People & Places

Then Again: Vermont missed being the deciding vote on women’s suffrage — or did it?

Protesters at the 1920 National Republican Convention in Chicago hold a banner calling on Vermont and other states to ratify the 19th Amendment. National Archives photo

Editor’s note: Mark Bushnell is a Vermont journalist and historian. He is the author of “Hidden History of Vermont” and “It Happened in Vermont.” 

A hundred years ago this month, the League of Women Voters was founded to educate women voters about the electoral process, even though there were no women voters at the time, at least not in national elections. But it seemed only a matter of time, a rather short time, before that would change. Thirty-one states had already ratified the 19th Amendment to the Constitution. Once five more state legislatures approved the amendment, women would gain the right to vote.

When Washington ratified the amendment on March 22, 1920, it became the 35th state to do so. Women’s suffrage was one state away from being written into the U.S. Constitution. If Vermont acted swiftly, it could become the state that cast the deciding vote for women’s suffrage.

But the timing was bad for Vermont. The state Legislature wouldn’t be in session again until the following year. Supporters of the amendment lobbied for a special session. “Women worked very hard to get the legislators to get behind their cause,” says Vermont historian Lyn Blackwell. “And they got legislators to agree to commit to a special session.”

But Gov. Percival Clement opposed women getting the right to vote. “It really was him; he was the roadblock,” says Blackwell. Clement apparently feared how women would use the vote.

Women had recently been making inroads into political life by focusing on “issues of the hearth,” matters that affected children or the family, says former Vermont State Archivist Gregory Sanford. Chief among those issues had been a fight for temperance, since women and children were often the victims of abuse and neglect when men drank too much. So if women got the vote, Clement feared “they would use that as a reason to support Prohibition,” Sanford says. 

A group of Vermont and New Hampshire suffragists gathered at the Vermont State Fair in White River Junction in 1912 to protest for women’s right to vote. Vermont Historical Society photo

Clement had opposed Prohibition from the moment he entered politics. It was one of his signature issues. Having already represented Rutland in the Vermont House and served two terms as Rutland mayor, Clement ran for governor in 1902. His campaign was a challenge to Republican Party leaders. The Proctors, a family that had gotten rich in the marble industry, largely controlled who got nominated to the Republican ticket. In those days, when the Democrats were a weak party, that was as good as getting elected. 

Clement positioned himself as a maverick willing to stand up to the party bosses. “The time has come when we have got to purify the Republican Party from the damnable machine which has been on top of it,” he declared. 

Clement was hardly an anti-establishment candidate, however. He came to the campaign with tremendous wealth. The son of a marble magnate himself, Clement owned The Rutland Herald newspaper, the Rutland Railroad, several hotels, a bank and a brokerage firm. His challenge to the Proctors was partly a contest between families for dominance in Rutland. His ownership of hotels and a railroad, whose customers sometimes purchased alcohol, might explain his vehement opposition to Prohibition.

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Clement used his railroad to his advantage, riding it to communities around the state as he stumped. In his speeches, he promoted the idea of a “local option” law — letting towns decide whether they would be “wet” or “dry” — and attacked Prohibition as an infringement of personal rights. He drew large, supportive crowds, but the Proctors’ handpicked candidate, John McCullough, won the nomination on the third ballot at the party convention.

Undaunted, Clement formed a third party, the Local Option League, and ran in that fall’s election. He lost the race, but won on his main issue. By making the Republican leadership feel threatened by a strong third party, he forced the Republican-controlled Legislature to enact a local liquor control law to defuse his insurgency. The legislation was a bold act, as it ended 50 years of statewide Prohibition.

Gov. Percival Clement, who was a political ally of the liquor industry, was an ardent opponent of women’s suffrage, perhaps because women voters tended to support Prohibition. Vermont Historical Society photo

In 1906, Clement ran for governor as a Democrat, but with local option gone as an issue, he was roundly defeated. Worst of all, he lost to a Proctor — Fletcher Proctor, son of former governor Redfield Proctor.

Clement ran again for governor in 1918, this time as a Republican, and won. When he arrived in office, the issue of Prohibition had returned. But this time it was a national matter. Congress had approved a constitutional amendment in December 1917, banning alcoholic beverages. Now it was up to the state legislatures to approve or reject it.

Just as Clement was reaching office in January 1919, the state Legislature ratified the 18th Amendment, approving Prohibition. The vote was largely symbolic, however, coming as it did two weeks after the amendment had been ratified by enough state legislatures to become law.

During the same legislative session, the all-male Vermont Legislature passed a bill giving women the right to vote in presidential elections. (Vermont women had already won the right to vote in school elections and, if they paid a poll tax, also in municipal elections.)

But Clement vetoed it. 

The governor also rejected calls to hold a special session in 1920 to give women the right to vote by passing the 19th Amendment. “Clement hid behind state’s rights,” explains Blackwell. Clement argued that under the Vermont Constitution, such an act would have to follow another election in which candidates pledged their position on ratification, which Blackwell says was incorrect because state legislatures ratify federal amendments under federal authority, not state.  

The push for ratification made Clement a virtual prisoner in Vermont, because his Republican lieutenant governor, Mason Stone, supported ratification. If Clement traveled outside the state, Stone, as acting governor, could convene a special session. When the national Republican Party, which supported ratification, tried to lure Clement to Washington, the governor struck a deal with Stone not to call a special session. What Stone got out of the deal is unknown.

Vermont’s Legislature finally ratified the 19th Amendment on Feb. 8, 1921, during its regular session. The approval came after Vermont women had voted in their first presidential election. Six months earlier the chance to cast the deciding vote for national ratification had been seized by Tennessee. (Among the legislators voting for ratification was Edna Beard of Orange, the first woman ever elected to the Vermont House, and later the first woman elected to the state Senate.)

Tennessee gets the glory, but Vermont’s belated ratification proved important. In 1922, a man named Oscar Leser sued the State of Maryland, trying to block women from voting. He argued that West Virginia and Tennessee had violated legislative procedures in ratifying the 19th amendment. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled the argument moot, because even if West Virginia and Tennessee’s ratifications were voided, two states had since approved the amendment. So Connecticut would have provided the 35th vote in favor and Vermont the deciding 36th.

Women's suffrage
Supporters of women’s suffrage urged Vermont to become the 36th state to ratify the 19th Amendment, thereby making it law. Vermont Historical Society photo

Mark Bushnell

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