Larry Coffin & Abigail Robbins
Journal Opinion, Oct 28, 2020
The three documents pictured below are taken from the campaign for women suffrage in Vermont and New Hampshire.
In 1912, suffrage advocates used this flyer to lobby NH to become the seventh state to grant women the right to vote in state elections. The effort failed. In 1919, the state became the 16th state to ratify the Constitutional amendment (Courtesy Ann Lewis Women's Suffrage Collection)
Call for a Special Session: In March 1920 the Vermont Equal Suffrage Association distributed this pamphlet calling for a special session of the Legislature to ratify the 19th Amendment in order to be the pivotal 36th state. Governor Percival Clements vetoed the effort. (Vermont Historical Society)
campaign for woman suffrage in America long since ended. Gone are the days of
agitating, organizing, educating, pleading, and persuading. No more forever
will women descend on State Legislatures and the national Congress in the
effort to wrest the suffrage from state and national legislators. The gates to
political enfranchisement have swung open. The women are inside."
was suffrage leader Carrie Chapman Catt's victory statement as she looked back
over the battle. A century ago, women in Vermont and New Hampshire joined
voters across the nation to cast their ballots. That right will be exercised by
women across the region again on or before November 3.
column contains material from my granddaughter Abigail Robbins UVM senior
essay, combined with a column I wrote a decade ago. This fine young woman, a
political science major, is currently working in Washington D.C. and will vote
for president for the first time this election.
In early America,
a woman's legal identity was defined by relationships with the men in her life,
and that identity granted her few legal rights. In her famous letter to her
husband John Adams in March 1776, Abigail Adams admonished the delegates at
Philadelphia to, "remember the ladies." She wrote, "Remember,
all men would be tyrants if they could. If particular care and attention is not
paid to the ladies, we are determined to foment a rebellion, and will not hold
ourselves bound by any laws in which we have no voice or representation."
was a long time coming. By 1784, New Hampshire, along with other new states
that had granted women limited voting rights, revoked those rights. To restore
them was considered so radical that it was not until 1848 that an organized
effort began to give equal suffrage to women. It began with a women's rights
convention held in Seneca Falls, New York, where the woman's suffrage movement
It took another
80 years to achieve full suffrage for women. A brochure from The Women’s Rights
Center in Seneca Falls states that the effort gained success only after, “480
campaigns to lobby state legislatures to submit suffrage amendments to the
electorate, 56 popular votes on state amendments, 277 campaigns to get state
political parties to adopt women’s platforms, 19 campaigns with successive
Congresses, and the campaign to ratify the federal amendment in 1919-20.”
In New Hampshire
and Vermont, suffrage activities took the more moderate stand of women's right
to vote in school meetings. A bill was submitted to the Vermont General
Assembly in 1852. That year, Clarina Howard Nichols of Townshend, editor of the
Windham County Democrat and the first woman to address that body, spoke on
behalf of the bill. She told the assembly that granting this right "would
not compromise a woman's femininity. On the contrary, it would simply extend a
mother's accepted sphere of influence in the field of childhood
In a 1973 article
about Nichols, Madeline Kunin wrote, “The then-editor of the Rutland Herald
threatened to present her publicly with a pair of trousers.” Nichols reminded
the legislators that “they had legislated our skirts into their possession…Time
enough for them to taunt us with being after their wardrobes, when they shall
have restored to us the legal right to our own.” It would take decades before
this modest request was granted.
Before the Civil
War, the campaign was coupled with the abolitionist movement, but during that
war, suffrage activities were put aside as women took active roles on the home
fronts. That more active presence and the Constitutional amendments that
defined citizens as males and granted the right to vote to Black men that
re-energized the women's suffrage movement.
In 1869, a
Special Commission on Women Suffrage recommended that an amendment granting
suffrage be considered at the Vermont constitutional convention. They stated,
“We see no good reason why the most ignorant man should vote, and the
intelligent woman be refused…” Activities by supporters of the amendment
brought the charge that the state was being invaded by, “strong-minded women.”
Of the 223 delegates at the convention, only one voted for the amendment.
That same year,
Armenia White and her husband Nathaniel founded the New Hampshire Woman
In July 1876, E.
Anne Hinman made a speech entitled "A Plea for Equality" to a
Bradford audience. She made not only "a demand for the suffrage, but also
for higher education of women, and the breaking away of the rigid customs which
have been established in society, and which prohibit her from sharing the
benefits that accrue" from civilization. Her demand for a "wider
sphere for women" included equal pay for equal work.
The Bradford Opinion
reported that the lecture was "well written and forcibly delivered and
contained much good sound common sense and considerable nonsense." It
concluded, "that there are not ten men in the town of Bradford who are
unwilling that women should have the privilege of voting if she wants it."
The editor went on to predict that "women will be permitted to vote sooner
or later," but doubted that the equality they expected to receive from the
privilege would be realized.
This lecture, and
its response, identifies some of the arguments raised against granting women a
role in public affairs. Significant was the lack of wide-spread support from
women. Additionally, the movement was coupled with other reforms, including the
temperance movement. The South feared granting women the right to vote would
weaken its newly enacting laws depriving black men of that right. These fears
created powerful enemies.
felt that granting suffrage was against the teachings of the Bible as well as
unnatural, unfeminine, unhealthy, a danger to the home and family and upsetting
to "the fragile composition of the fairer sex." One legislator from
Rutland said that he was opposed to giving the ballot to "such a dangerous
class as the women of Vermont."
