Vermont behind the times on women's suffrage
It has been less than 100 years since the 19th Amendment to the United States Constitution granted women the right to vote in state and national elections. In the 1800s, here in Vermont, women's rights were very limited. Property, personal and voting rights did not exist for women in the early 19th century. Local woman Clarina Nichols worked to change that reality. Nichols was Vermont's first well-known female leader for reform on women's issues.
In the 1840s, Nichols was the editor of the local newspaper, the Windham County Democrat. She wrote editorials that argued for women's rights, African American rights, children's rights, and prohibition.
Her advocacy led to a change in Vermont law for married women. In 1847 the Vermont Legislature passed statutes which established more rights for women. Married women gained the right to own property, write their own wills and protect themselves from the debts of their husbands.
In 1851 Nichols went on the national stage for women's rights by giving a speech at the 2nd National Women's Rights Convention in Worcester, Massachusetts. She argued for women's property rights and the right of women to legally leave abusive relationships.
In 1852 Nichols was the first woman to speak in front of the Vermont Legislature, arguing for the right of women to vote. The Legislature applauded her presentation, but did not act upon her request. Nichols continued to speak out and became a popular lecturer throughout New England. She argued effectively for women's rights, temperance and abolition.
In 1853 Nichols spoke at the National Women's Convention in New York City. When asked to explain why she wanted to be able to vote she replied, "I want to have this power because I am deprived of the power of protecting myself and my children."
Nichols' arguments for women's rights often centered on safety, equality and the well-being of children. Her approach was family-centered and sometimes came into conflict with other leaders of the women's rights movement
Nichols was friends with many prominent women's rights advocates like Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony and Lucy Stone. She actually arranged for Lucy Stone's first paid suffrage/abolitionist speech, which occurred here in Brattleboro in the late 1840s.
Some of the disputes between the leaders of the Women's Rights Movement centered on strategy. What was the best way to keep pushing for women's rights? All of the leaders wanted to reach the ultimate goal of equality for women but they didn't always agree on how best to get there.
Some leaders thought working from the bottom up was best. They advocated pressuring individual states to change their discriminatory laws directed towards women. Others argued for a top down strategy, which meant passing an amendment to the United States Constitution. This would make all states comply, but required a coordinated national effort at a time when letter writing was the only way to communicate long distance.
Nichols became frustrated with Vermont's slow progress on women's issues and, in 1854, she moved her family to Kansas, where she supported the Free Soil Movement and worked for women's rights. Her work advocating for women's issues helped ensure that married women's property and child custody rights were included in the Kansas constitution. As a result, some historians have referred to her as the "Mother of Kansas."
As the years went on, not much changed for Vermont women. In 1880 the Vermont Legislature passed a law which allowed women to vote in local school elections. Advocates had continued Nichols' argument that women should have more say in the raising of their children, including who should serve on the school boards that were responsible for teaching Vermont's students.
The first attempt at amending the US Constitution to include women's voting rights was introduced in the Senate in 1878. Individual western states like Wyoming, Colorado, Washington and California began passing laws establishing women's suffrage in their states.
Women in Vermont persisted in their fight for voting rights in state and federal elections, but continued to be frustrated. Meanwhile, other New England states were passing laws which allowed women to vote.
It all came to a head in 1919. The Vermont Governor Percival Clement was opposed to women's suffrage. The Vermont Senate was in favor, and the Vermont House narrowly supported a bill that would allow women to vote in presidential elections. The governor vetoed the bill, the Vermont Senate voted to override the veto and the Vermont House of Representatives did not have enough votes to override the governor, so the bill did not become Vermont law.
Locally, Brattleboro's representative in the Vermont House was a strong advocate for the bill. George Dunham had chaired the House Committee on Suffrage and Elections, and favorably reported the bill out of committee. Dunham gave a speech on the House floor that outlined the upward progress of women from practical slavery to their present status as second class citizens, and argued that granting Vermont women the right to vote would continue the positive trend for women on their road to equality. However, Vernon's Ernest Dunklee spoke for many representatives when he said he believed "women's suffrage would only be an extra burden on women, which I am not sure that they want." In that vein, Burlington's representative agreed with Dunklee, and Putney's representative, Edward Aiken, said, "I fear that woman suffrage may mean man's suffering." Aiken's statement drew laughs from many men in the assembly and the attempt to override the Governor's veto failed. Edward Aiken was Vermont politician George Aiken's father.
In the same year, 1919, the U.S. government passed the 19th Amendment and three quarters of the states were required to ratify the amendment before it could become law. Vermont advocates for the amendment asked the governor to call a special meeting of the Legislature so Vermont could be the state to ratify the amendment and cause it to become the law of the land. Governor Clement refused, stating it would cost too much and, in August 1920, Tennessee became the final vote to establish women's suffrage in all state and federal elections.
In the following election, Vermont women took immediate advantage of their right to vote and elected James Hartness as governor. Hartness had advocated for the 19th Amendment, while the other candidate had been supported by former Governor Percival Clement, the man who vetoed the Vtermont bill that would have granted women the right to vote. According to estimates, Hartness received about 75 percent of the women's vote in the governor's election. About 10,000 Vermont women voted in that first election of 1920.
Windham County's Clarina Nichols was one of many women who began agitating for women's rights in the 1840s, and it was almost 80 years later that women finally gained the right to vote. One hundred years ago Vermont's government did not lead in this struggle for women's equality.
Brattleboro Historical Society: 802-258-4957, https://brattleborohistoricalsociety.org/
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