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February 8, 2021, marks the 100th anniversary of Vermont’s ratification of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution ... coming almost six months after its adoption and after women had voted in November 1920.

Today, as two women, Jill Krowinski and Rebecca Balint, assume the most powerful positions in the Vermont Legislature, it is well to remember that this is the hundredth anniversary of women’s legislative debut.

Contrary to its liberal constitution and recent history of progressive change, Vermont lagged behind the nation on women’s suffrage for decades. Legislators ridiculed suffragists, claimed that women in their towns did not want the vote, and attempted to raise the poll tax to accommodate female voters. In 1917 they finally approved the right for taxpaying women to vote in municipal elections, after 11 states in the West as well as New York had passed full suffrage for women.

By 1920 a groundswell of Vermont women demanded the vote, but Governor Percival W. Clement, a perennial opponent of both suffrage and prohibition, was adamantly opposed. Equally dismayed were women in the Vermont League Opposed to Suffrage, who argued that politics would besmirch women’s moral influence and compromise their nonpartisan social reform work. Legislators finally passed presidential suffrage in the 1919 session, but Clement vetoed the bill, and they failed to override his action.

As part of the national strategy to finalize the amendment by making Vermont the “Perfect 36” and last state required to ratify, the Vermont Equal Suffrage Association organized a massive campaign of letters and petitions urging Clement to call a special session of the legislature for that purpose. Upon Clement’s refusal, Lillian Olzendam of Woodstock orchestrated the largest non-violent protest in Vermont’s history on April 21, 1920, when 400 women paraded silently through Montpelier and converged on the State House to meet with the governor. Co-organizer Ann Batchelder, also of Woodstock, rallied 1,600 women to sign petitions and letters to the governor advocating ratification of the amendment.

Clement’s stance notwithstanding, women’s suffrage became a reality on August 26, 1920, after Tennessee became the “Perfect 36.” By November, over 28,000 Vermont women had registered to vote, expanding the electorate by a third. They helped elect a pro-suffrage G.O.P. governor and Vermont’s first woman legislator, Edna Louise Beard of Orange. Beard helped approve both the 19th Amendment and an amendment to the Vermont Constitution that replaced “man” with “person” in the requirement to take the Freeman’s Oath.

Neither Beard nor Olzendam remained politically active for long, but women’s legislative representation grew steadily over the last hundred years, outpacing national trends. Today it is approximately 42.2 percent, but Vermont is the only state that has not sent a woman to Congress.

Historian Marilyn Blackwell of East Montpelier is a member of the Vermont Suffrage Centennial Alliance organized under the leadership of the League of Women Voters of Vermont. The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of the Brattleboro Reformer.

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