activism and the climate strikes around the globe as examples.

"It's remarkable," she said, noting that, in the past, young adults haven't always been so politically active.

Their views can evolve quite a bit; for instance, Kunin wasn't always the staunch gay-rights supporter that she is today.

"We didn't even know what gay meant in 1952," she recalled of a conversation between her and a Pittsfield High School classmate.

But listening must remain a constant. In some situations, Kunin feels that younger generations can ignore their elders.

"I'm just not regarded as a full person," said Kunin, who lives in Vermont and is a professor at large at the University of Vermont.

Older people can't get discouraged by this disrespect, she emphasized.

"We can continue to contribute," she said, "and we can continue to enjoy life and be good company."

Benjamin Cassidy can be reached at bcassidy@berkshireeagle.com, at @bybencassidy on Twitter and 413-496-6251.


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