In 1872, two
bills were introduced into the Vermont Legislature: allowing women who paid
taxes to vote and holding office in school district meetings and the other
granting full voting rights. Both were defeated, although the school district
bill passed the House and lost by only one vote in the Senate. It was finally
adopted in 1880.
adopted a similar bill in 1878 but attempts to allow women to vote in municipal
In 1883, national
suffragist leaders Lucy Stone and Julia Ward Howe met with supporters in St.
Johnsbury and helped organize the Vermont Woman Suffrage Association. One focus
of the group was to expand the school suffrage to all municipal elections. A
bill granting municipal suffrage was introduced every two years. “Rumors
abounded that one house would consent to give women the right to vote as long
as the other agreed not to.” The bill finally became law in 1917.
At the national
level, the focus was to gain full participation in state and national elections.
In 1871, prominent suffrage leaders submitted a petition to Congress asking for
the right to vote. Over the next 48 years, they were rejected and vilified for
their efforts. They organized, petitioned, demonstrated and cajoled, gaining
victories and suffering defeats state by state. One of those defeats was in New
Hampshire when the male voters defeated a 1902 referendum granting woman
During World War
I, the service of women helped tip the balance for a constitutional amendment
granting full voting rights to women. By 1917, twelve states had granted equal
suffrage to women and the following year Jeanette Rankin (R-Montana), the first
woman elected to Congress introduced a suffrage amendment. Called the Susan B.
Anthony Amendment, it stated, "The right of citizens of the United States
to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on
account of sex."
opposed the idea when first elected in 1912, but in January, 1918, faced with a
re-election campaign, he came out in support of the amendment. The millions of
women who could already vote in state elections was a major factor in changing
minds. Both supporters and opponents knew that women's right to vote would come
eventually and those who opposed it would be the first victims of the new
electorate. The proposed amendment passed both houses by the necessary
two-thirds vote on June 4, 1919.
The battle for
ratification in the required 36 states was the last battle in the long and
continuous struggle. In both states, suffrage groups used many techniques to
increase public pressure on elected officials to gain ratification of the
delivered speeches while others networked with newspaper editors to gain their support.
To this was added newspaper letters and editorials, pamphlets, flyers, and
Using the motto
"A Square Deal for Vermont Women," suffrage advocates increased the
campaign. One pamphlet entitled "Seventeen Reasons" laid out the
campaign's significant arguments. Another technique was to compare Vermont to
the actions of other states. One flyer, listing states where women had achieved
the vote, asked the question, "Why Not Vermont?" Appealing to
Vermont's historic identity, other publications drew a hard distinction to
Southern states' negative and blocking action.
On September 10,
1919, New Hampshire became the 16th state to ratify it. By March 1920, 35
states had approved, eight had voted against or refused to vote. Gaining the 36th
for the required three-quarters was unsure. Some wanted Vermont to have the
honor of confirming the right to vote for the women of the nation.
giving women the right to vote might re-impose prohibition, Vermont governor
Percival Clements opposed the ratification. When the presidential suffrage bill
passed the Legislature, he vetoed it.
By July 1920, the
focus of the ratification movement was on Tennessee, one state in which there
was a chance of success. The Legislature was equally divided. There Harry Burn,
the youngest member of the body, was urged to drop his opposition on his
mother's urging. That single vote in favor allowed the amendment to be
ratified, giving women across the nation the right to vote in all elections.
Women voted for
the first time in a Presidential election in November 1920. It was not
newsworthy to the editor of The United Opinion as there was no major article at
the time. Neighborhood reports included some notice of the event. In September
1920, the reporter for West Fairlee Center noted eight local women voted in the
primary. The West Newbury columnist wrote: "Not many women from this side
of the town attended the primary. We hope to see more of them next November. It
is now up to the men and women of the country to say what they will
On November 5,
the Thetford column included the following: "Town Meeting drew a good
number of voters, both men, and women. One hundred and sixty-six had registered
to vote and probably most of them cast their vote. The young misses of
twenty-one were there; also one lady of one hundred one and one-half years cast
her vote for the first time. Mrs. Elizabeth C. Newcomb is the oldest person in
town, if not the county. Chas. Douglas, the Republican candidate for town
representative was elected. He made an informal speech in well-chosen words,
thanking the people for the honor given him. He treated the ladies to
chocolates and men to cigars."
Haverhill's Frances Parkinson Keyes, author, and wife of U. S. Senator Henry
Keyes, wrote an article entitled "On the Fence" published in The
Atlantic Monthly. She stated that while she had been an "anti-suffragette
all my life," she had done nothing of consequence to prevent women
suffrage. In fact, it was with her "entire approval" that Senator
Keyes voted for the amendment. But, Keyes wrote: "I dread the very thought
of voting." She felt that women had enough in their lives without the
extra burden of an expanded role in society. With a combination of hope and
concern, she challenged women to accept this newly granted right in such a
manner as to prove the opponents wrong.
There is no doubt
that the right to vote was the key for women to equality and influence in our
society. A primary focus of my professional teaching career has been to inform
both young men and women of their right to vote and the responsibilities that
go with that right. I registered hundreds of young area residents. What once
was a radical notion has now become the norm. Hurrah and hurrah.