Given the contemporary image of the Green Mountain State as a refuge and laboratory for independent and progressive thinkers it can be jarring to look at a not-so-distant past when Vermont was an isolationist bastion in which Native Americans had to call themselves gypsies to avoid sterilization.
Cynthia D. Bittinger’s book, Vermont Women, Native Americans and African Americans: Out of the Shadows of History, doesn't over-stress this dark chapter in state history. But the impact of Vermont’s eugenics movement does suggest the need to revisit and update the state's traditional narrative. In the 1930s and later, both immigrants to Vermont and any other “non-Yankees” were widely considered outsiders, at best. Since about half of all residents today are “transplants,” there is good reason to reconsider just who was and is a Vermonter, native, "real" or otherwise, and what has been previously omitted or downplayed in telling the state’s story.
To start, even Calvin Coolidge, one of two Vermonters to become president, had Indian blood in his background. It was not so uncommon. Unlike many Abenakis, however, Coolidge did not feel the need to hide his ancestry. In fact, Vermont was viewed as the “last great white hope” of New England in the 1920s. But immigrants, “nomadic tribes” and others did not fit in with this squeaky clean image and a related “domestic hygiene” movement.
The state’s shameless plunge into control of “human breeding” was apparently driven by a mixture of xenophobia and a confused desire to weed out so-called defects. Harry Perkins, the University of Vermont professor who led the state’s Commission on Country Life, publicly justified eugenics as a way to build a healthier society, eliminate poverty and prevent genetic diseases. But he focused specifically on the “hereditary degeneracy” of many Native Americans and French-Canadians.
“Perkins was judging who was unfit to reproduce,” Bittinger writes. “So he drafted a sterilization law that would provide prevention of propagation by consent.” Passed in 1931, it promised that the procedure would be "voluntary." In reality, it largely wasn't. The total number sterilized is unknown, but the impact on Abenakis was reportedly dramatic. It took almost half a century for the state to publicly acknowledge this disturbing human rights crime. Vermont’s sterilization law remained in place until 1981.
Bittinger also lends support to the idea that the winners get to write history with the case of the Abenakis, who lost their chance in large part by siding with the French before the American Revolution. However, what distinguishes her book is not so much the revisiting of well-known moments as the intriguing biographical sketches.
In a section on settlers who were captured by Native Americans, she recounts the journey of Susanna Johnson. In a memoir Johnson described life at an Abenaki village north of Lake Memphremagog in 1754: people living “in perfect harmony, holding most of their property in common.” The Abenaki were kinder and gentler, Johnson concluded, than the French jailers she met later on.
She also grapples with the significant, often underrated impact of African Americans on Vermont’s reputation for innovation and independent thinking. Among the leaders were Lucy Terry Prince, a former slave who resettled in Guilford and became the first African American poet in the United States; Lemuel Haynes, a minister in Rutland and first African American ordained by a U.S. religious denomination; and Alexander Twilight, the first to serve in any state legislature.
Twilight was a teacher, but also designed Athenian Hall, a school and dormitory that is the home of the Orleans Historical Society. In 1836, a crucial transition period in Vermont, he fought to reform education funding in the Legislature.
Vermont’s record in the struggle to end slavery is certainly laudable, and features a broad range of leaders and strategies. Still, when William John Anderson Jr. became the second black elected to the state legislature in 1945 – more than a century after Twilight's time – he could not enter the Montpelier Tavern and Pavilion Hotel.
In the 1920s the Ku Klux Klan actually saw a brief revival. There were cross burnings and rallies, but also acts of courageous resistance. In order to go after the KKK’s secrecy, Burlington passed an ordinance against wearing masks. Rutland residents responded by staging a boycott of any business owner who dared admit to Klan membership. Frequent condemnation by local newspapers also made a difference.
On the other hand, Kake Walk, a minstrel show performed in blackface, continued at UVM fraternities until 1969. When confronted, UVM President Lyman Rowell defiantly refused to “remake the university” for the benefit of blacks. The student senate eventually ended the tradition. Bittinger concludes that the persistence of Kake Walk “revealed a state university with a real paradox on race issues.”
The book’s third section, a refresher on women’s history, is subtitled “the other half of the story.” It begins by describing the lives of Native American women. They had a “large degree of authority,” she writes, and older native women were respected as authorities on herbal medicine, sacred matters and tribal history.
In contrast, early female settlers from Europe “were dominated legally by patriarchy and religious beliefs.” These women could not own property, sign a contract or keep any wages they earned. Even though Vermont’s constitution promised education for all, most women obtained little before becoming parents.
“A woman was only remembered through her connection to her husband,” Bittinger says. In fact, the word “relict,” meaning a widow but also an inferior person, was carved on tombstones rather than the maiden name of the deceased, a practice demonstrating that women were deprived of identity even in death.
Bittinger’s portraits point to some overlooked cultural cross-currents. For example, Mother Ann Lee was a British “shaking Quaker” who resettled near Albany and attracted hundreds of Vermonters during the Second Great Awakening of the early 19th century. Among her disciples was Jane Blancard, who left patriarchy and farm life behind in Norwich after seeing visions and joined the movement.
There was also Emma Hart Willard, who first opened a school for women in her Middlebury home in 1814. Willard may be the first woman to teach other women science and math. However, she decided that Vermont was not the ideal place to pursue her vision of higher education for women.
Clarina Nichols made a similar decision more than 30 years later after fighting for suffrage and other legal reforms. “She wanted to tackle a new state and set up new laws. Vermont was just too conservative, with patriarchy too entrenched.” The 19th century migration trend “often took the best and the brightest” out of Vermont. Even before the Civil War, almost 150,000 women left. It took a century until the emergence of women politicians like Consuelo Northrup Bailey and Madeleine Kunin.
So, why did Vermont lag behind on women’s rights when it was ahead in other areas?
In June 1870, for example, a year after it was founded, the Vermont Suffrage Association brought its signature issue to a Council of Censors’ Convention. It was defeated 233 to one. The only yes vote was Harvey Howes of Fair Haven. Women had mounted an active lobbying campaign, but it somehow ended up alienating the press and clergy, which made the defeat more overwhelming than it might have been. Afterward, Howes found it impossible to obtain a publisher for a written defense of his position.
For that matter, why did Vermont’s leaders resist giving women the vote until the bitter end?
When a suffrage bill finally passed in the state legislature in 1919, Governor Percival Clement – at one time the leader of a progressive fusion movement – called it unconstitutional and refused to sign. A year later, when the state was pressured to ratify the 19th amendment, he refused to call a special legislative session. What was he thinking?
Years earlier, Clarina Nichols’ first appearance at the Statehouse – the first ever by a woman – had outraged many in the audience. Why?
Here’s a clue: fashion. The editor of the Rutland Herald literally threatened to come to the capital with a man’s suit -- and dress her in it. Furthermore, the year Nichols left the state, when feminist leader Lucy Stone told people in Randolph that they should withhold their taxes until women had the right to vote, what did the papers say?
They wondered why attractive young women in the audience were parading around in “unfeminine” bloomers.
So, it looks like Vermont, along with its many achievements, has also practiced the provincial politics of exclusion, delay, and judging books by their covers.
Adapted from a review by Greg Guma first published September 9, 2012 on VTDigger. Vermont Women, Native Americans & African Americans: Out of the Shadows of History, by Cynthia D. Bittinger, was published by The History Press.