AHEAD OF THEIR TIME:

A BRIEF HISTORY OF WOMAN SUFFRAGE IN ILLINOIS

By Mark W. Sorensen


(A similar article was published in the March 1997 edition of LifeTimes, a monthly publication of Blue Cross/Blue Shield of Illinois)

Her marble image stands in the cool recesses of Statuary Hall in the United States Capitol. During the dedication ceremony on February 17, 1905, she was eulogized as Illinois' most eminent citizen, as worthy of honor as Lincoln, Douglas or Grant. But 35 years earlier, as this bespectacled, former one-room school teacher rode the train across the frozen prairie to Springfield, few would have guessed that Frances Elizabeth Willard would be the first woman in the nation to have her statue in the nation's Capitol.

Willard, along with other members of the newly formed Illinois Woman Suffrage Association, traveled to the state capital in February 1870 in order to convince the Illinois Constitutional Convention to include universal suffrage into the proposed document. Buoyed by petitions to the General Assembly which favored female suffrage, the thirty year-old Willard declared: "The idea that boys of 21 are fit to make laws for their mothers, is an insult to everyone." Unfortunately, after Willard and her allies left town, the delegates received almost an equal number of petitions against the issue, including one from 380 Peoria women who protested "having the ballot thrust upon them." In May, the convention followed the pattern set by the 15th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and drafted a document that provided suffrage for all adult males, including Negroes, but not for women.

Although before the Civil War most women could not vote or hold office in any of the states, language which specifically described voters as "male" did not appear in the federal constitution until 1868. When Illinois entered the Union in 1818, its constitution, like those of the other 20 states, expressly gave the vote only to "white, male inhabitants above the age of twenty-one years." Illinois' second constitution, adopted in the Jacksonian Era of 1848, allowed men to vote for a greater number of officials than had the previous constitution, but it still excluded women from using the ballot.

The national women's rights movement was officially born that same year in the state of New York. In July, three hundred men and women (derisively referred to as "Amazons" in some press reports) gathered in a small church in Seneca Falls to discuss women's civil and legal rights. Of the twelve declarations adopted, the only one to pass without unanimous approval was: "It is the duty of the women of this country to secure to themselves their sacred right to the elective franchise." The nascent woman suffrage movement was led by Easterners Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Coffin Mott.

Like most of the early women suffragists, Stanton and Mott were well-educated, married, religious liberals, and involved in the abolitionist movement. (Although sharing the other attributes, Susan B. Anthony, who joined the movement in 1851, never married.) Stanton especially rejected the notion that women were inferior or subservient to men as was implied in Biblical scripture. Contrary to St. Paul's admonition that "women keep silence" and "be in subjection," Stanton began her married life by insisting that the word "obey" be omitted from her wedding vows. She latter wrote that the history of mankind was a history of repeated injuries on the part of men toward women, its objective being "an absolute tyranny over women."

In Illinois, as in most of the Western states, the women's suffrage movement was started by women who had spent their formative years in the East, and who often had the moral support of their spouses. The state's first documented speech in favor of women's suffrage was made in by Mr. A.J. Grover, editor of the Earlville Transcript. His talk inspired Mrs. Susan Hoxie Richardson (a cousin of Susan B. Anthony) to organize Illinois' first woman suffrage society. Another transplant to LaSalle County who supported the suffrage cause at the same time was Prudence Crandall. A school teacher in Mendotta, she had been forced to flee Connecticut because she taught Negro girls in her school. Crandall worked in Illinois as an early advocate of the enfranchisement of both black and white women.

But the Civil War and its upheaval of society brought an abrupt end to the efforts the fledgling suffrage movement. Women all over the county and in all social positions took on even more responsibility of running the household, managing money and being involved in public affairs. Many of the suffragists turned their energies and organizational skills to assisting the government with war relief.

In Illinois, Mary Livermore and Jane Hoge were appointed co-directors of the Chicago branch of the Sanitary Commission, a relief agency which provided supplies to soldiers and operated battlefield hospitals. Although originally opposed to votes for women, the war convinced Livermore that suffrage was the key to many of the social reforms that she felt were needed.

However, the phrase "woman suffrage" was still very unpopular and produced visions of "Amazons" from New York. Livermore and others could remember that the first time that Susan B. Anthony came to speak in Chicago, the event was held under the pretense of a temperance meeting in Quinn Chapel (the city's oldest African American Church) because "none but a colored church ... would open its doors to a woman speaker."

