The New Feminist Agenda
by Madeleine M. Kunin

Chelsea Green Publishing, 2012. ISBN 978-1-603-58425-8.
Reviewed by Penny Leisch
Posted on 05/30/2012

Nonfiction: History/Current Events; Nonfiction: Life Lessons; Nonfiction: Cultural/Gender Focus; Nonfiction: American Women in Their Cultural/Historical Context

The New Feminist Agenda, by Madeleine M. Kunin, reminds today's women and men that the feminist movement opened many doors. However, much work remains and it belongs to all of us, not just women. Kunin's latest work challenges readers to think about proven international solutions. She presents and explains potential alternatives in terms readers can understand. She talks to the family, about the family, from the perspective of a woman who didn't always have it all and made choices, as well as one who initiated and advocated for changes when her position provided the opportunities. It's not about feminism; it's a plan for the next phase of work that needs to follow the work done by the 60s feminists, who blazed the beginning of a long trail.

While families struggle to survive financially, according to Kunin's research, 44% of the members of Congress are millionaires, and the median net worth of Congressional members increased 15% from 2006 to 2010. Yet, the net worth for all Americans dropped 8% in the same period. A U.S. election took place in 2008, which puts half of that time before the current President took office and half after. This is not a short-term problem. It's obvious the members of Congress don't face the concerns and challenges of the average person, much less those of average families dealing with rising costs of childcare, unemployment, medical care, education, food, and shelter.

Making changes is never easy. Kunin points out that after WWI veterans weren't considered capable of attending college, and almost twenty-two years elapsed before the GI bill passed. Yet other countries provide more benefits and continue to outrank the U.S. in competitiveness, according to the World Economic Forum's Global competitiveness Index (2010-2011).

As former President Bill Clinton states, "She (the author) presents a convincing roadmap for how we achieve that vision and calls on all of us to be part of a brighter future." Kunin does a masterful job of evaluating the costs of not confronting the fact that the U.S. has not faced up to our problems. The child poverty rate is going up, not only because of the recession. At 22%, it's higher than it's been in two decades. As of December 2011, the U.S. Census Bureau information shows nearly one in two Americans are poor or low-income, and that includes 57% of the nation's children.

Childhood poverty in Nordic countries is the lowest in the world. The U.S. is six times higher, but we are wealthier than any of those countries. Clearly, there's a lot to learn from Kunin's research and global experience. Although you have to read the book to grasp the detail and research put into this work, here are eight rather shocking statistics.

  • The U.S. places 69th out of 178 countries for women in parliaments. Yet, women are nearly 60% of college undergraduates and 50% of medical and law students.
  • Incarceration in the U.S. is the highest in the world (nine times higher than Canada), without translating to greater safety for the people.
  • We rank lower than 30 other countries in a Global Test (PISA) of 15 year olds. (The U.S. is 17th in reading.)
  • In Newsweek's list of the 100 best countries, the U.S. ranks number 11.
  • The U.S. is the only wealthy country in the world that doesn't have paid leave to care for a newborn.
  • In infant mortality, 47 countries rank better than the U.S.
  • The U.S. ranks 12th among 36 developed countries in percentage of college graduates.
  • Out of 21 of the wealthiest countries, the U.S. is the only one not providing paid sick days for sick workers or those with an ill family member.

Kunin explores both sides of the issues and examines the impacts on business and government, as well as individuals and families. She offers detailed research, hard numbers, historical background, and explains possible solutions and compromises. There's a lot to digest, especially since Americans in the U. S. want to believe our country is different and better than other places. Kunin's information makes one wonder if a lack of exposure to other cultures and lifestyles simply makes us sitting ducks for anything politicians and the media want to sell us.

Businesses continue to say more benefits will hurt business. However, she also notes that when U.S. companies do business in nations with these policies, they can't "opt out." They actually provide non-American workers with benefits they don't provide to employees here. It's simply not true that they can't survive if they provide such benefits, or they wouldn't be operating in that country. Of course, most people don't know that.

The bottom line among all of the statistics is that there are answers, but nothing will happen until we decide what we want and then stand together. On the other hand, solutions exact a cost. Just as the plumber doesn't work for free, no one gets something for nothing. Kunin's ability to explain the mounds of information, as well as to point out how they apply to the reader personally, makes The New Feminist Agenda very readable.

Kunin takes a dry topic makes it almost exciting, while dissecting the governmental workings and historical facts along the way. In addition, she does a masterful job of looking at all sides and staying on track to explain, educate, and offer potential solutions. In the end, even though the term feminism is outdated, as more people demand change, Kunin's book may be the most important guideline available to help the U.S. forge a path toward long-term benefits for individuals and families.

Madeleine M. Kunin served as the first woman governor of Vermont. She also served as Deputy Secretary of Education and Ambassador to Switzerland under President Bill Clinton. Other books she wrote include Living a Political Life and Pearls, Politics & Power. Kunin is currently a Marsh Scholar Professor-at-Large at the University of Vermont and lectures on history and women's studies. In 1991, Kunin founded the Institute for Sustainable Communities (ISC), a nongovernmental organization, which focuses on climate change and civil society, where she serves as president of the board. She lives in Burlington, Vermont, with her husband, John Hennessey. Visit her website.

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