The Word in the House 2/13/2020 - Revisiting the Nineteenth Amendment

The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex. Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.    - The 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, adopted August 18, 1920

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the adoption of the 19th Amendment which gave women the right to vote everywhere in the United States.  The occasion is being marked in the Statehouse with a special exhibit called “Women in the Statehouse.” A display featuring the history of the evolution of Vermont state government from an all-male institution to the present where 40% of legislators are women was dedicated with a ceremony last week.  The Vermont legislature passed full suffrage for women in 1919, but the bill was vetoed by Governor Percival Clement. National adoption of the 19th amendment in 1920 had an immediate effect in Vermont where 10,000 women voted in that year’s gubernatorial election in which James Hartness, a leading voice for the ratification of the amendment, defeated Clement. Vermont quickly ratified the 19th Amendment in February of 1921, and in November Edna Louisa Beard became the first woman to be elected to the Vermont House of Representatives. Since then, Vermont has had three women Speakers of the House: Consuela Bailey (1953 – 1955), Gaye Symington (2005 – 2009), and Mitzi Johnson (2017 – Present).  Consuela Bailey was also Vermont’s first female Lieutenant Governor and was subsequently joined in that honor by Madeleine Kunin and Barbara Snelling. Madeleine Kunin became the first and only (so far) woman Governor of Vermont in 1985 and served until 1991.

If you are ever looking for something to do on a Wednesday evening between January and April, and if you don’t mind driving to Montpelier, you can attend Farmers Night at the Statehouse.  This series of programs is a longstanding tradition in which artists from around the state, in genres ranging from classical music to bluegrass to barbershop, perform in the well of the House Chamber. The performances are free and open to the public, and the schedule can be found at

In the same evening that the “Women in the Statehouse” exhibit was dedicated, I had the privilege and pleasure of taking part in the weekly Farmers Night performance that featured a musical rendition of the 19th Amendment.  The music in four parts was composed by Neely Bruce, professor of Music and American Studies at Wesleyan University. Besides several legislators and Statehouse staff, singers from Massachusetts and Connecticut as well as from Vermont performed under the direction of Neely Bruce himself. While his composition, “The Bill of Rights, Ten Amendments in Eight Motets” was also sung in the program, the night’s performance was the worldwide debut of “The Nineteenth Amendment”.  

The right to vote is a fundamental right of citizenship and is essential to our democratic form of government. Besides the 19th Amendment, three other amendments extend the right to vote to persons that had previously been excluded. The 15th amendment, adopted after the Civil War, gave the right to former slaves and people of color. The 24th amendment (1964) forbids the use of a poll tax to exclude a person from voting. The 26th amendment (1971) extended voting rights to eighteen year-olds. As Town Meeting approaches and as we move toward the general election in November, we each have not only a chance but a responsibility to make our voice heard by exercising this right.

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