|I was pleased when I was asked to speak to you as part of women's history
month. One of the wonderful aspects of my job is that I administer the state archives. The
archives are like a government time machine. It allows you to travel through the two
hundred-twenty plus years we, as Vermonters, have governed ourselves. Captured in records
are the events, great and small, that have shaped our government and society. What better
place to travel in pursuit of women's history?
So I asked the state archivist to fire up
the time machine.
The first place we alighted was in 1921 to look at Act 218. Now, in the scheme of
things, Act 218 isn't much. It amended the law "relating to aid to widowed or
deserted mothers." Specifically, it provided child support for women whose husbands
have become "incapacitated by an incurable disease." Child support meaning, in
1921, two dollars a week.
What makes Act 218 remarkable is it was the first bill sponsored by a woman. That woman
was Edna Beard, who in 1920, became the first woman elected to the Vermont General
I confess an ambivalence about "firsts." Is Rep. Beard simply notable for
being first? I like to believe she would not be any happier with that thought than I would
be if I simply became known as the first woman elected secretary of state. (Helen Burbank
was appointed to secretary of state in 1947 to complete the term of Rawson Myrick.)
For me, it is not Edna Beard's election, but what she did once elected, that is
significant. By introducing the bill that became Act 218 Edna Beard became more than a
historical curiosity; became something greater than an entry on lists of Vermont firsts.
She recognized the needs of families broken, not by desertion or death, but by
catastrophic illness. In doing so she gave clear notice that a new perspective had been
added to the deliberations of government; for the first time women now had a direct and
undiluted voice in the Statehouse.
Is a direct voice important? Let's return to the time machine and visit the Vermont
senate of 1900. The Vermont Woman's Suffrage Association petitioned the senate to pass a
law releasing women "from all taxation...until representation was granted them."
How did the all male senate respond to the petition? They sent it to the committee on the
Is a direct voice important? Let's go to the 1884 state senate; again, the all male
senate. The Vermont Woman's Suffrage Association, among others, had petitioned the General
Assembly to raise the age of consent, as applied to statutory rape, from eleven to
Senate opponents argued: "It is conceded on all hands that girls reach the age of
physical and mental maturity earlier than boys. If every act of carnal knowledge, after
that age is reached by the girl, makes the act a high crime on the part of the older but
less mature boy, it shifts responsibility on to the shoulders that ought not bear it
alone, and wrongs the weak boy who falls before the temptations thrown in his path by the
more mature and often more wicked girl..." Keep in mind they are talking about 12
year old girls.
Indeed, the senators reminisced that "The members of your committee are able to
recall instances where girls of fifteen have been happy wives and mothers, and who became
and remained as useful [!], healthy and respected as those contracting marriages at a more
advanced age." These senators managed to block the eighteen year old threshold. The
final version of the bill raised the age of consent from eleven to sixteen
Is a direct voice important? I think so. Let me put it this way, would a 1999 senate
debate over the age of consent be couched in the same terms as it was in 1884? If it was,
can you imagine the responses from the ten women currently serving as senators?
Was the all male government completely incapable of articulating the perspectives of
women? Of course not. Some of the most articulate statements on equal rights in Vermont
history were made in 1869 by the all male Council of Censors.
Is there a monolithic "women's" perspective? Of course not. Some of the most
vocal opponents to women's suffrage in Vermont were women.
Were women politically passive prior to attaining the vote? Of course not. Among the
most fascinating records in the Archives are petitions from Vermonters to the General
Assembly. Most of these records are from the 1770's to 1840's, long before women's
suffrage. Even though women were disenfranchised and did not enjoy the full benefits of
citizenship, they were active petitioners of government. They petitioned for the rights of
citizenship, against slavery, and for temperance. They petitioned as individuals and as
groups. Their experience organizing petitions drives created the networks and skills that
would eventually be applied to the suffrage movement.
Those organizational skills continued after women attained the franchise. Early women
legislators formed OWLS--the Order of Women Legislators (whose records are in the
Archives). Later women formed the Women's Legislative Caucus. Both groups helped move
popular perception from the idea of women legislators to our more current understanding
that there are legislators, some of whom are women. Our changing political dialogue is
perhaps best captured in the renaming of the Governor's Commission on the Status of
Women to the Governor's Commission on Women. (Again the Commission's records are at the
Women's history is, of course, more than a political history. My comments are shaped in
part because of the accessibility of government records in the Archives. They are also
shaped by another of my major responsibilities--that of being Vermont's chief elections
The value of having as many citizens participate in our political dialogues as possible
is amply demonstrated by the results of the suffrage movement. I am committed to keeping
those opportunities to participate as open as possible. These opportunities, as heard by
my office, range from the simple, but precious act of voting, to the right to participate
in and review the actions of government. These opportunities should be available to all
eligible Vermonters, regardless of gender.
I hope, within the limits of my authority to make the ballot and the government as
accessible as possible. I want to help create an environment in which Vermonters not only can
participate to the fullest of their abilities, but also one in which we want to
participate. When people disparage these efforts; when they question why we should make an
effort to involve those who feel disenfranchise, as well as those routinely participate, I
can think of no better answer to give than the women's suffrage movement. Their efforts
were disparaged as well. Yet I think all of us agree that society as a whole has gained
through their success.
That is why during women's history month we should not simply celebrate the historic
struggle for suffrage. We should also reflect on the importance of having a direct say in
our government and how we can preserve and enhance that right. Thank you.