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The Way I See It: One Page at a Time — When Girls Were Shut Out FromServing as Statehouse Pages

At first it was unfair just to girls. Starting around 1920, only young men could be pages in the Vermont Statehouse. Later, the tradition of hiring eighth-grade boys began. It wasn’t for everyone, but it was appealing to those middle schoolers who wanted the chance to witness issues of every substance being debated in the Legislature and history being made in Montpelier.

Eventually, girls wanted their shot at serving in the Statehouse. Dianne Kearns was in sixth grade in 1967 when her uncle, a newly elected representative from Bennington, gave an impassioned speech on the House floor arguing that girls should be considered for the job of page. 

The bill he proposed failed overwhelmingly. The next year, nine of the 10 boy pages mounted a campaign against adding girls to their ranks. Kearns, who was fascinated by the work going on in the Statehouse and visited the building frequently, was heartbroken but undeterred. She began writing letters to state officials arguing her case.

Fortunately for her, the Statehouse had a new Sergeant-at-Arms with a broader vision of the times. Reide Payne, a crusty former legislator from Rutland, found nothing stipulating gender in the legislation authorizing the appointment of pages, which fell within his position’s purview. In the fall of 1968, he decided to appoint two Montpelier girls, Kearns and her best friend, Lea Sikora. Since both were local, they would not face the delicate problem confronting out-of-town boy pages of finding suitable homes in which to board.

In her uncle’s speech on the House floor advocating for the appointment of girl pages, he had framed his argument as a civil rights issue at a moment in history when civil rights were ascendent national causes. The Vermont press did not miss the connection. A photograph of Kearns, Sikora, and Payne standing on the granite steps of the Statehouse ran on the front page of the Burlington Free Press, the Rutland Herald, and the Times Argus.

The 1969 cohort of boy pages accepted the new girls into their midst, although they grumbled that Payne made them carry all the heavy boxes. Early on, the girls found themselves stereotyped in other ways, too. One of the first jobs assigned to Kearns and Sikora, for example, was decidedly sexist. They were asked by the wife of the incoming governor, Deane C. Davis, to polish the silver in the governor’s office. After that, the work became routine and generic: delivering messages and mail among members of the Legislature and to legislative offices. They worked the entire legislative session, January through April.

Today, three teams of pages cover every winter session, each one working six weeks. Now, as before, each page works Tuesday through Friday, from 7:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. On Monday, after a weekend at home, every page attends his or her local school and collects a week’s worth of assignments. Back in Kearns’s day, the pay was $54 per week. Today the pay is up to $130 per week, with a housing and commuting allowance added on.

However, there is a new injustice for Vermont eighth graders interested in politics, government, and journalism. Over recent decades, families in central Vermont have largely stopped opening their homes to these inquisitive and intelligent middle schoolers. The result is that children from outside the region have often been denied the opportunity to be a page unless they can arrange their own housing in Montpelier with a friend of the family or have connections to someone with room and board to let. 

Commuting is possible if the pages can find daily rides, but even this usually rules out participation by children in the far reaches of the state such as the Northeast Kingdom, Vermont’s southwestern “banana belt,” and other corners of the state. This means that many Vermont eighth graders have no opportunity to be a page, which is simply unfair. This opportunity should be available to every child in the state who aspires to a career in public service. 

Roughly 130 eighth graders apply each year, and a small group is chosen. Prospective pages fill out a formal application (available on the Sergeant-at-Arms website), write a letter stating their interests and activities and why they would like to be a page, and need to receive permission from their parents and principal to miss six weeks of school. Applications are due by the end of September. 

Families interested in hosting a page should contact the office of the Sergeant-at-Arms. Living here, it is easy to be deluded into thinking that Montpelier is where everything important in Vermont happens, but this is not the case. In these perilous times, eighth graders throughout Vermont need us to give them a chance to see how democracy happens.