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Under The Golden Dome:
The Stories Behind Vermont's Citizen Legislature


Program 4:
Women and the Legislature

Women had been in the Legislature since Edna Beard in 1921. In 1953, Consuelo Bailey became Vermont’s first woman speaker and then the nation’s first woman Lieutenant Governor. Yet despite these milestones, women continued to be separate and unequal in the State House, until a group of activist women from Chittenden County made their presence felt in the 1970s.

Transcript:

Louise Swainbank

It was a shock to me the way women were treated in the Legislature... I had come from a women’s society, teaching school, and a lot of respect for women. And when I got over there, I found that women were expected to be Clerks and do the mechanical work... The Equal Rights Amendment came up and then women came to the forefront.

Gregory L. Sharrow

Women had been in the Vermont legislature since Edna Beard in 1921, and in 1953 Consuelo Bailey became Vermont’s first woman speaker, and then the nation’s first woman lieutenant governor. Yet as Louise Swainbank said, women continued to be separate but unequal in the state house until a group of women from Chittenden County emerged in the Seventies.

Governor Madeleine Kunin

At first I thought, well, I’m going to have a tough time in the Legislature. One, because I’m a Democrat and there were very few Democrats at that time. We were a real minority. And the other, because I’m a woman and there were very few women. Well, it turned out that my biggest liability was neither of those, but the fact that I was from Burlington, which was the big city!

Gregory L. Sharrow

Madeleine Kunin won a seat in the Vermont House of Representatives in 1972, running on a platform that stressed educational, environmental, and poverty issues.

Governor Madeleine Kunin

And, uh, I soon learned though that the most powerful committee in the House was the House Appropriations committee. And I also learned early on that not all legislators were equal. We may have gotten there... by the vote so we were equally elected but the leadership and the committee chairs wielded a lot of power. And so I looked around me and I said, “Well, you know there are 180 people here, but there are about a dozen who really call the shots.” And there had never been a woman in a leadership position before, so I decided to run for the position of Democratic Whip, which is the number two spot in the leadership hierarchy... and, as a result of that, I gained a position on the House Appropriations Committee. And the budget itself is the most important legislation that the legislature has to deal with – You have to pass a budget each year. And it wasn’t just a question of money, it was a question of values.

Gregory L. Sharrow

Four years later, Gretchen Morse followed Kunin down the interstate to Montpelier.

Gretchen Morse

When I got elected I ended up being one of the only Republican women, and, yet, I felt a great allegiance and collegiality with many of the other Democrat women candidates that won. And so we went to Montpelier with kind of a group. We car-pooled together, we often stayed overnight together. We knew each other as people. We shared a lot of things in common. We had small children. Madeleine was kind of like our big sister. And she was very, very generous with her skills and her mentoring, regardless of party. The other thing is, I didn’t really feel among the women friends that I had there that there was a lot of ego, I mean we were very excited about participating and joining. And not necessarily being the “it”. So there was a lot of teamwork. We held caucuses together and took on issues that crossed party lines.

Sallie Soule

When I got to the House there were women helping women. And as I came in, I didn’t ask for the traditional committees that women often do. I did ask for Ways and Means, which is a tax writing committee. And Madeline got me on Ways and Means, which was almost unheard of in those days, for a freshman to get on a money committee. It was totally scary, too, because I really didn’t know much about taxes. And I had to learn awful fast.

Gregory L. Sharrow

Sallie Soule’s interest in politics was born out of a difficult personal experience. Her career was a sign that women would bring new energies, new issues and new perspectives into the state house.

Sallie Soule

My third pregnancy I lost a child that went to term and the baby died because it was a blue baby and at that point the doctor said to me, “No more babies.” And I said, “All right. If I have one, get pregnant again, I’m going to have an abortion.” And he said, “No abortions.” Well, that’s again what rather radicalized me in terms of some of my thinking. And I think a lot of people’s career in politics or whatever they do comes from their personal experience, no question about it. And this was a searing experience in my life, and so I think that began my interest in abortion rights, women’s rights... And I do think, very clearly, that people’s political life or their business life or whatever it is, a lot of it comes from their own personal experience.

Louise Swainbank

Sallie was a wonderful and very strong legislator. She was a Rock of Gibraltar, you know. She was courageous, and so was Madeleine Kunin. And Susan Auld was another very strong Legislator. And there were women before that time who were good Legislators. I don’t mean that there weren’t. But these people were activists and were willing to fight for their strong rights.

Gregory L. Sharrow

When debate began over whether Vermont should ratify the Equal Rights Amendment, the opposition included Phyllis Schlafly of the conservative Eagle Forum — yet support appeared from often unexpected quarters.

Louise Swainbank

It came up fairly early, as I remember, and it was quite obvious that we had the votes and so, we decided not to speak too much. In other words not to kill it by over-talking... but it did pass both Houses, .. and we did ratify, but, of course, it never was ratified nationally. Phyllis Schlafly appeared and with cohorts and organized the opposition at a hearing. That was very interesting. But some little man from Barre, got up and said “I’m not going to pay any attention to somebody who comes in here from Illinois.” And of course, we were all just delighted. ...and I think that the very process of working through all that, really, nation-wide, changed attitudes toward women. And I think we’ve made a great many changes in a relatively short period of time.

Gregory L. Sharrow

When Kunin was elected governor in 1984, record numbers of women followed her into the state government. By the end of the century, Vermont had the highest percentage of women state legislators in the country.

Louise Swainbank

Those strong women from the Burlington area were very effective and they gave courage to some of the rest of us. And I think it was just a change in the general feeling about women. And the Governor’s Commission on the Status of Women was very prominent at the time. We had a lot of support.

Gregory L. Sharrow

We heard the voices of Louise Swainbank, Madeleine Kunin, Gretchen Morse, and Sallie Soule. All are former members of the Vermont Legislature.

The interviews were sponsored by the Snelling Center for Government. This series was produced by the Vermont Folklife Center of Middlebury by Bob Merrill and Jane Beck. Funding for this series was provided by the Vermont Community Foundation and the Windham Foundation. I’m Greg Sharrow.


 


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