In February of 1869 Livermore's associates staged a suffrage meeting at the same time one was being held a block away by "Sorosis," a newly formed woman's organization. The Chicago Tribune reported that women obviously didn't have the capacity to govern since they couldn't even agree on planning a common convention. They predicted that "The public will now be annoyed for six months by the characteristic ill humor of a lot of old hens trying to hatch out their addled productions." While admitting that Livermore's group was intelligent and business-like, the Times sarcastically stated that the appearance of the Sorosis convention "was the best argument for woman suffrage, the men being ladylike and effeminate, the women gentlemanly and masculine."

The Livermore faction, full of distinguished clergymen and educators and hearing addresses from both Anthony and Stanton, organized themselves into the Illinois Woman Suffrage Association and elected her president. Within a month she created the Agitator, a suffrage newspaper, and by September, Livermore established local associations in Aurora, Plano, Yorkville and Sandwich. However, after the movement was defeated in getting Illinois' new constitution to include universal suffrage in 1870, Livermore returned to Massachusetts where she continued to work for social reform and women's issues until her death in 1905.

Because another constitutional convention could not legally be called in Illinois for twenty years, members of the movement began a push for changes in individual laws. While universal suffrage was set back, gains in specific woman's rights were accomplished. Through the efforts of Alta Hulett, Myra Colby Bradwell, her husband Judge James Bradwell and others, laws passed between 1860 and 1890 included women's right to control their own earnings, to equal guardianship of children after divorce, to control and maintain property, to share in a deceased husband's estate and to enter into any occupation or profession. This included becoming an attorney, even though women could not legally sit on Illinois juries until 1939.

In 1873 Judge Bradwell secured the passage of a statute which allowed any woman, "married or single," who possessed the qualification required of men, to be eligible for any school office in Illinois created by law and not the constitution. Even though they couldn't vote for themselves, in November 1874 ten women were elected as County Superintendents of Schools.

Probably the two most important people in the Illinois suffrage movement during this time were Elizabeth Boynton Harbert and Frances E. Willard. Active in the Indiana and Iowa movements before moving to Illinois, Harbert helped keep the Illinois association alive by serving as president for a total of twelve years. She was a prolific writer as well as founder and first president of the Evanston Women's Club. Her early writings stated that both women and society were injured by pushing children into stereotypical sex roles that confined females to the “women’s sphere.” She thought that this practice condemned a woman to a non-productive lifetime of dependence on others.

However, Harbert ‘s later writings admit that perhaps women did have some virtues and traits that were typically characteristic of her sex, such as purity, charity and fidelity. She wrote that women were “born to soothe and to solace, to help and to heal the sick world that leans upon her.” Therefore, giving women the vote would allow them to fulfill their natural nurturing function. In essence, Harbert’s writings exemplified the whole movement’s shift from an elite intellectual pursuit for justice, to a middle-class reform movement that would benefit society.

Illinois’ most famous reformer of this period was undoubtedly Frances Willard. After her first experiences with the Illinois legislature, Miss Willard returned to Evanston where she served as President of the College for Ladies and later Dean of Women at Northwestern University. In 1874 she resigned her position and became totally immersed in the temperance movement that was sweeping the country. She helped establish the anti-liquor Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) and eventually served as president of the Chicago, state and national organizations. She became a believer that giving women the sacred ballot was the only was to get rid of the demon spirits that were ruining the American family.

On March 24, 1877 , seventy women of the Illinois WCTU presented the General Assembly in Springfield a petition signed by 7,000 persons asking that no licenses to sell liquor be granted that were not asked for by a majority of citizens of that location. Failing in their efforts to influence the legislature, they returned in 1879 and presented petitions signed by 180,000 who favored what was termed the “Home Protection” bill -- a proposed law that would put liquor sales under local control and allow women to vote in these referenda. On March 6 of that session, Frances Willard became the first woman ever to stand at the speaker’s podium and address an official session of the Illinois General Assembly. With rolls of Home Protection petitions cascading from the galleries to the House floor, Willard pleaded the righteousness of her cause. Although more of the men were polite than rude, the bill never passed.

Despite these defeats, the suffrage and temperance movements kept coming back every two years in an effort to obtain some form of female franchise. In 1891 (a year after Wyoming became the first state to give women full voting rights) the 37th General Assembly was informed by a petition from Jackson County women that they and the “vast majority” of Illinois women did not want the vote. Since they belonged to that class of women who kept their own homes and took care of their own children, they were perfectly content to let their fathers, husbands and sons vote for them. However, many other petitioners agreed with the women citizens of Pittsfield who demanded “the right and privilege of voting in Municipal elections “as a means to better government and that we may no longer be subject to the control of besotted men and the vicious classes.”

