Sallie Thompson Soule: A Vermont trailblazer passes on

‘Toe-to-Toe’
Sen. Sallie Soule, D-Chittenden, (right) digs in during a debate with Sen. George Coy, R-Grand Isle, (standing) circa 1983-84. Seated left to right are fellow Chittenden County Sens. George Little and Dennis Delaney, both Republicans, and Democrat Doug Racine. The painting was made to depict a newspaper photograph at the time.

LISA SCAGLIOTTI
Correspondent

On June 10 in Montpelier, Gov. Phil Scott signed into law a bill that protects abortion rights for Vermont women.

The next day, more than 1,500 miles away in Fort Myers, Fla., lifelong Vermonter, lawmaker, activist and trailblazer Sallie Soule quietly passed away with her family at her side.

“We whispered that news into her ear,” her daughter Sarah Soule said, reflecting that she was sure her mother understood. “She knew her work was done.”

A former Chittenden County state senator and state representative, Soule was a cabinet member to former Gov. Madeleine Kunin and force behind creating a multitude of organizations and programs that particularly benefit Vermont women and children.

Soule died at age 91 at the Shell Point Retirement Community in Fort Myers where she has lived full-time for the past three years. Although she was born and raised in Michigan, she spent summers in Vermont as a child with family in Burlington and Charlotte. She and her husband, Gardner, settled here in 1968, living in Charlotte and Shelburne over the years. Ties to a family home in Sanibel, Fla., led to her eventual move south three years ago.

“She said they needed her vote in Florida more than then needed it in Vermont,” her daughter said, adding that a memorial service there on June 15 drew 160 people. “We knew she had many friends there,” describing Shell Point as “like Wake Robin,” the Shelburne retirement community that Soule had a hand in founding decades ago.

A trailblazer, a torchbearer

Soule made headlines in Vermont from the mid-1970s on, most recently in 2017 when she was awarded the first annual Madeleine Kunin Lifetime Achievement Award by Emerge Vermont, a new grassroots political organization devoted to preparing women to run for elected office.

Former Shelburne state representative Joan Lenes, who served in the House after Soule, said today’s generation of candidates view Soule as a mentor and role model.

“She was a trailblazer – a torchbearer,” Lenes said. “She loved that women were running.”

The Emerge honor was fitting for someone who took a leap into public life in 1976 when she and fellow Charlotte resident Gretchen Morse together decided to run for seats in the Vermont Legislature – Morse as a Republican and Soule as a Democrat. The party choices were made so as not to run against each other in a primary as there were two male candidates on the ballot from Shelburne, the other town in the district at the time. Both women won and they became car-pooling partners to Montpelier.

“That was the beginning of an incredible friendship,” Morse recalled fondly. 

The new area opened up possibilities for Soule to have a hand in legislation aimed at affecting women’s equality in the workplace, in education, in health care and in their communities. Even before her election, Sallie Soule helped launch the Vermont Women’s Health Center a year before the 1973 Roe v. Wade U.S. Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion in the United States.

A ‘searing experience’

Reflecting on her life and career in an interview with the Vermont Folklife Center many years later, Soule recounted the watershed moment that fomented her resolve to work on behalf of women.

In a 36-second audio clip, she tells of losing her third child at birth and how that changed her life.

“My third pregnancy I lost,” she said. “The child went to term and the baby died … At that point the doctor said to me, ‘No more babies.’ And I said alright, if I get pregnant again, I’m going to have an abortion. And he said, ‘No abortions.’”

She said that moment was a turning point.

“That’s what radicalized me in terms of some of my thinking … I think a lot of people’s career in politics or whatever they do comes from their own personal experience,” she said. “This was a searing experience in my life.”

So the timing of her passing carries a certain irony. Sarah Soule said the over-arching focus of her mother’s work was women being able to make decisions for themselves that would affect their future.

“Woman’s choice was so important to her,” she said.

“I totally believe that Sallie would hang on for this,” said former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean. “After all, it’s what she spent her whole career on – not just abortion rights, but equality and fairness for women.”

Women in the House

Soule’s tenure in the Legislature included a seat on the House Ways and Means Committee, an assignment her colleague Morse recalled as groundbreaking for a woman lawmaker.

“It was a big time with a big influx of women into the Legislature,” she said. “We came in and wanted to improve the economic status of women with bills on fairness in credit, pay, housing and employment,” she said. “We passed a bill to make all state statutes gender-neutral.”

Dean said it’s hard to overstate the degree to which Soule stood out in her era.

“She has a legacy in Vermont politics that’s hard to match … she was more interested in using her House and Senate time for getting things done for others,” he said.

