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Vermont Women: Edna Beard

03/19/07 12:00AM
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(HOST) All this week on Morning Edition, VPR salutes women who have contributed to the life and culture of Vermont. Today we hear from Deb Markowitz, the first woman elected to serve as Vermont Secretary of State, about Edna Beard, who in 1921 became the first woman elected to the Vermont General Assembly.

(MARKOWITZ) Last month Vermont was recognized for having the highest percentage of women serving in any state legislature in the country. One third - or 60 - of our representatives and senators are mothers, daughters, working women and caregivers to their families. This is worthy of recognition because we've learned that democracy will better represent us all when there are many different voices at the table.

It was 1921 when we first saw the effect of including women's voices in the legislature.

It was 1920 when women first won the right to vote. So, in 1921, Edna Beard, of Orange, became the first woman elected to serve in the Vermont legislature. It wasn't easy for her. The Rutland Herald of the time reported that Beard was given the first choice of seats in the legislature. The article said, quote, "She chose seat no 146, and for a long time no mere man had the courage to select seat no. 145, which adjoins hers. The seat stood vacant for over an hour until Horatio Luce of Pomfret took the dare of his fellow members and sat down beside Miss Beard amid a storm of laughter and applause." Unquote. There was no record of Beard's response, but clearly it was a rocky start for the first woman to be seated in Vermont's legislature.

However, the story didn't end here. Shortly after taking office, Beard introduced a bill to provide welfare support of two dollars a week - for women whose husbands were incapacitated by serious illness or disability. As a woman she brought her own life experiences with her to Montpelier, and because she recognized that the illness of a husband could plunge a family into desperate poverty she spoke out and convinced her male counterparts to take action. The important lesson here is that it was not Edna Beard's election, but what she did once elected, that's significant for Vermont. By introducing the bill that became Act 218; Beard became something greater than simply an entry on the list of Vermont firsts.

Of course, as we have seen throughout our history, men are not completely incapable of articulating the perspectives of women. And, we have also seen that there is no single "women's" perspective? Nevertheless, one of the enduring lessons we can learn from Edna Beard is the importance of having diverse voices at the table.

This Women's History Month, we can celebrate the fact that we live in a state that is full of opportunities for women to serve. Every person in Vermont - woman or man - can have a direct say in our government - and in doing so, can help to make Vermont a better place for all of us to live.

Deb Markowitz is the first woman elected to serve as Vermont Secretary of State. Tomorrow we'll hear from Amy Cunningham, Education Director for the Vermont Historical Society, about Sylvia Bliss, an early 20th century musician, botantist, poet, and writer.

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