Why Jane Curtis is still fighting for justice at 102

Why We Wrote This

For Vermonter Jane Curtis, patriotism means protest. The centenarian activist has spent her life fighting for the causes and country she believes in.

Ann Hermes/Staff
Jane Curtis in her yard on July 12, 2020 in Woodstock, Vermont. Jane and her daughter, Kate Curtis Donahue, used the 'Time for a Change' sign while attending a Black Lives Matter rally in June.

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When Jane Curtis was born, women didn’t have the right to vote. As a teen, she would go hiking with her mother on the Appalachian Trail, soaking up the smell of the pines and the beauty surrounding them. She remembers her mother saying, “It’s absolutely wonderful, but it’s up to you to take care of it.”

Now 102, Ms. Curtis is still out protesting – for Black Lives Matter, environmental justice, and getting out the vote.

“You just have to,” she says in a July interview at her home. “Being a citizen is a big responsibility. You don’t just sit here and eat food and drive a car. You have to try to make this country work.”

The killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis has ushered in the largest wave of protests since the civil rights movement, and Ms. Curtis says she’s been inspired to see the younger generations protesting both in Vermont and across the U.S.

Democratic state Sen. Alison Clarkson has joined Ms. Curtis at multiple protests and rallies. “She’s a model for us all, to never stop caring.”

When Woodstock turned out for a Black Lives Matter rally in June, Jane Curtis and her daughter were the first in a long line of cars.

Ms. Curtis, now 102, has spent a lifetime fighting for justice. She has championed women’s rights, environmental causes, and getting out the vote. The centenarian was a toddler when women won the right to vote 100 years ago in August.

“You just have to,” she says in a July interview at her home about her lifetime of activism. “Being a citizen is a big responsibility. You don’t just sit here and eat food and drive a car. You have to try to make this country work.”

The killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis has ushered in the largest wave of protests since the civil rights movement, and Ms. Curtis says she’s been inspired to see the younger generations protesting both in Vermont and across the U.S.

“There’s a big kettle of fire that’s steaming up, and people are getting anxious to act,” she says.

Taking responsibility for her country is something Ms. Curtis learned early in life. She would go hiking with her mother on the Appalachian Trail in the mountains of New Hampshire as a teen, soaking up the smell of the pines and the beauty surrounding them. She remembers her mother saying, “It’s absolutely wonderful, but it’s up to you to take care of it.”

Her mother walked the talk. Ms. Curtis recalled she protested tree removals by the town of Scituate, Massachusetts, where Ms. Curtis was born and raised, and was a dedicated activist for environmental causes.

For Ms. Curtis, two summers she spent in Germany with her family in the early 1930s were formative. She recalls observing from afar when she returned home as Nazis grew their power and dictators took over in Spain and Italy.

“They let themselves be walked over by somebody who’s going to ‘solve everything,’” Ms. Curtis says.

Before World War II, Ms. Curtis attended Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts, and graduated in 1939 with a degree in art history. After marrying Will Curtis, whom she’d known since childhood, the couple raised sheep in Massachusetts, while Mr. Curtis worked for his family’s shoe business. They headed to Vermont in 1953 where they eventually bought a farm in the town of Hartland. In 1962, Mr. Curtis was elected to a term as a representative in the state Legislature.

The Curtises also bought the Yankee Bookshop in Woodstock in the early 1960s and ran it until 1973; it is still operating as Vermont’s longest-running independent bookstore. Both Curtises were writers who collaborated often, including on many of Will Curtis’ famous “The Nature of Things” commentaries on Vermont Public Radio.

After the Vietnam War began, Ms. Curtis became a staunch anti-war activist. She joined activists in nearby Woodstock, and they would march every Sunday afternoon, as some passing motorists screamed at them.

“I just could not sit down and watch this stupidity without protesting,” Ms. Curtis says.

The war’s impact was also personal. Her husband’s nephew was killed in the war, and Ms. Curtis says the gulf deepened between her and her husband’s very conservative family.

“It got to the point where we could not visit each other,” she says. “It was a dreadful time, just dreadful.”

On May 6, 1979, Ms. Curtis was one of 125,000 people protesting nuclear proliferation in Washington, just over a month after the Three Mile Island nuclear disaster in Pennsylvania. Tensions were high, and she could feel it.

“I remember standing there in the park really scared, because there were so many people who were angry,” she recalls. But Ms. Curtis, at her first major protest, faced her fear and stood her ground.

She remained vocal back in Vermont as well, joining marches in the state capital of Montpelier and other locations.

U.S. Rep. Peter Welch, a Democrat and Vermont’s lone congressman, got to know Jane and Will Curtis as neighbors in Hartland, when he was a young public defender in the mid-1970s. From the start, Mr. Welch admired Jane Curtis’ activism and says she was a strong voice for women to stand up for justice.

“She knew her power,” he says. “She just plunged in and moved ahead. She didn’t ask for permission, she acted.”

The centenarian says that determination to act was heightened after the election of Donald Trump. She joined the Women’s March in Montpelier, in solidarity with the Washington, D.C., march and many worldwide, the day after Mr. Trump’s inauguration in 2017. Some 15,000 to 20,000 people showed up that day, she says, drawing such crowds that authorities had to close several highway exits near Vermont’s capital, home to just under 8,000.

“I think they’re realizing, finally, what power they have,” Ms. Curtis says about her fellow women.

“They should be told that they’re powerful,” Ms. Curtis says. “You’re not just a wife and a mother, you have a duty. Be a citizen and act.”

In 2018, Ms. Curtis founded a local Woodstock group called Women For A Change, which is “committed to protecting, supporting, and promoting the basic democratic values of liberty and justice for all.” The group organized a protest in Woodstock against the Trump administration’s detentions of immigrant children at the U.S.-Mexico border. 

Ann Hermes/Staff
Jane Curtis, right, sits with her daughter, Kate Curtis Donahue, in her home on July 12, 2020 in Woodstock, Vermont. Jane and Kate attended a Black Lives Matter rally in June.

Kate Curtis Donahue says that to see her mother continue her activism into her 100s is no surprise.

“She’s been this role model in Woodstock, and she’s inspired many people,” Ms. Donahue says.

One of those people is Democratic state Sen. Alison Clarkson, who has joined Ms. Curtis at multiple protests and rallies.

“Her passion for supporting women in politics, for supporting all just causes, is contagious, it’s inspiring,” Ms. Clarkson says. “She’s a model for us all, to never stop caring.”

Ms. Curtis has long encouraged women to run for public office. She has been a steadfast supporter for the Vermont chapter of Emerge, an organization that recruits and trains Democratic women to be candidates. In 2019, the Vermont Democratic Party recognized her years of civic contributions with their annual Curtis-Hoff Leadership Award, presented to her by Ms. Clarkson. A year earlier, Mr. Welch honored Ms. Curtis’ legacy in an extension of remarks in the congressional record just before her 100th birthday. Among decades of accomplishments, he noted her years of dedication to protecting the Connecticut River watershed.

Ms. Curtis appreciates the accolades and kind words, but it’s far more important to her to keep working for justice. She worries about the division in the U.S., saying she has the same “uneasy feeling” she had when observing 1930s Europe, with dictators making big promises and millions believing them.

“Things are breaking apart, and now we have to act,” Ms. Curtis says. “It’s a great idea,” she says of the United States, “but it takes goodwill.”

For Ms. Curtis that includes making sure women vote this year despite the ongoing pandemic. Ensuring people know about voting by mail is also important, she adds.

“The vote, that’s got to be the big thing,” she says, before turning to her daughter. “I think we really have to do some work on that, Kate.”

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