Florence Fifer Bohrer (R-Bloomington), pioneer for women's rights

Sen. Florence Fifer Bohrer (R-Bloomington)
First woman elected to the Illinois State Senate
Believing that as a mother she must, “push out the walls of her home to include the community,” Senator Florence Fifer Bohrer (R-Bloomington) dedicated more than 50 years of her life to helping her neighbors. Along the way, she formed a Mother’s Club which developed into the modern Parent Teacher Organization (PTO), helped establish a tuberculosis sanitarium in Bloomington, was the local director of the American Red Cross during World War I, put her name on the ballot in 1924 and became the first woman elected to the Illinois State Senate.

Sen. Bohrer was the daughter of Governor Joe Fifer, who served one term in the late 19th century. Her introduction to Illinois politics came in the brash, take-charge fashion for which she would come to be known. At her father’s inaugural ball, 12-year-old Florence and John Oglesby, son of the former governor, made a surprise appearance by sliding down the Executive Mansion bannister into the middle of the party. It was the kind of entrance that would symbolize her career.

She married in 1895 and had two children, Joseph and Gertrude. When Gertrude and several of her classmates contracted tuberculosis in 1910, she helped form the McLean County Tuberculosis Association to educate local residents on the symptoms of tuberculosis and to conduct medical screenings. Her activism led to the creation of the McLean County tuberculosis sanitarium in 1919.

Florence Bohrer became an important figure in the Bloomington community, and it wasn’t long before local residents looked to her to take the lead in various community projects. With the outbreak of World War I, she was chosen to lead the American Red Cross’ efforts to support the families of soldiers fighting overseas. From there, it was a natural step into the growing women’s suffrage movement.  When women were finally granted full voting rights, Bohrer was approached by a group of local friends who encouraged her to be a candidate for the Illinois Senate in 1924.

Campaigning on her record of social service, and arguing for lower taxes, better roads and more balance between Chicago and downstate, Bohrer toppled the incumbent Senator in the primary, and cruised to a wide victory in the general. Around 60 members of the bi-partisan “Florence Fifer Bohrer Club” from Bloomington, and more than 600 women from around the state came to Springfield to see her inauguration in January 1925.

Sen. Bohrer’s impact on Illinois history extends beyond her groundbreaking election in 1924. Her reputation preceded her to the Senate, where she was made chairman of the Committee to Visit Charitable Institutions, and was also named to the committees on Agriculture and Livestock; Charitable, Penal and Reformatory Institutions; and Public Health, Hygiene and Sanitation.

She toured the state as chair of the Public Welfare Committee, first encountering deaf and blind children on a visit to Jacksonville’s School for the Deaf and School for the Blind. On a visit to a state mental hospital in Anna, when she announced that she was a Senator who had come to inspect the facility she was briefly locked up and thought to be insane by an orderly who couldn’t believe a woman was actually a Senator and not a delusional patient. The mistake was quickly rectified by administrators, and Sen. Bohrer told the story with great amusement for many years.

In the Senate, she sponsored a bill to allow women to serve on juries. She fought for stronger child welfare laws and helped to organize the state park system in Illinois which had been growing since 1908. She sponsored legislation to make it easier to pay property taxes, allowing payments to be broken into two installments. Sen. Bohrer also introduced the bill which made “Illinois” the official state song.

After leaving office in 1933, Sen. Bohrer continued her civic work. With the onset of the Depression, she headed the McLean County Emergency Relief Office, without compensation, and helped more than 15,000 county residents through the darkest days of the depression. She also helped form the McLean County Chapter of the League of Women Voters, where she served as President and was eventually elected to the national board. Asked late in life to sum up her career, she said, “I saw a thing to do, and I did it.”

Sen. Florence Fifer Bohrer died in 1960 at the age of 83. She is buried in Park Hill Cemetery in Bloomington.