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Vermont Women: Kunin On Public Life

From Vermont Public Radio


(Host) In collaboration once again with the Vermont Commission on Women, VPR celebrates Women’s History Month with a week-long examination of the long process of establishing legal rights for women in Vermont, Vermont Women In History. Author, educator and commentator Madeleine Kunin served as Vermont’s first woman governor – and the nation’s fourth. Today she reflects on women in politics, as well as women’s suffrage and some of those who opposed it.

(Kunin) Vermont can be proud of the number of women who have served in public life.

Consuelo Northrop Bailey was the first woman in the nation to be elected Lieutenant Governor – in 1954 — and she was the first woman to appear before the U.S. Supreme Court.

Vermont has ranked in the top two or three states in the percentage of female legislators. And I was the fourth woman in the nation to be elected Governor in my own right. But I regret to say that my footsteps have not been followed. Five women have been candidates: Stella Hackel, Ruth Dwyer, Gaye Symington, Deb Markowitz and Susan Bartlett.

This gives us bragging rights. But other chapters of our history reveal a more mixed picture. Vermont was not one of the states to ratify the 19th amendment that guaranteed women’s suffrage in 1920.

The legislature voted for a suffrage bill in 1919, but Governor Percival Clement of Rutland vetoed it. When pro suffrage legislators pleaded with him to call a special session so that Vermont could be the 36th – and final – state to ratify the 19th amendment, he refused. Instead, that honor went to Tennessee. When I look at Clement’s portrait in the Vermont State House, I see an elegantly attired gentleman. There are few clues to his thinking. We know he was president of a bank, the owner of the Rutland Herald, and the father of nine children. In his farewell speech to the legislature, in 1921, he firmly opposed Constitutional amendments.

Photo: Vermont Historical Society

Consuelo Northrop Bailey


The fight for suffrage was followed by a prolonged battle for the right of women to serve on juries. Thanks to state archivist Gregory Sanford, we gain insight into the pros and cons of that debate, which began in 1923 but did not conclude until 1942, and then only after legislative approval and a state-wide referendum. Supporters wished to give “…the women equal rights and privileges with men.” Legislator F. Ray Keyser differed: “I, for one, would not like to see my wife serving on a jury. There are things at home to be taken care of.” Vermont claimed its first female attorney, Jessie Bigwood, in 1902. It took ten years for another female lawyer to hang out her shingle. In 1978 the state celebrated a milestone: 100 women had been admitted to the Bar. On the minus side, Vermont is one of four states never to elect a woman to Congress. No doubt our achievements for women’s equality outweigh our lapses, but this is no time to be self-congratulatory. Vermont will become a state that gives equal opportunity and responsibility to women only when political power is equally shared.

Listen to Madeleine’s commentary here.

And be sure to check out her forthcoming book, The New Feminist Agenda: Defining the Next Revolution for Women, Work, and Family


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