Illinois women finally received limited franchise rights on June 19, 1891 when the state legislature passed a bill that entitled women to vote at any election held to elect school officials. Since these elections were often held at the same time and place as elections for other offices, women had to use separate ballots and separate ballot boxes. Subsequent Illinois Supreme Court cases also allowed women to serve as, and cast ballots for University of Illinois Trustees. This resulted in Lucy Flower becoming the first woman in Illinois to be elected by voters state-wide in 1894.

A little known side-light in the history of Illinois suffrage is the story of Ellen Martin of Lombard. Many history books relate that on November 5, 1872 hundreds of women tried to vote in the Presidential election. The most famous of these was Susan B. Anthony who was arrested, convicted and fined for her effort. Refusing to pay the $100 she stated, “Resistance to Tyranny is obedience to God.” However her vote was not counted. On the other hand, “Lady Lawyer” Martin knew how to read state law. Many Illinois towns had special charters of incorporation written into law just before the 1870 state constitution was ratified. While all specifically gave the vote only to males, Lombard’s (perhaps unknowingly) stated that “all citizens” above the age of 21 who were residents shall be entitled to vote in municipal elections. Accordingly, Martin “wearing two sets of spectacles and a gripsack,” went to her polling place with a large law book and fourteen other prominent female citizens. When they demanded their right to vote, allegedly the judges were so flabbergasted that one was taken with a spasm and another “fell backward into the flour barrel.” The judges however eventually ruled in her favor and the first 15 female votes in Illinois were tabulated on April 6, 1891.

Another Lady Lawyer who kept the suffrage movement fueled in its darkest days was Catharine Waugh McCulloch. In 1890 she became the legislative superintendent of the renamed Illinois Equal Suffrage Association. For the next twenty years she kept pressure on the General Assembly to approve a law that would allow women to vote in Municipal and Presidential elections. However she constantly faced opposition from both individuals and organized groups.

One apparently very frustrated man wrote the Illinois Senate expounding on his view that all suffragists secretly hate men and that giving them the vote would ruin the family. They were after all he wrote, “the sex which has accomplished absolutely nothing, except being the passive and often unwilling and hostile instruments by which humanity is created.” During this era of labor unrest and mass immigration, a representative of the “Man Suffrage Association” wrote to his Illinois Senator and claimed that every socialist, anarchist and Bolshevist was for woman suffrage.

Representing the distaff side of the anti-forces was Chicago homemaker Caroline Fairfield Corbin who founded the Illinois Association Opposed to the Extension of Suffrage to Women in 1897. She believed that women should stay in their “sphere” of home life and allow their husbands and fathers to legislate for their protection. She viewed woman suffrage akin to socialism and fought both movements with religious zeal. Every time the suffragists tried to advance, she and her organization tried to push them back arguing that most women were opposed to obtaining the vote.

After 20 years of fruitless petitioning to change the state’s laws, the Illinois (as well as the national) association began to change their tactics and their allies. After 1900, more and more women’s clubs and labor organizations endorsed some form of woman suffrage legislation. Between 1902 and 1906, the Illinois Federation of Women’s Clubs endorsed several municipal suffrage bills, including one that exempted women who couldn’t vote from paying taxes (an argument first put forth by Susan B. Anthony in 1872). Organized labor attended a joint Congressional hearing in Washington in 1912 and heard witnesses testify that in Chicago, striking garment workers, cashiers at Marshall Fields, female school teachers, and all other working women needed the ballot for their own safety and economic protection.

On a separate occasion, a New York state senator said that he feared that women would lose their “feminine qualities” if given the vote and forced to deal with the world of cigar smoke and politics. A suffrage leader wondered why he wasn’t concerned about the women who worked in the foundries, or standing fourteen hours a day in the laundries. “Surely these women won’t lose any more of their beauty and charm by putting a ballot in a ballot box once a year than they are likely to lose standing in foundries or laundries all year round.”

Beginning in 1910, the state association decided to go visit the masses instead of trying to get audiences to come to meetings. In July, McCulloch, Grace Wilbur Trout and others began making automobile tours around the state. A special section of the July 10th edition of the Chicago Tribune detailed the plan of four woman speakers accompanied by two reporters, to visit 16 towns in 7 Northern Illinois counties in 5 days. Chicagoan Trout was supposed to give the opening address and make the introductions. The other women were to speak about the legal aspects, laboring woman’s viewpoint and the international situation regarding suffrage. Reflecting the tension that often existed between different factions, McCulloch later criticized Trout for speaking much too long and dominating the tour.

