The OWLs: Vermont’s Women Legislators, 1936
Oral history transcriptions
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The Vermont Women's Legislative Caucus began its political life as the Vermont Chapter of the Order of Women Legislators, the OWLs. In June 1936, the women then in the Vermont legislature met at the Fletcher Farm in Proctor for a two day organizational meeting. Following the lead of Julia Emery of Connecticut, founder of the first OWLs group in the nation in 1927, the Vermont legislators joined together to form an organization, which, according to the Rutland Herald reported at the time, "is something else again, a legislative noman's land, as it were, social, informative, discursive, and instructive in its scope." Twelve years later, Vermont participated in forming the National OWLs, receiving the support of President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
The high spirited constitution of the National OWLs states in part that: "The Object of this Order shall be to promote a spirit of helpfulness among past, present, and future legislators, to encourage greater participation of trained and competent women in public affairs; to encourage election or appointment of women to public office; to promote interstate relations of friendship; and to act as a clearinghouse for information of members of the Order."
Why did women legislators value this organization? Despite wide political differences nation wide, the National OWLS together dispelled barriers of geographical difference, and encouraged friendship and cooperation among the women lawmakers of the country. Vermont women undoubtedly benefited from this. More than once, the number of Vermont women lawmakers in the state legislature represented the largest number of women legislators in any state delegation. The Boston Globe called the election of 54 women to the Vermont state chambers in 1953 no longer "the first wave of an invasion" but rather a "mass infiltration." This was the same year Consuelo Northrop Bailey was elected first Speaker of the Vermont House of Representatives.
In 1980, Vermont women legislators changed the name of their organization and became known as the Women's Legislative Caucus, a name that more appropriately and accurately reflects the role women play in the Assembly. Where OWLs provided and necessary social and civic companionship, the renamed Women's Legislative Caucus focused on the political functions and leadership roles of Vermont's women legislators.
Even though the OWLs took their elected positions very seriously, they played another significant role in the legislature by participating in an evening's entertainment in the State House chambers known as the Mock Session. Of this Mock Session (the last was in 1957), Consuelo Bailey wrote that it was " ...all foolish nonsense, of course, but it was good clean fun and served a purpose. I understand that since reapportionment of the legislature  the Mock Session has been eliminated. If it is worth anything (as I'm sure that it is) to relax, laugh at ourselves, and lightly accept each other's idiosyncrasies, the one evening of wholesome good-natured folly was worthwhile. It furnished a means of 'seeing ourselves as others see us,' and as one who believes in the value of laughter, I am sorry the legislative Mock Session is past history."
Among the best known members of OWLs was Lilian Baker Carlisle, who was both local and state OWLs president. Representative Carlisle was on the Natural Resources Committee in 1969-1970 when Act 250 was passed and found the support she received from the OWLs during this difficult time invaluable.
—Eleanor Ott (March 1987)
For further reading:
Records of the Order of Women Legislators (OWLs), 1921-1980. Vermont State Archives and Records Administration (VASARA), Series A-062.
University of Vermont Libraries, Special Collections, mss-963.
Citation for this page
Woodsmoke Productions and Vermont Historical Society, “The OWLs: Vermont's Women Legislators, 1936,” The Green Mountain Chronicles radio broadcast and background information, original broadcast 1988-89. https://vermonthistory.org/the-owls-vermonts-women-legislators-1936