Then again: Vermont's first female lawmaker helped women claim a stake in the Statehouse - VTDigger
 

Then again: Vermont’s first female lawmaker helped women claim a stake in the Statehouse

Edna Beard

A portrait of Edna Beard, by painter Ruth Mould, hangs in the Vermont Statehouse. Photo courtesy of the Vermont State Curator’s Office

Edna Beard had guts. In 1920, she did something no woman had ever done. Beard was already well-known and well regarded in the town of Orange. For years, she had taught in town schools, worked as school superintendent and served as the town treasurer. But working in education and town office were roles larger society considered appropriate for women. Now she was running to represent Orange in the Vermont Legislature.

Until August of that year, running for state office wasn’t even an option for women, but then the 19th Amendment was ratified, giving women the right to vote in state and national elections, and serve in state and national office.

Vermont woman had been gradually gaining political rights. Forty years earlier, they had won the right to vote in school district elections, and in 1917 won the right to vote in municipal elections. But those victories were nothing compared to ratification of the 19th Amendment.

Vermont, however, can claim no credit for the amendment’s passage. The state Legislature had the chance to cast the deciding vote for the amendment by becoming the required 36th state to ratify it. But Gov. Percival Clement opposed the measure and refused to call a special legislative session to vote on ratification. Thus, Tennessee won the honor of casting the deciding vote.

Many Vermont women seized the opportunity to vote. When Orange’s board of civil authority met on Sept. 11, 1920, less than a month after Tennessee’s historic action, 40 of the 51 new voters to join the town’s rolls were women. They weren’t enough for Beard to win the Republican primary, however. She lost to a man named Bert Richardson, 69-63.

Something – perhaps the narrowness of her loss or her belief that she could do at least as good a job as Richardson – persuaded Beard to challenge Richardson again in the general election, this time under the banner of the Citizen Party.

In October, as the election neared, another 40 Orange residents registered to vote, all of them women. They may have provided Beard her margin of victory. She defeated Richardson by 38 votes – 119 to 81 – becoming the first woman elected to the Vermont Legislature.

Despite her victory, Beard is hardly remembered today. She has been eclipsed by the likes of Consuelo Bailey, Vermont’s first woman speaker of the House and lieutenant governor, and Madeleine Kunin, Vermont’s first woman governor. Only brief biographical sketches have been published about Beard. Historians have studied how Vermont women got the right to vote, but have paid less attention to what they did with it. Fortunately, I was able to draw on research conducted a decade ago by Assistant State Curator Jack Zeilenga, when he was a graduate student at the University of Vermont. Zeilenga found that Beard’s introduction to the Statehouse was less than warm.

Vermont newspapers paid little attention to her arrival. Beard’s male colleagues, which of course was all she had, at first treated her like a strange creature in their midst. Feeling chivalrous, they voted unanimously to let her be the first incoming legislator to choose a seat. She picked seat 146, which created a problem. The seat next to her was vacant and, as the Rutland Herald reported, “for a long time no mere man had the courage to select seat No. 145.”

“The seat stood vacant for over an hour,” the Herald continued, “until Horatio E. Luce of Pomfret took the dare of his fellow members and sat down beside Miss Beard amid a storm of laughter and applause.”

Zeilenga notes that other newspapers also focused on the legislators’ gallantry in letting Beard choose her seat first, not on the fact that she had managed to win the seat at all.

She brought with her a different perspective, which is one of the reasons women argued their voices were vital in the Legislature. Beard, and the female legislators who would follow on her heels, spent much of their time addressing the issues that had long occupied lawmakers, but they also raised new issues that affected woman and children most directly. Beard sponsored a bill that became law, requiring that when sheriffs hired deputies at least one had to be a woman. The female legislators who soon joined Beard sponsored bills that increased aid to mothers who were widowed or deserted, protected children workers from exploitation, and required in-depth investigations of families seeking to adopt.

Edna Beard

Edna Beard was 43 years old when she won election in 1920 to represent the town of Orange, becoming the first woman to serve in the Vermont House. Photo courtesy of the Vermont State Curator’s Office

Despite the arrival of Beard and other women in the Statehouse, they didn’t challenge men’s grip on power. During the 1920s and ’30s, women held no more than 15 of the 246 seats then in the House; of the 30 Senate seats, women held no more than two at any point.

Female legislators occasionally won appointment as chairwomen of committees, but these were never on the much sought-after money committees. Of the seven female House members to run a committee, five were named head of the Library Committee. In the Senate, women also ran that chamber’s Library Committee, but managed to branch out a bit more, winning appointment to the Suffrage and Elections, Public Health and Public Buildings committees.

Record-keeping had traditionally been seen as a form of women’s work. It was no different in the Legislature. In 1931, for example, though only 15 women served in the House, 10 of that chamber’s 12 committees picked a woman to be their clerk.

Although women still had to fight for equality once they reached the Statehouse, Edna Beard seemed eager to try. She served only one term in the House before winning election to the Senate in 1922, become the first woman in that chamber as well. Her political future seemed bright. Some colleagues urged her to run for lieutenant governor, but she decided against it. She also declined to run for a third term in the Legislature. The reason was apparently ill health.

We’ll never know if she had higher ambitions, or what she would have accomplished if she had had more time. Beard died of a heart attack in September 1928. She was 51.

Mark Bushnell

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