Not since Ethan Allen captured a British fortress without firing a shot 210 years ago has any Vermont leader so bested the establishment's odds as Madeleine M. Kunin, new governor of the nation's most rock-ribbed and rural state.

It's more than that she is one of only two women governors in the country. Her triumph reads like an Irving Wallace fantasy: an immigrant Jewish woman Democrat rules flinty Yankee Vermont.

Kunin is living refutation of the Green Mountain Boys' smug old adage that you can't get here from there. It took awhile, including a 1982 gubernatorial defeat, but at 51, Kunin has arrived.

Ever since Kunin's widowed mother brought her son and daughter to America in 1940 from Nazi-dominated Europe, the governor recalled recently, "I felt this sense of optimism that you could do anything. My mother felt very strongly about that for the two of us. The whole Horatio Alger myth was alive and well as far as we were concerned. I think everyone who comes here, who has the immigrant experience, brings a certain set of values for life that you carry with you."

Although Kunin "never directly applied the myth to myself, as a girl, as a woman, I think, indirectly, it did affect me. I think it also left me with sympathy for the underdog -- some kind of social conscience, which I think is important."

Kunin, the first woman chief executive in the state's history, and only its third Democratic governor, was born in Zurich, the second child and only daughter of a Swiss shoe importer. Her father died when she was 3, and she and her older brother, Edgar May (her maiden name), grew up in straitened circumstances. In June 1940, as France was falling to Hitler's Wehrmacht, her mother fled to Italy.

With 3,000 other Jews, the family jammed aboard the S.S. Manhattan, a liner with 900 berths. It was the last ship allowed to leave Genoa with Jews aboard. Kunin doesn't remember the tension. "It was an adventure as far as I was concerned."

Met in New York by relatives, the family settled in Forest Hills, "probably in Gerry Ferraro's district." Kunin's Swiss background faded quickly. Today, her original German is firmly a second language, with French a distant third. ("I can go to the store, but carrying on a political conversation is different.") The family later moved to Pittsfield, a small Berkshire Mountains city in western Massachusetts, where she finished high school.

Kunin graduated from the University of Massachusetts, studied journalism at Columbia, and applied for a reporting job at The Washington Post, but went to The Burlington (Vt.) Free Press instead. The Post seems to have been interested in a woman to cover society news. Says Kunin with sardonic diplomacy: " Vermont was one of the few places where I got a general assignment job that was not limited."

After a year covering local school boards and city councils, she shifted to local television. She met and married Dr. Arthur Kunin, a kidney specialist who now teaches at the University of Vermont Medical School.

Meanwhile, older brother Edgar, a Northwestern University graduate, had also become a reporter, winning a Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting at The Buffalo Evening News. "It was the year my daughter was born, so I think it was 1961," she recalls. (It was.) Adhering to the family penchant for emulation, he is now a Vermont state senator.

The decade proceeded: four children, a graduate degree in English, volunteer work -- a life identical to millions of other bright, talented American women's lives. "I had my first child and stopped working. Then I did a lot of volunteer things in the community, got a master's degree between children, and did some free-lance writing. My husband went to Harvard for two years, and I did some part-time public relations work at Boston University . . . But it was just bits and pieces . . ." And something was missing.

When her husband got a sabbatical and the family spent 1970 in her native Switzerland, she found what it was. Despite its progressive reputation, Switzerland was medieval when it came to women's rights. In 1970, Swiss women still could not vote in federal elections, or many cantonal (state) elections. Kunin, who had been reading Betty Friedan and other feminists, was drawn to the Swiss women activists.

"I went to several meetings and here was a chance to relive the suffragist movement, which I had always wanted to do anyway. I got caught up in it, and I thought, 'These women care passionately about these issues and we American women have taken them for granted.' I thought, 'American women really haven't fully taken advantage of the right to vote.' So when I came back, I was ready to go.

"A women's political caucus had just started in Burlington, so I got involved with that. It was ironic, because Switzerland was so much more behind, but yet it did mobilize me."

In 1972, Democrat Kunin won a Burlington seat in the legislature. She won two more two-year terms, filling increasingly important minority leadership posts. She won the lieutenant governorship in 1978 and 1980 while Republican Richard Snelling was winning the governorship.

Snelling decided not to seek reelection in 1982, but changed his mind after Kunin announced and looked like an easy winner. Instead, Snelling defeated her. Kunin, naturally, has an optimistic view of this. "If I hadn't gotten strong support two years ago to run a good race, I wouldn't have been in a position to run this time. Women must be prepared to try again and not be discouraged by losing."

Kunin won the governorship by just 62 votes more than the 50 percent Vermont law requires. No matter how narrow her victory over Republican State Attorney General John Easton, her two-year term offers challenge and opportunity. Vermont (pop. 530,000) faces a $35 million budget deficit that will squeeze Kunin's efforts to improve education aid and her attempts to offer incentives to businesses to settle in depressed areas of the remote Northeast Kingdom.

She also must seek solutions to the sharp new disputes breaking out between Vermont's staunch conservationist movement and vacation resort owners pressing for huge new expansion of their ski and year-round recreation facilities. Although these are severe problems, Kunin takes office in exceptional circumstances: For the first time in state history, the Vermont Senate is in Democratic hands, and as if to prove the state's national reputation for civilized, topsy-turvy political independence, the Republican-controlled lower house has elected a Democrat as speaker.

In her inaugural address, Kunin paid tribute to the underdog and to the women's movement. "I recognize that I was able to raise my right hand before you this afternoon only because so many women had raised their voices long before my words were spoken," she declared.

America's "limitless dream," she told her audience in this diminutive, cupolaed statehouse, "must continue to beckon to the next generation." Vermonters should reject "the harsh theory of survival of the fittest . . . Our task is to be both prudent and humane. We cannot accept the status quo."

Speaking privately earlier, Kunin said, "Governors have had to deal with difficult financial times, and have really not been able to avoid those tough decisions. As a woman, there are no simple solutions or simple answers. It's not a question of getting the right media expert, or the right slogan, or any of those things. If my gubernatorial race proves anything, it is that experience means a lot, and that you have to build up strong credibility as a candidate based on everything else, not just being a woman. Based on your stand on the issues, on your ability to do the job.

" Nevertheless I think you do have a special hurdle to overcome. Sometimes, I think the whole point of a woman running for high office, when that hasn't been achieved before, is to get people to really look at you for who you are and to put the whole gender question aside. That's easier said than done, because it doesn't really work that way. But that's what you want to achieve.

"In a sense, I think that's what I achieved -- that I could get people to focus on my qualifications and the issues, and that diminishes the obstacle of gender. The hurdle is mostly there because of lack of precedent. I don't think it's in and of itself a bias. I think it's a bias because nobody's used to the idea. Fifty years from now, it'll be less of a novelty."