Mark Snelling, whose Republican father Richard Snelling was in the governor’s office when Soule served in the state legislature, echoed that observation.

“She was not in politics to get Sallie Soule ahead. She was in politics to get other people ahead,” he said. 

Dean said Soule didn’t view people through a party lens.

“She was very bipartisan. She got along well with Republicans,” Dean said.

That might have had something to do with the fact that Soule’s husband, Gardner, was a Republican and much more conservative than his wife.

“But they were very close. They were a model for good marriages,” said U.S. Rep. Peter Welch, a fellow Democrat and former Senate colleague to Soule who remained in touch with her until close to her death. 

Soule’s combination of personality and tenacity were her hallmarks, Welch said.

“Sally was a work of art – she broke the mold. She was very direct. She had very strong opinions and, for as blunt and in-your-face as she could be, she was extremely engaging and likable,” Welch said. “She had an extraordinary generosity in helping others and her overarching priority was advancing women.”

Toe-to-toe and tenacious

Fellow Democrat and former Lt. Gov. Doug Racine’s first term in the state senate overlapped with Soule.

“I sat next to Sallie. We spent a lot of time talking together,” he said. “What I learned from Sallie is that you’ve got to be tenacious. If there’s something you feel strongly about, you stick with it.”

Shelburne Republican and former state Sen. Tom Little said that was an early impression of Soule that he had, too. His father, George Little, was a Senate colleague with Soule and he, along with Racine and Welch were there one day in the 1983-84 session when Soule went “toe-to-toe” in a floor debate with Republican Sen. George Coy of Grand Isle. The topic? Memories are fuzzy, but that wasn’t the point.

“There were only 13 Democrats in the Senate,” Little said, three votes shy of a winning margin. “But the Senate went with Sallie that day.”

A news photographer captured the exchange and Sarah Soule said her father had a painting made from a photograph that made the Burlington Free Press. “It was Mom giving hell to somebody about something,” she said. “And she won the debate.”

Campaigning for a neighbor

Years after Soule served with his father, Little said his relationship with Soule exemplified how her alliances were built on common values, not party lines.

“In 2000, after the bruising and anguish, and ultimate victory, of the civil union session, I ran for re-election for a fifth term in the House representing the western and southern areas of Shelburne. I tried to knock on every door, as I had a challenger in the Republican primary who had been recruited by anti-Civil Union folks to knock me off,” Little recalled.

Little had served in the crosshairs of that tumultuous session as chair of the House Judiciary Committee, which did much heavy lifting on the controversial bill supporting same-sex unions.

“Well, Sallie, a dyed-in-the-wool Democrat, had my back in her neighborhood. I won the primary, due in no small part to the efforts of Sallie, and others who were not afraid to support someone from a different political party,” Little said. “I am forever grateful to Sallie for her support – for me, and for progress towards equal rights.”

Sarah Soule remembers that time well and her mother’s stance.

“That bill was very important to my mother,” she said. “That was basic human rights.”

The mid-1970s groundswell of women in Vermont politics eventually led to the election of Madeleine Kunin as governor in 1984. She tapped women leaders from the Legislature for her cabinet including Soule as Commissioner of the then-Department of Employment and Training, now the state Department of Labor. Morse was installed as secretary of Health and Human Services.

Work that continues today

Soule’s list of accomplishments outside of public service is long and the organizations she had a hand in reads like a directory of leading Vermont nonprofits: Vermont Public Television, the Vermont Community Foundation, the Vermont Women’s Fund, just to name a few.

Remarkably, for 20 years while a legislator and holding a top government post, Soule and four women business partners ran a used bookstore, Bygone Books, in Burlington.

“She was a little dynamo,” said Betty Van Buren, the sole surviving partner from that venture.

During her retirement and before her move south, Soule’s final years in Shelburne were filled with conversations about politics and projects. Mark Snelling said he looked forward to visiting with Soule when they both picked up their mail.

“I get my mail at the Shelburne Post Office. I see people there from kindergarten, people I do business with, people from high school. I used to see Sally there,” Snelling said. “We had these wide-ranging discussions about life. She’d grill me about what I was doing, and it was always out of love and respect. Sally was supportive and friendly. She was curious and she cared. She wanted to encourage me.”

Entrepreneur and Democratic activist Melinda Moulton, who happens to be a friend and neighbor of Snelling’s, said Soule made everyone feel that way.

“To be in her company was exciting, invigorating, and she made you feel alive – relevant – and loved,” Moulton said. “There are very few people on this planet like Sallie Soule … Her legacy is indomitable.”

Welch, Soule’s friend and longtime colleague, summed her up this way: “She was fearless. But it’s not like she advertised it,” he said. “She loved her family. She loved Vermont. And she loved being in the fray.”

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