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Celebrating 100 Years of Suffrage

August 26, 2020, will be the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment guaranteeing women the right to vote. Beginning in the 1840s, the quest for women’s suffrage became the longest reform movement in U.S. history.

During those years suffragists were ridiculed for wearing bloomers, mocked for attending school meetings, and condemned for abandoning their domestic duties. Yet they persisted. As suffragist Doris Stevens concluded in 1920, “when all suffrage controversy has died away it will be the little army of women with their purple, white, and gold banners, going to prison for their political freedom that will be remembered.”

To commemorate this historic event, the League of Women Voters of Vermont has organized the Vermont Suffrage Centennial Alliance, a statewide coalition of groups and individual volunteers. The VSCA is dedicated to informing Vermonters about the long struggle to attain the vote, the controversies surrounding the movement, and its incomplete legacy. The organization hopes to inspire Vermonters to continue the quest for equal rights and citizenship today.

In addition to a series of programs throughout the year, the alliance plans a grand parade and picnic on the State House lawn on August 22, 2020. Tapping the expertise of writers, educators, and historians, the VSCA will tell the story of both national and Vermont suffragists through its website, social media outreach, and local events. “Votes for Women,” an exhibit developed at the Middlebury College Museum of Art, is already on display there until December 8.

In addition to Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, many other suffragists from different classes, races, generations, and regions participated in the movement. African-American women in particular have often been left out of the story. Former slave Sojourner Truth and reformer Mary Church Terrell, a founder of the National Association of Colored Women, were also outspoken suffragists. Moreover, after 1920 black and other minority women were still disenfranchised in many states based upon other legal restrictions.

In Vermont, the names of suffragists and the evolution of the movement are even more obscure, partly because the state was not in the forefront of expanding rights for women. Journalist Clarina Howard Nichols of Brattleboro was the first to face Vermont’s intractable lawmakers. In 1852 she petitioned and addressed the legislature seeking women’s right to vote in school meetings while facing considerable resistance and ridicule. Nichols left what she called, “conservative old Vermont,” with its entrenched legal system for Kansas Territory, where she sought to exclude slavery from the new state and pursue women’s rights. As a result of her activism, the Kansas Constitution guaranteed women’s equality in all school affairs.

It was not until 1880 that Vermont lawmakers finally passed legislation allowing taxpaying women to vote in school districts. Believing that women’s place was in the home, not in rowdy political meetings, legislators were more apt to accept their demands to eliminate alcohol. After the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union began agitating for suffrage, they finally passed the school measure.

It took another 37 years before Vermont lawmakers accepted taxpaying women as political equals at town meeting. Session after session, from 1884 until 1917, members of the Vermont Woman’s Suffrage Association, sought to attain municipal suffrage with little success.

Lobbyist Annette Parmelee of Enosburg Falls hovered over the Legislature, hoping to win over lawmakers with witty remarks and earning the nickname, the “Suffrage Hornet.” Her opponents repeatedly claimed that women had not appeared at school meetings and did not even want the vote, though the men would be “pleased to hear from them” when they did. Indeed, most women in Vermont did not own property on which they paid taxes to qualify as voters.

Lucy Daniels, who did own property, had watched the movement wax and wane from the small village of Grafton before she felt compelled to publicize her frustration. In 1911 she refused to pay her local taxes to protest her disfranchisement, gaining her considerable notoriety. In response, town officials attached and auctioned off her bank stock. Daniels also emblazoned one of her buildings with the words, “A-SQUARE-DEAL, Votes for Vermont Women.” Later she stood beside Alice Paul and other members of the Woman’s Party in front of the White House as a “Silent Sentinel,” demanding action from President Woodrow Wilson. Arrested and jailed several times, she endured name-calling and vandalism at home.

Women in Vermont mounted their own protest in response to the intransigence of Gov. Percival Clement. With only one state remaining to ratify the amendment in 1920, Vermont stood to become the victory state, the “Perfect 36.” But Clement refused to call a special session of the legislature for that purpose, although he had received more than 1,600 letters and petitions urging him to do so.

In April of that year suffragists organized a mammoth protest, the “March of 400,” when women traveled through muddy roads, snow, and driving rain to the Statehouse to press the issue, but to no avail. As a result, Tennessee became the “Perfect 36.” Vermont finally ratified the amendment in February 1921.

For additional information and to support voting rights, visit vtsuffrage2020.org.

Historian Marilyn Blackwell, Ph.D., is a member of the VSCA.