History of women's sufferage discussed ahead of election

Monday November 5, 2012


Staff Writer

POWNAL -- Annette Watson Parmalee, known as the "Suffragette Hornet," called for equal pay for women while lobbying the Vermont Legislature for the right to vote between 1908 and 1917.

A 100 years later, "that's a topic we hear today," said Cynthia Bittinger, a historian and Community College of Vermont professor, whose latest book, "Vermont Women, Native Americans and African Americans: Out of the Shadows of History," was source material for a historical society talk Sunday about women's suffrage in Vermont.

Speaking two days before this year's Election Day to an audience of about 30 at the Pownal Methodist Church, illustrating the discussion with a slideshow of contemporary cartoons and news clippings, Bittinger described incremental progress over the span of some 72 years leading to national enfranchisement. "Women in Vermont went along for the ride."

First born out of the anti-slavery movement, "women were becoming real political actors" in the 1850s, 60s, and 70s leading up to the American Civil War, Bittinger said. But women delegates to the 1840 World Anti-Slavery Convention in London were consigned to the balcony, leading some to equate the situation between women and blacks.

Later, suffragists grew ties to the temperance movement -- a sometimes impolitic relationship. Vermont Gov. Percival W. Clement refused to ratify the 19th Amendment in 1920 because "he was a ‘wet'," against alcohol prohibition, Bittinger said, in contrast to the "dry" suffragists.

Under common law, women's rights, property, wages (even "their own children ... that one always shocks my students," Bittinger said) had been the rightful property of their husband's. One of Vermont's early suffragists, Clarina Howard Nichols, lost all her earnings upon divorce; but later, she would become the first woman to speak before the state Legislature, in 1852 while arguing for the right for women to vote in school affairs.

"The argument was women should be able to influence their children's education," said Bittinger.

In 1870, the first statewide women's suffrage campaign resulted in a vote at that year's Constitutional Convention -- where the amendment was defeated 233 to 1 with no debate.

Arguments against included the notion that women didn't want (or knew how) to vote, that political differences at home would cause strife, and that women were "prone to excitement" or would simply vote along the lines of their husband or church.

In a 1910 letter to the editor, a woman in opposition wrote that attendance to "her house duties" was "rule enough" for women. A contemporary political cartoon depicts a house in disarray and a woman wearing pants -- "That's the feeling of what would happen if women got the right to vote," said Bittinger.

In 1880, tax-paying women obtained the right to vote in school meetings in Vermont.

In 1917, women were allowed to vote in local municipal elections. Turnout in March 1918 was high: 96 out of 111 women voted in Winooski, according to Bittinger, while Burlington had 90 percent turnout. And when women began voting, "nothing happened," Bittinger said. "No social upheaval, no terrible things happened."

Edna Beard of Orange was the first woman representative in Vermont's House, three months after the passage of the 19th Amendment. Bittinger said the first bill Beard introduced was to allow sheriffs to hire female deputies.

When Beard moved to the state Senate two years later, four women took her place in the House. They were "very small steps, but they were important," said Bittinger. "My thesis (is) votes for women did matter, electing women to office does matter."

Today, women represent 38 percent in the Vermont Legislature, a higher percentage than in most states, she pointed out.

Seated in the audience, local state Rep. Bill Botzow commented that women also importantly held positions of authority, like committee chairs, where they "get to set the agenda." But there are still obstacles, he noted, including childcare and the distance to Montpelier.

Paraphrasing diplomat and former Vermont Gov. Madeleine Kunin, Bittinger said "if you are not at the table -- she means the political table -- you are on the menu."

During a question and answer period, one audience member said while the temperance movement was now viewed with derision, "you have to realize where they're coming from."

"It was a real problem (having) no recourse when your husband just drank away your paycheck."

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