All this week, VPR has been observing Women’s History Month with a
special series of essays about Vermont Women and the Law. Today, we
conclude our series as former state legislator and commentator Ann
Seibert tells the story of how Vermont’s constitution became gender
(Seibert) When a local
newspaper asked me to write a piece about Vermont’s 1991 Bicentennial, I
began to think about how we could celebrate the 200th birthday of our
state’s Constitution in a way that would have lasting value and benefit.
I thought about words, which can be the tyrants of language or
important tools for justice, and how a Vermont Constitution rewritten in
inclusive language could make a difference. Perhaps domestic violence
and sexual abuse would be reduced if girls and women – and especially
boys and men – understood that the rights of all Vermonters were
imbedded in our State’s highest document.
In the aisles of Dan
& Whit’s, our general store, I ran into Peter Teachout, a Professor
At Vermont Law School and a constitutional scholar. I asked him to
write a memo about the probability of a proposal to amend the Vermont
Constitution in gender inclusive language.
The Teachout Memo was
positive and supportive and a bill was introduced in the Legislature in
Montpelier based on precedent, quote, "Article (52) The Justices of the
Supreme Court are hereby authorized and directed to revise Chapters I
and II of the Constitution in gender inclusive language. This revision
shall not alter sense, meaning or effect of the sections of the
A proposal of amendment may be introduced only in
a specific year, every four years, must begin in the Senate, pass the
House and the Senate in two consecutive biennium, have public hearings
throughout the State and be printed on election ballots.
seldom go well or smoothly in politics and we encountered stumbling
blocks – like a deeply held devotion to the antique word freeman –
another word for ‘citizen’ – and the demand by some House members to
see a draft of the revision before voting. But after some legislative
drama, all was resolved and "The Freeman’s Oath" became "The Voter’s
The first draft of the revised Constitution, however,
included awkward alternatives throughout, like "he/she" and "him/her."
Drafts with improved English followed and the Gender Amendment was put
on the November 8, 1994 ballot. And thanks to the hard work of many, the
Gender Amendment passed overwhelming with 66% of the statewide vote.
Vermont Constitution was brought up to date by changing or augmenting
nine words. He, him, his, himself, man, men, freemen, freeman and widow
were variously replaced or augmented with oneself, members, officer,
voter, people, person, elector, and voter. Widower was added to the word
Words are, indeed, important tools for justice.