Julia Ward Howe. Photo from Library of Congress  

Social activism takes the patience of a saint.

Julia Ward Howe, Lucy Stone, Mary Ashton Rice Livermore and William Lloyd Garrison must have known that when they arrived in Vermont in 1870. The renowned reformers were here to fight for one of the most controversial causes of the day: the right of women to vote. 

They believed the time was ripe for change. The Civil War had recently ended, and in its aftermath Black men had been granted the right to vote. Now it was women’s turn.

This was a battle to be fought state by state, they believed, not nationally, as Black suffrage had been achieved. And Vermont was the place to start.

Organizers had reasons for optimism. Of Vermont, Lucy Stone’s husband and fellow activist, Henry, declared: “It is probable that nowhere in the United States can a community be found so well prepared to take this crowning step in political progress.” He named several reasons for his confidence, among them that Vermonters “have been reared in the tradition of liberty. No slave ever breathed the elastic air of her hills.” 

He was referring to the fact that Vermont’s founders had written a ban on slavery into the state’s constitution. (Yet his statement wasn’t actually true: Some slaves had lived in Vermont during its early years.)

Reformers had reason for hope because of recent successes, and near successes, elsewhere: Women’s suffrage had just been included in the constitution for the territory of Wyoming, and states such as Illinois had come close to approving constitutional changes.

In 1870, Vermont was considering just such a change. The Council of Censors had recommended that, at that year’s constitutional convention, Vermonters consider amending the constitution to allow women to vote in state elections. (Recommending changes to the state constitution was one of the chief responsibilities of this elected statewide body. If you haven’t heard of the Council of Censors, that might be because one of its other suggestions — that the council itself be disbanded — would be approved at the 1870 constitutional convention.)

By 19th-century standards, a Vermont woman enjoyed a fair number of liberties that many women elsewhere did not. She could file for divorce on the grounds of adultery, desertion, intolerable severity and nonsupport. Her husband could sell her property only with her permission, and she could will her property to others. 

Still, once married, her husband became her legal guardian. And she could not vote or hold elected office.

The reformers, members of the American Woman Suffrage Association, descended on Vermont to argue for the justice of extending voting rights. Their goal was to persuade Vermonters to elect pro-suffrage representatives to the constitutional convention. 

The activists may have been celebrities to various extents in their day, but most have since been forgotten, except by historians. Ironically, the two best known today — Howe and Garrison — attained fame in other fields: Howe for writing the “Battle Hymn of the Republic” and Garrison for fighting slavery.

Activists had only recently formed the AWSA to distance themselves from more radical suffrage advocates. Others, like Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, sought more dramatic change, pushing for a national amendment. Stanton had also scandalized some audiences by supporting women’s right to divorce and birth control.

Members of the American Woman Suffrage Association argued that denying women the vote was subjecting them to taxation without representation. Furthermore, with universal male suffrage now the law of the land, every man — regardless of education, intelligence or mental state — could vote, while even the best-qualified woman could not.

The suffrage association’s goal was too much for some Vermonters. Opponents argued that women were equal within the home and that was enough, because they were represented in the voting booth by their husbands. Of course, this argument ignored unmarried women and those who might have voted differently from their husbands.

The arguments were designed to appeal to both men and women, but since men were the only ones allowed to vote, they would make the final decision. (To give you an idea how completely men dominated politics, when advocates formed the Vermont Woman’s Suffrage Association to push for equal voting rights, the founders of the organization, and indeed its entire membership, were men.)

Newspapers take sides

Newspapers aligned on both sides of the issue. Anti-suffrage papers often focused as much on the hair, clothing and demeanor of the speakers as on the content of their addresses. 

The Burlington Free Press noted the attire of one speaker and complained about her “somewhat singsong, monotonous intonation, and a (repeated) bad gesture … (that) looks as though she were trying to nudge somebody.”

When an Emma Farrand, of Fairfield, spoke, the paper poked fun at her short hair parted on the side, in the stereotypical style of the “women’s rights female,” what we would today call a feminist.

Opponents often worried about the effect politics would have on what was widely seen as the pure nature of women. In contrast, pro-suffrage papers claimed that women would purify politics and had the moral authority to end poverty, crime and intemperance.

The Montpelier Watchman was among the newspapers warning that giving women the vote would corrupt them. “Let no woman think she can stand too near the ‘dirty pool of politics’ and escape the contagion of its foul vapors,” the Watchman wrote.

The paper also declared that “many of (suffrage’s) leading advocates … have thrown their scorn and contempt upon the Christian idea of marriage (and) … upon the authority of the Living Word. …”

Mary Ashton Rice Livermore. Wiki Commons  

During a speech, activist Mary Livermore challenged the Watchman’s editor, who was present, to defend that accusation. He chose to remain seated and silent, but from the safety of his office he later attacked her in his paper for her “unwomanly behaviour.”

Livermore declared that, in reading the press accounts, she was “impressed anew with the vulgarity and abuse, the vilification and misrepresentation, the obscene ridicule and ribald jests to which the press of (Vermont) resorts in its opposition to the woman suffrage movement.”

The suffragists were not without allies in the press, however.

The Brattleboro Phoenix, Montpelier’s Green Mountain Freeman, the Rutland Herald and the St. Albans Messenger all supported the drive for women’s right to vote, and reported favorably as the advocates toured the state in the months leading up to the election of delegates to the constitutional convention.

A Herald reporter wrote that he had expected reformers to be a bunch of ranting “harpies and Amazons,” but upon meeting Lucy Stone, declared her to be “a modest, quiet, little lady of some forty summers.” (She was actually 52.)

‘Even if they throw chairs at us’

During the spring of 1870, the reformers barnstormed Vermont in small groups, taking their message to every corner of the state. 

Lucy Stone was among the women’s suffrage advocates who toured Vermont in 1870, trying to persuade the state’s men to share the right to vote. Photo from Library of Congress  

Burlington was particularly inhospitable. Historian Deborah Clifford attributed the city’s mood to the strongly anti-suffrage attitude of the local paper. Opponents had derailed a pro-suffrage talk at a church near Burlington by throwing hot pepper on the woodstove, creating a primitive but effective sort of tear gas and thereby clearing the room.

At another gathering in the city, Howe had a suggestion for her fellow advocates: “Let me come first in the order of exercises,” she told them, “as I read from a manuscript and shall not be disconcerted even if they throw chairs at us.”

Despite fears of violence, the crowd listened quietly.

As the vote for convention delegates loomed, the Free Press claimed that an informal poll had found that only 10 percent of Vermont women wanted the right to vote and went so far as to print a petition that it asked women to sign. In part, the petition stated that “we would neglect our family duties,” and, “prone to excitement, we fear the effects of politics on delicate, pure female character,” and “woman suffrage might lead to laws requiring equal wages for unequal work, since female labor is less skilled.”

For all the words that were spoken and printed on the issue, the election of convention delegates that May was something of an anticlimax. The weather on election day was cold and wet, and only one in six voters turned out. Those men who did vote strongly opposed sharing their right to vote with women.

A month later, at the constitutional convention, delegates agreed to vote on the proposed amendment without any debate. They defeated the amendment, 231 to 1.

Vermont had not proven the fertile ground for change that reformers had hoped. In the end, however, their side would win. But it took another half-century to do so.

Editor’s note: VTDigger originally published this column by Mark Bushnell in 2018.

Mark Bushnell is a Vermont journalist and historian. He is the author of Hidden History of Vermont and It Happened in Vermont.