Lest I leave the impression that Vermont has always been fertile territory for free thinkers, consider Clarina Nichols, who ultimately traded Vermont for Kansas to fulfill her dreams.
But she was frustrated. Until women had the right to vote, Nichols felt they would be basically powerless. She wrote: “We are the best judges…and should hold in our own hands, in our own right, means for acquiring the one and comprehending the other…Women must look to the ballot for self-protection.”
Even as a young girl Nichols understood the importance of a “scientific” education for women. If they received any schooling at all, the main lessons focused on home skills like needlepoint, comportment and etiquette. At her graduation in 1829, she delivered a speech titled “Comparative of a Scientific and an Ornamental Education for Women.”
After briefly teaching she married Justin Carpenter, a Baptist minister, and the family moved to Herkimer in New York. The next decade was spent raising three children and running a seminary for young women. But in 1840 she returned to Vermont – with the children but not Mr. Carpenter – and started writing for the Windham County Democrat. Three years later she divorced. Six days after the divorce was final she married George Nichols, editor and publisher of the Democrat.
When her new husband became ill she took over the editing, and under her direction the paper’s circulation grew from 100 to 1,850. She made it more literary and used its pages to advocate for women’s rights and abolition, as well as against the use of alcohol.
She told an 1851 Women’s Rights Convention held in Worcester, Massachusetts, “It is a fact that our wearing apparel belongs to our husbands and when they choose to pawn or sell our clothing for drink, they can do so.”
Nichols’ suffrage work led to a long-standing friendship with Susan B. Anthony but conflict with Vermont’s legislative establishment. Her first appearance at the Statehouse – the first ever by a woman – outraged many people in the audience. The editor of the Rutland Herald threatened to come to the capital with a man’s suit and dress her in it.
After Nichols testified in favor of women’s right to vote in school district elections, the Education Committee concluded that “women are the proper educators and trainers of the young.” But committee members remained unconvinced on suffrage. Instead of acting on the issue, they recommended that women “entrust the advocacy of their views and interests to a male relative or friend.”
Nichols decided that it was time to try a state where she could be more effective. One of Vermont’s restless spirits was moving on.
She picked Kansas, in part, because a temperate climate might improve her husband’s health. But George Nichols died just a year after the move in 1854. Still, her basic hunch was correct. In Kansas, she was able to win campaigns to insert many rights for women into the constitution, including voting rights in school elections. In 1866 she moved to Washington, DC with her daughter, where she ran the Home for Colored Orphans.
The same year that Nichols left Vermont Lucy Stone, already a leading voice for abolition and suffrage, gave a fiery speech in Randolph. People should withhold their taxes until women had the right to vote, she urged. But it was her appearance that created the real stir during that visit. Focusing on her attire, reporters wondered why attractive young women in the audience were parading around in “unfeminine” bloomers. Stone and other activist women had become admirers of Amelia Bloomer’s trousered dresses, which permitted women to work more freely, especially when carrying things.
Vermont’s leaders resisted giving women the vote right up to the end. When a suffrage bill was passed by the state legislature in 1919, Governor Percival Clement called it unconstitutional and refused to sign. In 1920, when the state was pressured to ratify the 19th amendment, the governor again declined to help, refusing to call a special legislative session.
It became national law anyway. A year later, Edna L. Beard, a former school superintendent, became the first woman elected to the state legislature.