Women in Vermont Politics: During and Post Suffrage 1840-1940

By:  by Jack Zeilenga
Vt. Women's History Project, Vt. Historical Society

From 1840 to 1940, Vermont women struggled to gain equal political footing with their male counterparts, slowly making an impact on the politics of the state along the way.

Women's journey towards equality in Vermont began in the 1840s and early 1850s with the efforts of Clarina Howard Nichols. Her writings and subsequent testimony before the state legislature placed her in the middle of the growing struggle for women's rights and made her one of Vermont's pioneers in that struggle. Though Nichols' efforts did not immediately create the results she had hoped for, they sparked a movement in Vermont to increase the rights of women. While this effort was cooled both in Vermont and nationally by the Civil War, it would pick up momentum again in the late 1860s with the very real possibility of Vermont women gaining the right to vote.

After a Council of Censors voted positively in 1869 to include an amendment to the Vermont Constitution giving women full suffrage, to be voted in at the Constitutional Convention of 1870, the state saw tremendous effort by advocates in support of the amendment. However, after spending almost a year trying to influence popular opinion, the amendment was badly defeated at the Convention.

While this setback slowed the suffrage movement, it did not destroy it. In 1880 Vermont women finally begin to see change with a new law passed by the legislature giving tax-paying women the right to vote and hold office in school districts. With the establishment of the Vermont Woman Suffrage Association (later changed to the Vermont Equal Suffrage Association) in 1883, a statewide organization now existed and continued to push for female suffrage. The efforts of group members like Annette Parmelee and her determination guaranteed that the woman suffrage issue would remain a much debated topic in the newspapers and legislature. Efforts further paid off in 1900 with the passage of a law allowing women to serve as town treasurers, town librarians, and notaries public.

By 1917, support could no longer be contained and Vermont women gained the right to vote in municipal elections, providing the turning point for women to implement real change across the state. The passage of the Nineteenth Amendment to the US Constitution in 1920 gave Vermont women and their sisters nationally full suffrage in state and national elections and also the right to serve in local and national governments.

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