The Suffragettes of St. Johnsbury – August 2020 Edition of History & Heritage
Updated: Apr 18
Welcome to this month’s edition of History & Heritage. Our purpose is to acquaint you with our mission to preserve the town’s rich history, highlight the legacy of those who have gone before and show how our past has shaped our present. We are a non-profit with 501(c)(3) status.
We are located at 421 Summer Street. Our Pandemic schedule is Tuesday – Thursday, 10 – 4.Coved 19 Policies require a mask, temperature and a sign in. This is your establishment and we encourage your support in making this historic home and barn a wonderful place for exhibiting, preserving and collecting St. Johnsbury’s history. Browse our web site at www.stjhistory.org and our Facebook page. Our mailing address is 421 Summer Street, St. Johnsbury, Vt. 05819 and our phone number is 802 – 424- 1090.
The Suffragettes of St. Johnsbury
Guest post by volunteer Dale Steen
The women of St. Johnsbury and surrounding towns were actively involved in the suffrage movement from the moment Clarina Howard Nichols of West Townshend, Vermont helped to petition the Vermont State Legislature to give women the right to vote at school meetings (1853) until February, 1921 when the Vermont State Legislature finally ratified the 19th amendment.
As early as 1852 middle class women in town discussed the roles of women in society including rights and suffrage. Many belonged to “ladies library associations” where they could freely discuss these topics. The community as a whole valued intellectual development for both men and women judging from the numerous literary societies in town. When St. Johnsbury Academy opened its doors in 1842, women were in the majority and were treated as “intellectual equals”. However, women had no voting rights, property rights or in case of divorce the right to their children.
Discussions and activities around suffrage slowed down during the Civil War and its aftermath. Then in 1868, things began to pick up with the ratification of the 14th Amendment which guaranteed equal protection to all citizens but suffrage only for men. In 1883, the National Woman’s Suffrage Association (formed in 1869), planned to campaign in Vermont, inspiring citizens of St. Johnsbury to once again tackle the issue of Women’s suffrage. Following in the path of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, St. Johnsbury hosted a Women’s Suffrage Convention at the Town Hall with the purpose of forming a Vermont Woman’s Suffrage Association (VWSA). Speakers included nationally known suffrage advocates Julia Ward Howe, Lucy Stone and Henry Blackwell. According to the Caledonian Record (November 16, 1883) Mr. Blackwell stated that “Government is but a great corporation …. no manufacturing corporation or railroad company denies its women stockholders the right to vote; they have the same right as men”. Former state senator, Mr. H.C. Ide of St. Johnsbury, who secured the passage of the property rights bill for married women in 1882, also spoke. On the last day of the convention, November 16, 1883, the Vermont Women’s Suffrage Association (VWSA) was established. Officers and committee chairs included several people from the area: Mrs. M.L.T. of Lyndonville, president, Miss Laura Moore of Barnet, treasurer, Mrs. S.A. Nelson of West Burke, Mrs. H.C. Ide, Mrs. T. Cutler and the Rev. S.S. Martin of Peacham. Organizing and securing a venue for the convention was no easy task as some citizens viewed the organizers to be dangerous and revolutionary. ‘The ladies made an effort to obtain the use of The Lecture Hall for their convention, but those having charge of the hall refused them the privilege”. (Caledonian Record, November 1, 1883).
In 1884, the municipal Vermont Suffrage bill was introduced in the House and defeated. It was introduced to the house again in 1892 by Representative Wendell Phillips Stafford (STJA class of 1880) but rejected by the Senate. One of the 60 founders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People ( NAACP), Stafford was recognized in 1893 by the New England Woman Suffrage Assoc. for his work for suffrage for all.
In 1916 the Vermont Federation of Women’s Clubs endorsed Women’s Suffrage. The members of the St. Johnsbury Women’s Club took an active role in supporting the ratification of the 19th amendment by holding meetings on the subject and giving talks to other organizations. In March of 1919 the all-male Vermont Legislature passed the “Presidential Suffrage Bill” but Governor Percival Clement vetoed it. Women’s Suffrage was one state away from being written into the US Constitution. Vermont could have been the state to cast the deciding vote with a special legislative session but the Gov. Clement refused to hold a special session arguing it was not legal under the state’s constitution. Instead the glory went to the state of Tennessee. Alice Wakefield, MD of St.Johnsbury was quoted as saying “I feel it is providential that a southern state should bring about the victory as there is so much need in the South for Women’s Suffrage”. (Caledonian Record, April 18, 1920). Dr. Wakefield is well known for her efforts to institute Health and Nutrition policies in public schools. She firmly believed that women would put a new meaning to the term “politics” by joining hands and hearts to ensure a strong, steady and progressive citizenship. (Journal of Education. Vol. (93, No. 16, April 1921) Dr. Wakefield practiced in both NYC and St. Johnsbury.
The Vermont Legislature finally ratified the 19th amendment on February 19, 1921.
History and Heritage is honoring the 100th anniversary of the passage of the 19th amendment with a new display. The display, executed by volunteers, highlights the women of St. Johnsbury who were active in the suffrage movement in the early 1900’s featuring members of the St. Johnsbury Women’s Club, artist and photographer Katherine M. Bingham and Alice Wakefield, M.D. A vintage silk dress worn by Ms. Bingham in 1919, along with an exquisite feathered cloche, adds visual panache. Come visit!
This article was written by Dale Steen, a volunteer here at the Center.