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From Edna Beard to Becca Balint: Women who made Vermont political history

Blurred people walk past the portrait of former Vermont Gov. Madeleine Kunin in the Statehouse.
Elodie Reed
A portrait of former Gov. Madeline Kunin hangs in the Vermont statehouse in Montpelier. To date, Kunin is the only woman who's served as governor of Vermont.

As Rep. Becca Balint was sworn to her seat in the U.S. House earlier this month — becoming the first woman Vermonters sent to Congress — state historians noted another anniversary. One hundred and two years earlier, Vermonters were celebrating their first female legislator: Edna Beard.

Staff at the Vermont Historical Society noted her historic election in a post on Instagram.  Amanda Kay Gustin, director of collections and access, joins the show to tell the story of Beard and other women who made historical firsts in the world of Vermont politics.

Two painted portraits of white women.
Peter Hirschfeld
Two portraits of Vermont political history: Edna Beard, the first woman elected to the Vermont Legislature and Consuelo Northrop Bailey, the first woman to be Speaker of the Vermont House, among other firsts.

This transcript has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Connor Cyrus: Let's start with Edna Beard. What makes her an historic female lawmaker in Vermont? And what do we know about her?

Edna Beard was the first woman elected to serve in the Vermont House of Representatives. She was from Orange, Vt. She was born actually in Illinois in 1877, but her family moved to Orange and farmed when she was 10 years old, so she grew up in Orange and Orange County. She actually went to high school in the building I'm sitting in right now, the Spaulding High School, in Barre, Vt. After high school, she became a teacher. She served in a variety of other capacities in the community. She was deeply involved with the Grange, for example, and eventually she became treasurer for the town of Orange. It was when serving as treasurer for the town of Orange when she decided to run for the legislature. This is a moment in Vermont history where most of the political battles took place in the Republican primary because it was a very heavily Republican state at that time, so she ran in the Republican primary, and she lost. A man beat her out. But she filed to run as a third party candidate, and between the primary and the general, a number of women registered to vote.

This was 1920, the first year that women can vote with the passage of the 19th Amendment, and so, women in Orange registered between the primary and the general election. There's some evidence that enough women registered to put her over the top. In fact, she won that general election as a third party candidate, and served in the Vermont House of Representatives in one term, from 1921 to 1923. Then, she jumped over and did another first. She ran in 1922 while she was a serving representative from the town of Orange, she decided to run for senator from Orange County. She was elected to be the first woman to represent Orange County, the first woman in the Vermont State Senate, across the board. She left that term a little early because of poor health. Edna moved back to Orange, continued to run her farm with her brother, and she passed away just a few years later, in 1928.

We do know a little bit about some of the legislation she worked on. She only served one and a a half terms, one term in the House and she didn't quite finish her term in the Senate. Her first bill in the House that she sponsored was Act 218, which provided $2 a week in child support whose husbands were quote, incapacitated by an incurable disease. Think of it as a very early kind of a family leave support for women whose husbands couldn't work. At that time, most households were single income households. In the Senate, she sponsored a bill that made it possible for women to become sheriff's deputies.

After her, there was another early Vermont lawmaker who had historical importance, Consuela Northrup Bailey. Can you put her election into historical context?

Consuela Northrup Bailey is really an extraordinary figure in Vermont politics. She was born in 1899, from Fairfield, Vt., graduates from UVM, goes off to Boston University Law School and is admitted to the Vermont bar in 1925. She's younger than Edna Beard, but not by too too much. They would have overlapped.

She has a whole list of firsts. In 1926, Consuela North Bailey becomes the first woman to be admitted to practice before the Vermont Supreme Court, and in her legal career, she then becomes elected state's attorney of Chittenden County in 1930. She's elected to the Vermont Senate just a few years after Edna Beard is there. She only serves one term in the Senate, but it's when she returns to politics— she went back to her law practice for a time— so in 1950, she was elected to the Vermont House of Representatives and this is really where her political career takes off. She became in 1953, in her second term, the first woman to serve as speaker of the Vermont House of Representatives. In the 1950s, that's pretty early. Her autobiography is something else and it tells you what a force her personality must have been. She was absolutely, incredibly smart, incredibly driven, incredibly tough, and serves as speaker from 1953 to 1955. While she's serving as speaker, she decides to run for lieutenant governor and when she's elected to lieutenant governor in 1954, she achieves another first and this one is a national first: the first woman elected to be lieutenant governor of any state. She serves one term from 1955 to 1957. She leaves elected politics, but she continues in politics for the rest of her life. She was really heavily involved on the Republican National Committee. Again, this covers a time period when Vermont was one of the most solidly red Republican states in the country, so this is a hotly contested position. She was the one to call the role of delegates in 1968 and 1972 when Nixon was elected. She passed away in 1976, but left just like an extraordinary impact on Vermont politics.

George Aiken was Vermont's governor in the 1930s. I understand his wife, Lola Aiken, was a major political force in his political career, despite never holding elected office. What can you tell us about Lola Aiken?

She was actually his second wife. She was not his wife when he was governor and actually started as an aide in his senate office. He serves a bit as governor, but he really spends the longest time as a senator, from 1940 to 1974. He gets the nickname, "the wise old owl of the Senate." Vermont likes our long-serving Senators. [Laughs]

[Laughs] They sure do.

