Aug. 18 marked the 99th anniversary of the 19th amendment to the constitution, which granted women the right to vote. But less often discussed is Vermont’s forgone opportunity to support the movement. For this reason, and the upcoming 100th anniversary, the Vermont Suffrage Centennial Alliance has formed to educate Vermonters on the history of the 19th amendment, the suffragists who pushed for it and look ahead at true voting equality for all.

Vermont’s little-known role in women’s rights

On a rainy April day in 1920, some 400 women marched on the Statehouse, beseeching Vermont Gov. Percival Clement to call a special session of the legislature. Their hope: ratification of the 19th amendment, which would give women the right to vote. But Gov. Clemmons was unmoved, citing the cost of a special session as too expensive, according to Rachel Onuf of the Vermont Historical Records Program.

In August 1920, Tennessee passed the measure, becoming the 36th and final state needed to do so, and earning the title “Victory State.”  

“This was a 72-year effort,” South Burlington resident and centennial alliance member Sandy Dooley said, noting the first women’s rights convention in 1848. “It’s been so important to women’s whole role in society, their own political empowerment.”

And according to Dooley, the women’s suffrage movement was not widely taught in school. “When I went to school, there was very little information about the [19th amendment],” she said. Today, she’s spoken to young women who say it’s hard for them to imagine being forbidden to vote. 

That’s part of what the centennial alliance wants to address. According to Dooley, the group hopes to reinforce the importance of voting and fill in the gap of what it took to get that right through a series of events leading up to the centennial anniversary in August 2020. The first event, an art exhibit titled, “Votes for Women …?” begins on Sept. 13 at Middlebury College. 

“There were marches in different parts of the country,” she said. “There were women who were jailed, who were imprisoned and force fed (for marching).” 

The alliance hopes to call attention to those stories, as well as the voting barriers that still exist today, according to Alliance Manager Sue Racanelli. 

“That still happens today,” she said. 

In 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court deemed part of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 – which was meant to ensure states could not deny Americans the equal right to vote based on race – unconstitutional and thus eliminating some of its provisions. Twenty-five states have since enacted “voter suppression laws” that create barriers to voting using stricter voter identification requirements, limit early voting opportunities, shorter hours at the polls and more, according to the Vermont Suffrage Centennial Alliance website. 

Over the next year, the group will host events focused on voting issues past and present. Speakers from a slew of colleges and universities including UVM, St. Michael’s College and Dartmouth, as well as other people and organizations, will lead the discussions.

“The state here is very determined to make it happen, to do what it needs to make sure everyone has the ability to vote,” Racanelli said. 

She added that Vermont has taken steps like getting Americans with Disabilities Act-approved voting systems and ensuring the right to vote for homeless individuals, among other measures.

Vermonters can get involved by taking a pledge online to show their support of the state’s efforts to make voting accessible, Rancanelli said. The pledge is available on the Vermont Suffrage Centennial Alliance website, www.vtsuffrage2020.org.

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