Trailblazing Women: Esther Sorrell

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(HOST) For Women’s History Month, commentator Liz Jeffords remembers Esther Hartigan Sorrell, a trail blazer in Vermont’s Democratic Party.

(JEFFORDS) A few weeks before the Vermont Primary in 1946, my mother asked me to go to Mrs. Hartigan’s house to pick up some flyers. I was seven. As I climbed the stairs to the Hartigan’s, I could hear a group of women talking and laughing. I remember thinking they must be having a party; but they were folding flyers and stuffing them in envelopes.

Ernest Gibson was challenging the re-election of Governor Mortimer Proctor. Mr. Gibson had asked the Vermont Democrats to help him win the Republican Primary. I was given a bundle and told that I could help my mom give them to the neighbors.

This was my introduction into politics. These women, who seemed to be having such a good time, were the workers and the backbone of Burlington politics right after WWII. Among them were the Hartigan daughters: Esther, Audrey, Rosemary and Peg. It had been only 26 years since 1920, the year when women won the right to vote and when Esther Hartigan Sorrell was born.

After graduating from college in 1942, Esther married Thomas Sorrell, and together they raised four daughters and one son, Vermont’s Attorney General William Sorrell.

Esther was president of the League of Women Voters during the 195Os, and women often gathered in her kitchen to discuss current events as she prepared supper.

Howard Dean tells of going to Esther’s house to work for Jimmy Carter. There he watched Vermont Week in Review, munched cookies and got a crash course in Vermont Politics.

In his book Winning Back America Dean writes, “In 1958, the governor’s race was very close, and the Democrats lost only after a recount. The county chairman called in Esther and a group of women who’d worked on the campaign and said, ‘Girls, you worked really hard. How about we give you a party?’ And Esther said, ‘How about you give us some seats on the county committee?’ – which at that time was all male.”

In 1972, Esther and Governor Madeleine Kunin started the Women’s Political Caucus. Kunin says, “We sat around trying to decide what to do, and we decided to run ourselves.” Esther ran and won a seat in the Vermont Senate, where she served for ten years.

When she died in 1990 at age 69, the newspapers called her the “Mother of the Democratic Party in Vermont.” Certainly she encouraged, and some say launched, the successful careers of Governor Philip Hoff in 1962, Governor Madeleine Kunin and Governor Howard Dean.

After one of her votes contributed to the ratification of the federal Equal Rights Amendment – which passed by a hair – Senator Sanborn Partridge of Rutland said to her, “Well, now that we have passed ERA, do I call you Mrs. or Ms.?”

Esther replied, “Just call me Senator!”

This is Liz Jeffords of Shrewsbury.

Liz Daley Jeffords, wife of U. S. Senator Jim Jeffords, is a native of Burlington.

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