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Gilbert: Women Get The Vote

08/17/10 5:55PM By Peter Gilbert
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(HOST) Recently, a high school history teacher showed commentator and Vermont Humanities Council executive director Peter Gilbert a photocopy of a page from the town records of New Haven, Vermont. The teacher uses the document in her class... and here's Peter to tell you why.

(GILBERT) Signed by the town clerk of New Haven, the handwritten document is a list of people who took the Freeman's Oath in 1920.  What's interesting is that virtually all the names on the list are those of women, including Mrs. B.F. Alton, Mrs. E. L. Bingham, and Mrs. B.S. Clark; and Josephine Clifford, Alice Lattrell, and Juliette Potter - they were probably unmarried.

Why, the teacher would ask her students, were they mostly women?  Because the Nineteenth Amendment to the US Constitution, which guarantees the right to vote to women nationwide, had just been ratified - ninety years ago tomorrow.  Those Addison County women had registered to exercise their newly won right to vote.

It had been a long struggle, going back before the Civil War.  Suffragists had pursued a state-by-state as well as a national strategy.  Some states - even individual towns and counties - granted women suffrage, in full or in part.  Beginning in 1880, the few women in Vermont who paid property taxes in their own name could vote at local school district meetings; in 1917 those same few won the right to vote in municipal elections.  Although Vermont was the first New England state to take that step, by then fourteen western states had already granted women full voting rights - part of the states' efforts to encourage women to move west.  

In 1915 the US House of Representatives voted down a suffrage bill.  Women and others put the heat on President Woodrow Wilson, and when a bill was brought before the House again in 1918, it passed by just one vote - but in the Senate, it fell two votes short of the necessary two-thirds majority.   They tried again the next year, but failed again, this time by one vote.

Wilson was anxious to resolve the matter before the 1920 election, and so he called a special session of Congress.  This time, in June 1919 the bill passed.  Presidents don't sign proposed amendments to the Constitution, but three-quarters of the states have to ratify them.  That took about a year, and on August 18, 1920, ninety years ago, Tennessee became the last of the 36 states needed to make the Amendment law.  That wasn't that long ago: my own father, down in Bennington County, was born into an America where women weren't guaranteed the vote.

Vermont was not one of the states that made it happen.  That would have required Governor Percival Clement to call a special legislative session, which he refused to do. The concern was that a vote for women's suffrage was a vote in support of Prohibition.

Although it had no legal effect, Vermont's legislature did ratify the Amendment about six months after it became law.  Ten other states that had rejected the amendment shortly before it became law, eventually ratified it as well - just for the record.  The last states to do so were North Carolina, Louisiana, Georgia, South Carolina, and Florida, which ratified it between 1969 and 1971, and finally, Mississippi - in 1984.
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