From the AAUW Archives: The Founding of the Vermont Branch of AAUW in 1920

 by Gudrun Hutchins

It was April of the year 1920 and the nineteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution was one state short of ratification. On the 21st of that month, a large group of women gathered in Montpelier in a freezing drizzle to pressure Governor Percival Clement into calling a special session of the Vermont Legislature to make Vermont “the perfect 36th” state to ratify the amendment. He refused to do so. It was not the first time that Governor Clement had stood in the way of women’s right to vote in Vermont. The 1919 presidential suffrage vote passed in the Vermont Legislature but was vetoed by Clement on the excuse that it was an infringement of the rights guaranteed by the state constitution.

Perhaps that is one reason why Pearl Randall Wasson, the first full-time Dean of Women at the University of Vermont, chose that particular time to call together a small group of women college graduates to explore the formation of a Vermont Branch of the American Association of University Women. It was certainly no coincidence: not only were women about to achieve the right to vote, but Dean Wasson had also been instrumental in persuading the National AAUW to approve the University of Vermont for membership accreditation in that same year, in part by establishing the Women’s Student Government Association on campus.

The national AAUW had been founded by a group of college graduates with the expressed purpose of assisting young women to be better prepared when they left college for their chosen occupations. As a result they had decided that AAUW would admit to membership only the graduates of colleges and universities that maintained high academic standards and, equally importantly, encouraged women students, and provided adequate facilities for them. Accreditation for AAUW membership was retroactive. If an earned degree from the University of Vermont was accepted for AAUW membership, women who had graduated in earlier years would also be accepted. At Dean Wasson’s invitation, the University of Vermont Alumnae Club met in July 1920. By the end of the meeting, they had voted to call it the first gathering of the Vermont AAUW.

Events moved quickly after the initial meeting; the Vermont branch was officially chartered on October 6, 1920 in Burlington High School. What is remarkable about this charter meeting is that 67 Vermont college women attended. They came from towns all over Vermont. Some had travelled by train most of the day to participate.

By early 1921, the membership exceeded 120. It included a number of female college professors and administrators and the wives and daughters of some very prominent Vermont men, such as past and future governors. The 100th member, a cause of great celebration, was Mrs. Grace Goodhue Coolidge, wife of the Vice President of the United States. These women had status and influence and many of them knew each other before they joined AAUW. In addition to women with degrees from the University of Vermont, they included graduates of Middlebury College and the “Seven Sister” colleges. Middlebury College had admitted women since the early 1880’s. In 1887 Maybelle Chellis had distressed some parents of male students by graduating from Middlebury as first in her class and also walking away with the coveted Greek prize.

In 1922, less than two years after its founding, Vermont AAUW hosted a New England AAUW Conference at the University of Vermont. It was attended by AAUW members from all six New England states. By this time the first two local Vermont AAUW branches had been established in Burlington, and Middlebury. The Bennington Branch was established in 1926, and local branches in Brattleboro, Rutland, Montpelier, Barre, Randolph, and St. Albans were established at about the same time.

How do we know all of this? The records of Vermont AAUW from 1920 – to 1989 are stored in the Special Collections Department of the Bailey Howe Library at the University of Vermont. They contain details about the original founding of the state organization and individual local branches, minutes, correspondence, and reports on state-wide projects and conferences. The records have been sorted chronologically and some have been summarized by a history intern hired by the University of Vermont to look through old records in the Special Collections. AAUW records are currently stored in 11 cartons and I have personally had a look at the bounty of material.

One hundred year old correspondence by prominent Vermont women about education in Vermont is fascinating. So are their interactions with the Vermont Legislature and the Vermont Board of Education on behalf of Vermont students. Additional state records from 1989 to the disbandment in 2020 are currently in my closet and file cabinets and will be sent to the Bailey Howe Library next summer after I write a few more articles for this newsletter in the coming year. Look for an article in the September issue about the first state-wide project of Vermont AAUW focusing on the improvement of Vermont’s one and two-room rural schools.

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