In 1912, Grace Wilbur Trout, head of the Chicago Political Equality League, was elected President of the state organization. She abandoned the confrontational style of lobbying the state legislature and began to strengthen the organization internally. She made sure that a local organization was started in every Senatorial District. One of her assistants, Elizabeth Booth, cut up a Blue Book government directory and made file cards for each of the members of the General Assembly. Trout only allowed four lobbyists in Springfield and tried to persuade one legislator at a time to support suffrage for women.

During the 1913 session of the General Assembly, a bill was again introduced giving women the vote for Presidential electors and some local officials. With the help of first-term Speaker of the House, Democrat William McKinley, the bill was given to a favorable committee. McKinley told Trout that he would only bring it up for a final vote if he could be convinced that there was sentiment for the bill in the state. Trout opened the flood gates of her network, and while in Chicago over the weekend, McKinley received a phone call every 15 minutes day and night. On returning to Springfield he found a deluge of telegrams and letters from around the state all in favor of suffrage. By acting quietly and quickly Trout had caught the opposition off guard.

Passing the Senate first, the bill was brought up for a vote in the House on June 11, 1913. Trout and her troops counted heads and literally fetched needed men from their residences. Mrs. Trout actually guarded the door to the House chambers and urged members in favor not to leave before the vote, while also trying to prevent "anti" lobbyists from illegally being allowed onto the House floor. Getting the votes of all 25 first-term Progressives and the 3 Socialist Party members, the bill passed with six votes to spare, 83-58. On June 26, 1913, Governor Dunne signed the bill in the presence of Trout, Booth and union labor leader Margaret Healy.

Women in Illinois could now vote for Presidential electors and for all local offices not specifically named in the Illinois Constitution. However, they still could not vote for state representative, Congressman or governor; and they still had to use separate ballots and ballot boxes. But by virtue of this law, Illinois had become the first state east of the Mississippi to grant women the right to vote for President. Carrie Chapman Catt wrote:

"The effect of this victory upon the nation was astounding. When the first Illinois election took place in April, (1914) the press carried the headlines that 250,000 women had voted in Chicago. Illinois, with its large electoral vote of 29, proved the turning point beyond which politicians at last got a clear view of the fact that women were gaining genuine political power."

Besides the passage of the Illinois Municipal Voting Act, 1913 was also a significant year in other facets of the women's suffrage movement. In Chicago, African American anti-lynching crusader Ida B. Wells-Barnett founded the Alpha Suffrage Club, the first such organization for Negro women in Illinois. Although white women as a group were sometimes ambivalent about obtaining the franchise, African American women were almost universally in favor of gaining the vote to help end their sexual exploitation, promote their educational opportunities and protect those who were wage earners. On March 3, 1913, over 5000 suffragists paraded in Washington, D.C. When Wells tried to line up with her Illinois sisters, she was asked to go to the end of the line so as not to offend and alienate the Southern women marchers. Wells feigned agreement, but much to the shock of Trout, she joined the Illinois delegation once the parade started.

As the suffragists started down Pennsylvania Avenue, the crowd became abusive and started to close in, knocking the marchers around. With local police doing little to keep control, the cavalry was called in as 100 women were hospitalized. Many suffragists now concluded that public protests might be the quickest route to universal franchise.

In June, 1916, many Illinois women were among the 5000 who marched in Chicago to the Republican National Convention hall in a tremendous rainstorm. Their efforts convinced the convention to include a Woman's Suffrage plank in the party platform, and got Presidential candidate Charles Evans Hughes to endorse the proposed constitutional amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Three years later Congress finally passed the Susan B. Anthony Amendment. First introduced in Congress in 1878, it stated simply:

"The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex."

On June 10, 1919, Illinois became the first state to approve this amendment. Ratification by the 36th state, Tennessee, came 12 months later and the 19th Amendment to the Constitution took effect on August 26, 1920. This made the United States the 27th country to allow women universal suffrage.

National President Carrie Chapman Catt proposed the idea of a "League of Women Voters" as a memorial to the departed leaders of the Suffrage cause. The next year the National American Woman Suffrage Association was disbanded and the League of Women Voters was founded on February 14 at the Pick Congress Hotel in Chicago. Present at the creation were suffragists Jane Addams, Louise de Koven Bowen, Agnes Nestor, Wells-Barnett, Haley, McCulloch, and Trout. Gone but not forgotten were the women who first led the way: Lucy Stone, Anthony, Stanton, Livermore, Willard and countless others. On November 15, 1995, a simple plaque was dedicated in recognition of their efforts in the Illinois State Capitol next to the statue of Lottie Holman O'Neill of Downer's Grove; the first woman elected to the Illinois General Assembly.


This webpage is maintained by Mark Sorensen, Sorens1@comcast.net Adjunct Professor of History, Millikin University.


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