Edna Beard, the first woman to serve in the Vermont General Assembly. Beard represented the Town of Orange, and was later elected to the Senate from Orange County.
The General Assembly of 1915, which enacted the direct primary, was considered a “progressive” group. Progressive legislation included Vermont’s initial workmen’s compensation act, court reform, regulation of narcotics, and the establishment of farm labor and agricultural marketing bureaus. The Senate passed a constitutional proposal providing for women’s suffrage but the measure was killed in the House. The direct primary was referred to the people and passed by slightly over 3,000 votes. Dissatisfaction with the existing caucus procedures by which party nominations had taken place was a basic reason for the adoption of the new primary law.
In 1920 James Hartness, a self-educated inventor, engineer and political novice, used the primary to capture the governorship. Hartness believed management systems brought to government would produce efficiency and economy. Speaking before the General Assembly in 1921 he said: “It is supremely necessary for the workers and executives in our industries to get the fullest possible conception of principles governing life and engineering, so that they can see what must be done to promote their own success and also to know what is deadly to their own interests and the interests of the state.”
Hartness capitalized on another reform of the era – giving women the right to vote. He had been a leader on a state committee to ratify the nineteenth amendment to the United States Constitution, the women’s suffrage amendment. When Hartness gave his Inaugural Address in 1921, sitting as a member of the House was Edna Beard, of Orange, a former school superintendent. She was the first woman ever elected to the Vermont House. In the beginning of his presentation Hartness said: “Women’s coming into full equality in suffrage bodes well for humanity… We have a thousand other reasons for being glad that woman has been granted equality in controlling and shaping the destiny of our State and Nation.”
Senator Bill Doyle serves on the Senate Education Committee and Senate Economic Affairs Committee, and is the Senate Assistant Minority Leader. He teaches government history at Johnson State College. He can be reached at 186 Murray Road, Montpelier, VT 05602; e-mail email@example.com; or call 223-2851.