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Blackwell: Lenore McNeer for Women's History Month

Archival photo courtesy Vermont Commission on Women
From left: Karen Kent, Lenore McNeer, then-Gov. Tom Salmon, Rep Louise Swainback and Sen. Dorothy Shea read the original ERA ratification bill in 1973. Kent headed the project on behalf of the Commission; Swainbank and Shea were key legislative leaders.

In the ‘70s no one worked harder than social activist Lenore McNeer to ensure that Vermont ratified the federal ERA - the federal amendment to guarantee equality based on sex.McNeer had moved to Vermont in 1951 with a graduate degree in Social Work. Then, in 1970, she became chair of the Governor’s Commission on the Status of Women, and after Congress approved the ERA, she worked with the Vermont Women’s Political Caucus to educate the public, lobby politicians, and find experts to testify on Vermont law. As a result, the coalition forestalled delays and opposition that arose from several key senators. After Vermont promptly ratified the amendment, McNeer thanked legislators for “moving the nation one more step forward in providing human rights for all.” 

Two years later, a small group of women from the northeast region formed the Vermont Caucus on the Family to rescind Vermont’s ratification – and the ERA coalition gathered advocates once again. 

Opposition turned out in force, wearing anti-ERA buttons at a dramatic senate hearing. Phyllis Schlafly, head of Stop ERA, dressed more like an average housewife than the astute politician that she was, claimed the ERA would ruin marriage, and would only “treat women exactly like men” – an outcome she said would “hardly be an advance.” Unimpressed by the outsider, however, Vermont senators quickly declined to rescind the bill. 

Ultimately, the federal ERA effort failed. And by 1986, when Vermonters were given a chance to vote for a state ERA, the political winds had shifted, McNeer was no longer alive, and it failed to pass. 

But today, the ERA is back. In the last two years Nevada and Illinois both have ratified the original amendment. And here in Vermont, a new ERA proposal for a state constitutional amendment would also include race, sexual orientation, and other criteria. 

I imagine McNeer would be applauding the effort.

Historian Marilyn Blackwell of East Montpelier, has written widely on Vermont and women's history. She is the co-author of Frontier Feminist: Clarina Howard Nichols and the Politics of Motherhood, published in 2010.
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