Vermont and the Fight for Suffrage

2020 marks an important election anniversary for the United States of America: it marks 100 years since women won the right to vote. That’s 25 presidential elections that most women have been able to vote in since the passage of the 19th Amendment, as well as many important federal and local elections. To mark this important anniversary, we are exploring what this journey was like right here in the Champlain Valley and the complexities of the movement. Today, we dig into the fight for suffrage in Vermont.

Although a small, rural state, citizens of Vermont contributed to the suffrage movement in significant ways. At the beginning of the 1800s, the Champlain Valley was home to a vibrant community of Quakers who practice a religious tradition that granted women increased agency, including support for wider education. Emma Willard, though not a quaker herself, opened a school in Middlebury in 1814, teaching girls about geography and history and kickstarting a cultural shift toward greater education for women.

Like many early American women activists, Emma Willard did not directly advocate for suffrage, but her actions gave women the tools and agency to do so in later generations. Her first school opened in Middlebury in 1814. She later founded a school in Troy, New York, which has educated scores of famous activists since the 1820s.

Image Credit: The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Photography Collection, The New York Public Library. “Emma Willard.” The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1860 – 1920. http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47d9-b764-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99

Temperance was the issue that first gave women political agency in Vermont. Although it began through a strategy of “moral suasion” – encouraging neighbors and relatives to change their behavior through social pressure – the temperance efforts eventually led to statewide prohibition in Vermont in 1853. Many pro-liquor groups associated female suffrage activists with temperance societies, and assumed that women would vote for increased prohibition of alcohol. This remained a wedge-issue right up to the 19th amendment and the Prohibition Era itself.

During the later part of the 1800s, Vermont evolved into a socially conservative state, but the nuanced politics of the time meant that many reforms originated within conservative groups, especially white women’s organizations. Most women suffrage leaders were both conservative and progressive, and saw themselves as moving American culture forward while sheltering it from outside influences. The movements both for strong anti-liquor laws and for women’s municipal suffrage waxed and waned in the state. Temperance and suffrage efforts in Vermont came together with the national suffrage movement throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Vermont governor Percival Clement ultimately vetoed ratification of the 19th amendment in 1919, fearing that enfranchising women would lead to a return to temperance in Vermont. Instead of making history, Vermont did not ratify it until February of 1921.

This post is part of a series, Women’s Suffrage in the Champlain Valley. Read the previous post here. This series continues with: New York and the Fight for Suffrage.

In her attempt to write a social history of Vermont during the 1850s and 60s, Abby Hemenway encountered resistance from Middlebury College faculty who had been working on the same project for decades but had made little progress. They claimed it was not work for women. Nonetheless, Hemenway traveled to surrounding towns and convinced them one by one to support her project. Although she separated herself from the budding notion of women’s right, which was too radical for even the progressive abolitionist population of the county, her combination of tact and social pressure was successful from town to town. When she denied any radical motives to Rowland T. Robinson of Ferrisburgh, he replied to her: “thee knows too much to admit it; but thee does what is better than to say it, thee acts it.”

Image Credit: Abby Hemenway. Portrait, ca. 1860. Courtesy of the Vermont Historical Society and David Hemenway.

Clarina Nichols was an early women’s rights reformer in Vermont for causes including abolition, temperance, and the women’s rights. Nichols helped remove some restrictions on women’s rights in Vermont in the 1840s and 50s (including the right to divorce and to bequeath and inherit property) before becoming a leader in Kansas. She was the first woman to speak in the Vermont House Chambers, and was honored by Madeleine Kunin in her 1985 Inaugural Address as first female Governor of Vermont.

Image Credit: Clarina L. Howard Nichols. Engraving in History of Woman Suffrage in Three Volumes, by Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, and Matilda Joslyn Gage. Publish Susan B. Anthony: Rochester N.Y., 1887. p.193. Public Domain, Accessed from Wikipedia February 11, 2020.

The Woman’s Christian Temperance Union of Vermont (seen here in Newfane, VT) was founded to advocate against alcohol. They embraced the suffrage movement in the 1880s partially on the belief that most women would vote for further prohibition of intoxicating liquors.

Image Credit: Ladies Temperance, Newfane, Vt. Photograph, Porter C. Thayer Collection, 1910. Brooks Memorial Library. Accessed from Vermont Historical Society, and courtesy of Bill Thayer and the VHS.

During the late 1800s, an older generation of suffrage leaders found their movement stuck in a rut. Annette Parmalee, one of Vermont’s primary organizers, endeavored to maintain momentum for the movement until a younger generation reinvigorated the effort during the early 1900s.

Image Credit: “Annette Parmelee” Broadside Poster. Randolph Suffrage Club, 1914. Courtesy of the Vermont Historical Society.

After earlier strategies to argue for enfranchisement had worn thin, some Vermont women like Lucy Daniels (whose barn is pictured here) returned to an argument from the American Revolution: “No taxation without representation.” Lucy and her sister refused to pay taxes on their large property in Grafton, VT, which was eventually repossessed by the bank. They went on to play roles in the national push for the 19th amendment in Washington.

Image Credit: Overbrook, Houghtonville Road, Grafton VT. Photograph. In Five Dollars and a Jug of Rum, The History of Grafton, Vermont 1754 – 2000. Grafton Historical Society, 2000. p133. Courtesy of the Vermont Historical Society.

The issues of temperance and suffrage were intimately related in Vermont, with fears about alcohol prohibition stymying suffrage efforts at the state level right up to the passage of the 19th amendment. As this poster demonstrates, Republicans in Vermont were blocking ratification of the amendment, but it would ultimately be a Democratic governor, Percival Clement, who would veto the effort. Vermont did not ratify until February of 1921, missing its chance to be the deciding 36th state to ratify.

Image Credit: International Film Service Co., Inc. Party members picketing the Republican convention, Chicago, June . L-R Abby Scott Baker, Florence Taylor Marsh, Sue White, Elsie Hill, Betty Gram. June. Photograph. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, www.loc.gov/item/mnwp000306/.

The text and images here are originally from a Champlain Valley National Heritage Partnership traveling exhibit Women’s Suffrage in the Champlain Valley, researched and written by Lake Champlain Maritime Museum. For more information about the traveling exhibit, contact CVNHP: https://champlainvalleynhp.org/.