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Great thoughts: Clarina Nichols on voting rights

11/19/02 12:00AM By Madeleine M. Kunin
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(Host) Great thoughts and philosophies from Vermonters have shaped our state and sometimes influenced the nation. Commentator Madeleine Kunin explores the legacy of suffragist Clarina Nichols.

(Kunin) A historic marker was put up in Townshend, Vermont last October for Clarina Howard Nichols, the first woman to speak before the Vermont legislature one hundred and fifty years ago. Ms Nichols, as I'm sure she would have liked to have been called, was a valiant suffragist, and the editor of the Windham County Democrat, which she turned into a women's rights newspaper.

On the day of her speech before the Legislature she was suffering from heart palpitations. The editor of the Rutland Herald had threatened to present her with a pair of men's trousers. She responded, "Men have legislated our skirts into their possession. And will it not be quite 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 clothes."

Clarina Howard Nichols addressed the Legislature of 1852 to present a petition with 250 signatures asking that women be allowed to vote in school meetings. A first, if modest step, to obtaining the right to vote. Afterwards she recalled:

"With a bow I turned from the speaker's stand, when the profound hush of as fine an audience as earnest woman ever addressed, was broken by the muffled thunder of stamping feet, and the low deep hum of pent-up feeling, loosed suddenly from restraint."

They applauded, but the did not grant women the right to vote at school meetings until years later.

What courage it took for a woman to speak in public about women's rights at a time when married women could not own property, or gain custody of their children. A politician once chided her for wanting to participate in public life. "But Mrs. Nichols, you would not have women go down into the muddy pool of politics?" She responded, "I admit that you know best how muddy that pool is."

She was on the suffragist lecture circuit, along with Lucy Stone and Susan B. Anthony. Later, she moved to Kansas and sat in the state house with her knitting to oversee the debate about its constitution, which did include her appeals for women's rights. She left because she could accomplish more for women, she said, in the new state of Kansas than in conservative old Vermont.

But it was in Vermont that she gained the courage to speak on behalf of women. And it was Clarina I thought of when I entered the same House chamber in January 1985, and took my oath of office to become the first woman governor of Vermont.

Madeleine Kunin is a former governor of Vermont. Learn more about Great Thoughts of Vermont.
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