She's the lowest paid staff member when she starts in his Senate office, but she worked her way up. Over the years, eventually, she becomes his staff manager, essentially, his chief of staff. She is an absolute political force, both in Washington and back in Vermont. As I said, she was George Aiken's second wife. They married in 1967 after the death of his first wife. When he retired in 1975, they came back to Vermont, and she was everywhere. There are so many people around today who are going to have a Lola Aiken story, who knew her, who felt her influence in Vermont politics and in Vermont community life, so she sort of was just like this extraordinary force in Vermont politics.

Now, let's discuss Madeleine Kunin, and listeners, we could do an entire show on the impact that Madeline Kunin has had on our state. To date, she's Vermont's only female governor. Amanda, can you just put her time in office into context for us, and what are the major highlights?

Madeleine Kunin starts her career as a journalist, and in 1972, she's encouraged to run for a seat in the Vermont House of Representatives. She serves for three terms, and she gets elected to leadership positions. She is the majority whip for the Democrats and then she becomes the first woman to be chair of the Appropriations Committee. I think we've gotten used to now in the legislature, there have been women chairs of all of the money committees in both house Senate for some time now, but Madeleine Kunin in the 1970s is the first woman to serve as Chair of Appropriations. She runs for and is elected lieutenant governor in 1978 and 1980, so she's the second woman to be lieutenant governor of the state of Vermont. Gov. Richard Snelling said that he wasn't going to run again in 1982 and she throws her hat the ran to be governor in 1982. He changed his mind, he ended up running, and she did lose that race. But she came back, and she was elected Governor of Vermont in 1984.

One of the things that stand out to me, especially in the context we're talking about with women in politics, is that she made a pledge early on to nominate and appoint as many women as she possibly could. Ideally, she wanted to get to an even representation of women in appointed positions in the Vermont State Government and she does achieve that. For example, she appoints the first woman to the Vermont's Supreme Court, Denise Johnson. She appoints Mollie Beattie to the Department of Forest, Parks and Recreation. Mollie goes on to become the first woman Director of the United States Fish and Wildlife Service. There's many, many more. Many of the women who are involved in politics today can look back and credit their time to serving in the Kunin administration. Of course, since then, she has stayed involved in Vermont politics. She founded Emerge Vermont, which is the organization that trains Democratic women to run for office, and that can claim something like a quarter of the legislature right now as graduates of that program. She's had an extraordinary influence on the Vermont political scene.

Somewhat overlapping with Gov. Kunin was Lavinia Dorsey Bright, the first black woman elected to the Vermont House. What can you tell us about Lavinia?

She was a lifelong educator. Eventually, she becomes an Associate Professor of Education at the University of Vermont, and she ran for and won a seat in the Vermont legislature in 1989. She became the first black woman to hold a seat in the Vermont legislature in either house, house or senate. At the time, she was one of only two black members of the Vermont legislature, the other being Francis Brooks. She served until 1994, so three terms, and then had to give up her seat when her family moved to Illinois, which is where she was from originally. A force, and again, her legacy continues today. A number of people have found with the Bright Leadership Institute to support women of color in Vermont politics today.

And then there's also another person of color, Angela Lawrence. She also had a first in Vermont. Can you tell us about her?

Yeah, Angela Lawrence. This is a brand new first. Angela Lawrence is the first woman of color to serve as a high bailiff in Vermont. She was elected this past November to serve as high bailiff for Windham County.

As we mentioned earlier, this month, Becca Balint made history as the first woman Vermont ever sent to Congress. How do we compare that with what we've seen in other states?

Unfortunately, that makes us last. Vermont was the last state to send a woman as federal representative to Congress. Mississippi was second to last, but Cindy Hyde Smith was appointed to a Senate seat a number of years ago and then was elected to serve that in that Senate seat soon there after, which left Vermont as the last one. Of course, as you said, that was an unfortunate record that we broke in November when we elected Becca Balint. Rep. Balint holds another first. She was the first woman to serve as president pro tem of the Vermont Senate and the first openly LGBT person to serve as president pro tem of the Vermont Senate as well. She's got a number of firsts for her name. I think there are a lot of reasons for this, but I think top of the list is Vermont's propensity for keeping people in those federal congressional positions for a very long time.

Throughout history, women have always been a political force. I think that if we were to do an in-depth study of the 19th century and the 18th century, we would find women as movers and shakers behind the scenes. You can look, for example, to Karina Howard Nichols, who was the first woman to address the Vermont legislature in the 19th century. Women were making their voices heard and they were serving in local elected offices before they were able to serve at the state level. We need to do a lot more work to uncover and really understand women's influence in politics. We often pay attention to the elected positions and 'the first' because those are the easiest to see and those are the easiest to figure out and understand, but politics is often times about who's in the room, and I would argue that women have always been in the room. They have always been influencing Vermont politics, even when we haven't seen them as the figurehead in an elected position. As a woman, I'm also thrilled now to see so many women serving across elected positions across the state of Vermont in the legislature and of course, representing us in Washington D.C.

Broadcast on Friday, Jan. 20, 2023, at noon.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or tweet us @vermontedition.

Connor Cyrus was co-host and senior producer of Vermont Edition from 2021-2023.
Matt Smith worked for Vermont Public from 2017 to 2023 as managing editor and senior producer of Vermont Edition.