(“Then Again” is Mark Bushnell’s column about Vermont history.)
Clarina Howard Nichols’ voice cracked in nervousness. Her heart pounded. She felt faint, and she briefly rested her head on her hand. But she kept speaking, and her words — indeed her very presence — changed Vermont.
The year was 1852, and Nichols was standing behind the speaker’s podium in the Vermont House. Though the state had been founded 61 years earlier, she was the first woman to address the Legislature.
Nichols faced an unfriendly crowd that evening as she spoke for women’s rights. The lawmakers, all of whom were male, had begrudgingly invited her after she’d collected more than 200 signatures from prominent Brattleboro businessmen and others, asking that she be given a hearing. The only other women present were packed into the gallery. Nichols wasn’t sure they were on her side either, women’s rights being such a new concept.
Still, Nichols mustered the courage to stand before the lawmakers and argue for a sliver of equality for women: that they be allowed to vote in school meetings.
Nichols has been ignored by many historians. For instance, in Abby Hemenway’s famed gazetteer of Vermont history, published in the late 1800s, Nichols’ three brothers are listed, but the book reports only that Nichols’ father had “a number of daughters.”
In recent years, Vermont historian Marilyn Blackwell has taken up Nichols’ cause, writing about her life in this state and her later campaign against slavery in Kansas. “She is a perfect example of the kind of person who simply persists in the face of setbacks,” Blackwell said. “I really admire people who can brave personal attacks.”
We might think of the 19th century as a more genteel time than today, but there is no mistaking the open hostility Nichols faced. The chairman of the House Education Committee, Joseph H. Barrett, had dared Nichols to come. “If the lady wants to make herself ridiculous, let her come and make herself as ridiculous as possible and as soon as possible,” he had said, “but I don’t believe in this scramble for the breeches!”
Like many opponents of women’s rights at the time, Barrett was claiming that women like Nichols wanted to take on the attributes of men, right down to their clothing, including their breeches. Indeed, Barrett had threatened to humiliate Nichols after her speech by presenting her with a suit of men’s clothes.
Barrett’s “breeches” comment was well known by the time Nichols spoke, and she used it deftly to remind lawmakers just how few rights women had, especially involving property. In her closing remarks, she recalled years later, she said, “(Though I) had earned the dress I wore, my husband owned it — not of his own will, but by a law adopted by bachelors and other women’s husbands.”
How could lawmakers claim that women wanted to wear men’s pants, she asked, when it was the lawmakers themselves “who have legislated our skirts into their possession?”
By law, single women had the same property rights as men. But once they married, a woman’s property became her husband’s. He could sell her clothes, take any money she earned, and send any children she had from a previous marriage to the poorhouse. And she had no right to vote to change the laws that oppressed her. (In 1847, however, Nichols, through her writings, had persuaded lawmakers to protect married women’s real estate from their husbands’ debts and to allow them to write wills.)
Nichols brought a passion to her work that Blackwell believed grew out of her religious faith and bad first marriage. Born into a prominent family in West Townshend, Nichols showed early on that she was a person of strong beliefs. At the age of 8, she proclaimed her faith and joined the Baptist church.
When she was 20, she married a man named Justin Carpenter and moved with him to western New York, where she taught at a seminary for young women. Nine years and three children later, she moved back to Vermont and filed for divorce.
It was a desperate move. Getting divorced was “terribly degrading for a middle-class woman,” Blackwell said. Nichols sought a divorce due to “intolerable severity,” or abuse. Carpenter apparently earned little money and wasted most of what he earned. For years, Nichols had sustained the family with money she earned from teaching and writing. Seeing their son’s dissolute habits, Carpenter’s parents backed Nichols in the divorce.
After the divorce, Nichols, now a single mother, supported her family by writing for the Windham County Democrat in Brattleboro. Four years later, she married the paper’s editor, George Nichols, who was 28 years her senior.
It was a good match. George Nichols apparently encouraged his wife’s independent streak and relied on her to help produce the paper. Soon after they married, he grew sick and she gradually took over as editor, though she wouldn’t publicly acknowledge her position for years.
When she finally revealed that she was the editor, she started getting invited to speak at women’s rights conventions in the Northeast and as far west as Wisconsin.
Her words seem revolutionary, coming as they did more than 100 years before the days of Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem.
Ever since she was a child, Nichols told a crowd in Worcester, Massachusetts, in 1851, “I could not believe that God had created so many homely women, and suffered all to lose their beauty in the very maturity of their powers, and yet made it our duty to spend our best efforts trying to look pretty.”
In other words, women weren’t put on Earth to look beautiful. Rather than worry about looks, she encouraged them to “cultivate … (their) powers of mind and heart.”
The next year brought the chance to speak to the Legislature, and Vermont its chance to show itself ahead of the times. But lawmakers squandered the opportunity, refusing to allow women the vote on school issues.
“So many people think of Vermont as being ahead of the nation in terms of civil rights,” Blackwell said, “but for women this was not the case.” Women wouldn’t get the right to vote in school elections until 1880, at town meetings until 1917 and in statewide elections until 1920.
“She might not have many changed laws,” Blackwell said, “but she began to make people think differently.” Perhaps, no one more so than those women in the Statehouse gallery. These were middle-class women who were well supported by their husbands and risked losing their status by changing the system. But they were won over by Clarina Howard Nichols’ speech.
Afterward, they rushed to greet her beside the speaker’s desk and reportedly told her: “We didn’t know before what women’s rights were, Mrs. Nichols, but we are for women’s rights.”
To the few Vermonters who know of Clarina Howard Nichols, that is often where her story ends, because she then moved with her three sons and ailing husband to Kansas. But to Kansans, that is where the story begins.
She went to Kansas in 1854, hoping that a state just forming would be more fertile ground for her beliefs than one long established. There, she continued her fight for women’s rights and began to attack slavery. Her sons fought (and one was wounded) alongside John Brown and his abolitionists, trying to outlaw slavery in Kansas.
And it was in Kansas that she wrote a clause into the new state’s constitution allowing women the right to vote in school elections. It was a small fingerhold on the long climb to full voting rights. She also helped win the women of Kansas equal custody rights in divorce and expanded property rights.
It’s understandable, then, why both Kansans and Vermonters claim Nichols as their forgotten suffragist.