Eric Davis: First Vt. woman legislator made a mark
Gov. Phil Scott devoted the end of his State of the State Address this past Thursday to the need to preserve civility in politics, to treat others with dignity, and to end the era of hyper-partisanship, bitterness, hate and anger. The governor referred to a number of figures in Vermont’s history “who served our state and nation with dignity and humility” and continue to be role models today. One of these figures was Edna Beard, the first woman elected to the Vermont Legislature. Her story deserves to be more widely told.
In June 1919, Congress proposed an amendment to the U.S. Constitution to give women the right to vote in all federal and state elections. At that time, some states had enacted women’s suffrage, but Vermont allowed women to vote only in municipal elections, not in primary or general elections. The amendment would become part of the U.S. Constitution after it was ratified by 36 state legislatures.
In the summer of 1920, Vermont Gov. Percival Clement, an ardent opponent of women’s suffrage, refused to call a special session of the Legislature to ratify the amendment. When Tennessee ratified the amendment on Aug. 18, 1920, it went into effect immediately. (Vermont did not ratify until the next regular session of the Legislature, in February 1921.) Vermont women were now eligible to vote in, and to be candidates in, the September 1920 primary and the November 1920 general election.
Enter Edna Beard. Beard’s family were long-time residents of Orange, Vt. Her parents had moved to Illinois a few years before she was born in 1877, but returned to Orange in 1883. Edna was educated in the local elementary school and then at Spaulding High School in Barre. After attending the Randolph State Normal School, the first institute for teacher training in Vermont, Beard served as a teacher in her hometown of Orange.
The Vermont House of Representatives then included one member from each town. Soon after the Nineteenth Amendment went into effect in late August 1920, Beard registered to vote and filed as a candidate in the Republican primary for the Vermont House district from Orange. She lost the primary to a male candidate, Burt Richardson, by a vote of 69 to 63.
Vermont election law in 1920 permitted candidates who were unsuccessful in the primary to file for the same office in the general election as an independent. Beard did so, and her name appeared, along with Richardson’s, on the November 1920 general election ballot.
Beard decided to conduct a voter registration drive as an important part of her general election campaign. Between the September primary and the registration deadline in October, she registered 40 new voters, all of them women. On Election Day in November, Beard defeated Richardson by 119 votes to 81. Her 38-vote margin of victory was almost exactly the same as the number of new women voters she had registered.
Beard served one term in the House, and advocated for issues important to women. She was instrumental in passing a new program that provided state-funded child support payments to women whose husbands were “incapacitated by an incurable disease” such as tuberculosis. In 1922, she was elected to the Vermont Senate from Orange County. In the Senate, Beard was the principal sponsor of a bill, which became law, that required sheriffs who hired deputies to include at least one woman among the deputies.
Beard had made a name for herself in the Legislature, and some Republicans urged her to run for lieutenant governor in 1924. However, her health was failing, so she did not run for any office that year. Beard returned home to Orange, and died four years later, at the age of 51. A portrait of this Vermont feminist pioneer is on display in the Statehouse.
Eric L. Davis is professor emeritus of political science at Middlebury College.
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