Women Grasping the Thrill and Power of Political Engagement

05/30/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

I spoke recently to four different audiences in different parts of the country about my book, Pearls, Politics and Power: How Women Can Win and Lead.

The first speech was to about 700 men and women who are getting graduate degrees at an online university named Walden. They were gathering for four days in Atlanta to meet their professors and one another. About three quarters of the students were women, and more than half were African American. Almost all of the students were working, had families, and were engaged in a daily struggle to get it all done.

I spoke to one woman who came up to have her book signed. I asked about her life. "I have three children in college. I didn't have much time to play with them, but I made sure they went to college. Then I have a six year old." She laughed when she went on, "I don't know what happened, I must have fallen down or something."

What happened to the father? I asked. "Oh, he's in jail. He hasn't seen the children in sixteen years."

Her story was typical of my audience at Walden. I don't know enough about the quality of the degrees these women and men are working to receive, but I do know about the quality of their determination. As they gave me two standing ovations, (one after the speech and another after the question period) I applauded them and thanked them for letting me into their lives.

My second speech was to a different audience. It was at the annual fund raising luncheon of the Black Diamond Girl Scout Council In Charleston, West Virginia. Getting there from Burlington, Vermont was an adventure. The mountains in West Virginia do not have valleys between them; it's one mountain top after another with narrow roads carved between them. It must be dark down there, I thought, as the wind buffeted the plane about. I was glad when we were about to land, wheels down, and then suddenly as we approached the runway, the wheels went up.

"We hit some wind sheer," the pilot said in a matter of fact voice. "Looks like we'll have to go around again." The second time around, we landed. The women headed for the ladies room and admitted we had been scared.

The audience was mostly white with a good number of men. My applause lines and my jokes were not as uproarious as they had been in Atlanta. I had gotten accustomed to standing ovations. But several people came up to me and told me they loved my message. One young man was going to give my book to his wife. "She's just liked the woman you described. She's so talented, but thinks she always has to take more courses."

My point had been that women underestimate themselves, while men are more confident and can transfer their skills from one field to another. One of the group's benefactors, whose home we had been at for a reception the night before, compared the Girl Scouts luncheon to the Boy Scouts. "You should see the dinner we put on for them, much bigger than this." Inequality begins early.

Because it isn't easy to get in or out of Charleston, we had time for a tour of the imposing West Virginia State House, partly constructed out of white Vermont marble, I was thrilled to learn. Our guide was the young, newly elected Secretary of State, Natalie Tennant. Under the dome, she pointed out the commanding statue of Senator Robert Byrd, a much-worshipped figure in West Virginia.

Only after the lunch did it dawn on me what "The Black Diamond" Girl Scout Council meant: coal. I refrained from sharing my views on global warming.

The next speech was at a private Girls' preparatory school in Middlebury, Connecticut, called Westover. I was impressed that the architect had been a woman, Theodate Pope Riddle, and the landscape architect was also a woman. The school was celebrating its 100th anniversary. I first spoke to about a dozen students to answer their questions and encourage their political activism. Then I spoke to a gymnasium full of students and alumnae. It was a special thrill to speak to young women in grades 9-12 who were ready for my message -- that they had much to contribute to the world. I concluded with "You can create change, you will create change, and you must create change!" I had never said it that way before but I felt the need to reach out to them, and that they were resonating with my words. Again, two standing ovations.

It is a very rich feeling to connect with an audience on that level. It is worth all the effort of writing a book, going through security at endless airports, and waiting for delayed or cancelled flights.

My most recent talk was at a small Catholic college in Weston, Massachusetts called Regis, founded in 1927 by the Sisters of St. Joseph. It sits on a gorgeous, spring blossoming campus, but like small schools everywhere, it is experiencing financial difficulties, despite the valiant efforts of its President, Mary Jane England.

I had been invited to inaugurate a lecture series in memory of a Regis graduate who had been in the Massachusetts legislature, Barbara Kelleher Hyland. Her husband, children, family members, friends and classmates were there. It was a poignant moment.

I felt touched to speak in her memory. These were women (mostly) who were primed for my message of political engagement. I reached out to them, and they laughed at my jokes before I could finish the punch lines. We had a wonderful time together. One woman bought three of my books for her three nieces. Another bought one as a graduation gift for her daughter. Then, we ran out of books.

One extra treat was that I met a woman who had waitressed with me during our college summers near Tanglewood in Lenox, Massachusetts -- Ann Cummings. We brought so many memories back--the heavy trays, the time pressure to get guests served before the concert, and the tyranny of the chef in the kitchen. We both remembered the experience of serving "rare" roast beef. We'd bring an order into the kitchen for rare roast beef and the chef would yell, "You want it rare? I'll make it bloody rare!" He'd cut a slab of pale brown beef and ladle some beet juice over it. No one ever complained.

That's one of the unexpected thrills of book tours -- old friends show up and suddenly you embrace. Still much better than showing up on Facebook. I enjoy connecting with the audience, sending out my message, and hoping that it will be absorbed by a few who will take it home with them.

One woman at Regis told me, "I'm going to go to my city council meeting tonight. I'm disgusted with what they've been doing."

"Great", I said. "Tell me what happens."

This was originally posted at Chelsea Green.

Madeleine M. Kunin is the former Governor of Vermont and was the state's first woman governor. She served as Ambassador to Switzerland for President Clinton, and was on the three-person panel that chose Al Gore to be Clinton's VP. She is the author of Pearls, Politics, and Power: How Women Can Win and Lead from Chelsea Green Publishing.