Editor’s Note: Today marks the 100th anniversary of an historic march in downtown Montpelier in support of the Suffragist Movement.
The women gathered at the Community Club on School Street in Montpelier. The facility was a recreational center for girls and boys, but on April 21, 1920, it saw an assembly of mothers, aunts and grandmothers. Four hundred strong, they marched silently and in single file to Main Street and then down State Street and up the granite steps of the State House.
The Argus reported, “A drenching rain did not dampen their ardor. It was the charge of the umbrella brigade. Each woman wore a yellow flower, a daffodil. Pinned to their coats was a yellow badge labeled ‘Special Session.’ That was the only banner carried. Taken all in all it was the biggest demonstration of its kind ever staged in the capital.
They had come to entreat Gov. Percival Clement to convene a special session of the legislature to ratify the 19th Amendment to the Constitution of the United States which read: “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.”
With ratification by the legislature, Vermont would have become the 36th state to do so and make history by providing the final vote necessary to amend the U.S. Constitution.
Vermont had made plodding progress toward equal rights for women. In 1880 according to an overview in the journal Vermont History, “The legislature granted women the right to vote in school meetings and to hold school offices. In 1906 women became eligible for the offices of Town Clerk, treasurer, trustee of public libraries, and town superintendent of schools. In 1920, with one more state needed to ratify the Nineteenth Amendment, a strong movement urged Governor Clement to call a special session of the legislature for this purpose. He preferred to wait until a regular session, by which time the amendment was a federal law.”
It took two determined Vermont women to organize the demonstration that they called “400 Green Mountain Girls.”
Lillian Oldzendam and Ann Batchelder were as resolute as they were different. The few things they had in common were that they were both Vermont-born in the latter half of the 19th century and both were well educated and rather worldly.
The recent Online Biographical Dictionary of the Woman Suffrage Movement in the United States provides the essential details of their lives.
Marble was born in Woodstock in 1868 but left to study and teach music in Boston, where she met Louis Oldzendam, the son of a wealthy industrialist from Manchester, New Hampshire.
After several years in Manchester, Marble returned to Woodstock in 1917, where she was employed by the National American Women Suffrage Association to be an organizer for the state of Vermont. By 1919 she became chair of the committee charged with securing ratification of the 19th Amendment. She also was a delegate to the NAWSA national convention in St. Louis, where she addressed the assembly on progress in Vermont around the issue of suffrage. Upon returning home, she toured the state promoting the voting-rights agenda and began organizing the “400 Green Mountain Girls Campaign” to lobby the governor Clement. In 1924, she composed music for lyrics written by Barre poet Wendell Phillips Stafford, and the collaboration became “Song of Vermont.” The Burlington Free Press noted, “The Song of Vermont” is likely to possess added interest to Vermonters as coming from one of the State’s distinguished daughters.”
Batchelder was an amazing woman. She was born in Windsor in 1881, and commenced reading law while in high school. She began her legal practice in 1917 as Vermont’s first woman lawyer.
Almost from the onset of her working life, she became an ardent advocate of voting rights for women. Along with Lillian Oldzendam, she helped recruit the 400 “Green Mountain Girls.” She also encouraged 1,600 more to write letters to Clement in support of women suffrage. Batchelder eventually found the life of a writer more satisfying than practicing law and that, combined with her love of food and cooking, led to her position as a regular contributor to Ladies Home Journal. Her monthly food column in a popular national magazine enhanced her reputation as a food expert and feminist.
Then Gov. Clement had been sworn in as a Republican in 1919 and, in a little over a year’s time, had demonstrated his opposition to the issues that mattered most to women. He was stridently opposed to prohibition, the first issue that unified feminists nationally. Since the most obvious consequence of the abuse of alcohol was the abuse of women, it is logical to trace the origins of the suffrage movement to the temperance cause. In fact, many of the proponents of prohibition were early advocates of the vote for women. Perhaps Clement assumed that if women were allowed to vote, they would tip the scales in favor of banning alcohol.
A scion of the marble industry and his father’s other business interests, Clement was a bank president, who also owned the Rutland Herald. He founded an anti-temperance party, and used his influence to end prohibition in Vermont, only to see temperance voters gain ascendancy in the state.
After his election as governor, Clement was faced with the national groundswell that ratified the 18th Amendment and saw prohibition become the law of the land. But when the Vermont legislature passed a law extending the voting franchise to women, he balked. Clement opposed the bill, and vetoed it, engendering strong opposition among Vermont suffragists.
These events led Oldzendam and Batchelder to organize the suffrage march in Montpelier on April 21, 1920.
The procession of women was eerily silent as it passed through Montpelier. The Argus reported, “The women presented an imposing spectacle as they moved silently down the main streets of the city. Silently the women marched up the steps of the capital, silently they entered the spacious room reserved for the audience chamber, silently they took their places in the space before the Governor’s chair – then the silence was broken.”
Oldzendam addressed the governor by explaining that the women in the chamber represented the women of Vermont. She said they were there to request a special session of the legislature to ratify the 19th Amendment, and closed with a quote from the Vermont constitution: “Every person ought to obtain justice freely, and without being obliged to purchase it, completely and without denial, promptly and without delay.”
Other members of the “Green Mountain Girls” spoke to specific issues regarding the special session including the well-known suffragist gadfly Annette Parmalee, of Enosburg Falls, who itemized specific points of their collective argument.
“This association seeks to remove the sex restrictions upon the voting privilege. This seems only just and fair inasmuch as the interests of both men and women are identical. Both pay taxes, both own property, both have homes and dependents to provide for,” Parmalee said.
She went on: “As I understand it, you have hesitated to call a special session, fearing possible constitution complications or the extra expense. Don’t the men get what they want regardless of expense and don’t the women have to pay their full share of tax money?”
In the evening session Batchelder made what the Argus reporter called “the most effective address of the gathering.” Her remarks were summarized in the newspaper: “Ever since the time of Christ, there have been “antis” trying to obstruct something. Suffrage is here and nothing can stop it and the opponents are skating on slippery places. The antis are full of objections but seldom give any reasons. 35 states have ratified. It would be a proud position for Vermont to be known as the 36th. She said it was conceded by all political leaders that it was suicide for the party that denied suffrage. 17,500,000 women would vote for the next president. The vote holds the balance of power. Ann concluded “women are human beings and they will not forget it if you fail to call a special session.”
Despite the protest march, and the deluge of 1,600 letters, Clement refused to convene a special session of the legislature. He remained impassive in the face of this pressure campaign. Out of step with national trends, Vermont watched Tennessee claim the distinction of being the 36th state to pass the 19th Amendment, thus ratifying for posterity the rights of women as full citizens of the United States.
The one-term governor did not stand for re-election, and his preferred successor was defeated in 1920 by James Hartness, a longtime supporter of the suffragist movement. It was the first year women were permitted to vote.
Paul Heller is a writer and historian who lives in Barre.