Shoulder to shoulder, equal before the law

Last year Illinois and the nation celebrated the centennial anniversary of the 19th Amendment, which finally extended voting rights to women in 1920.

Illinoisans could proudly point out that our state was ahead of the times. The Land of Lincoln was the first state to ratify the amendment after its passage by Congress in June 1919. Before that, Illinois had enfranchised women in school elections in 1891 and in the remainder of local elections in 1913. But the fight had actually begun decades earlier, with one of its starting points coming at a suffrage convention held in Chicago a half century before the 19th Amendment was ratified.

Going into 1870, Illinois was set to revise its state Constitution, which had been in force since 1848. Prominent suffragists were determined that the document should include an expansion of voting rights to include women. A leading voice among them was Frances Willard, who summarized the disparity in voting rights succinctly.

“The idea that boys of 21 are fit to make laws for their mothers is an insult to everyone,” Willard had said.

To prepare for the push to amend the Constitution, suffragists organized a two-day Woman’s Suffrage Convention in Chicago’s Library Hall in 1869. Leading the drive was Mary Livermore, a former teacher who had gotten her start in political activism as an abolitionist in the years before the Civil War. She had then gone on to serve as a member of the Sanitary Commission which helped run hospitals for wounded soldiers during the conflict.

“Men and women should stand shoulder to shoulder, equal before the law,” Livermore believed, and suffrage was the only way to achieve that equality.

The convention drew some of the nation’s leading advocates for voting rights. Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton both addressed the delegates. The assembly voted to form a permanent organization, the Illinois Woman Suffrage Association (IWSA), with Livermore serving as its first President. The convention adjourned on Lincoln’s birthday, February 12, 1869, determined to go forward as a force for women’s voting rights.

It would prove to be a much longer fight than anyone anticipated.

Portraits of prominent figures in the suffrage movement.
Mary A. Livermore pictured bottom right.
The state Constitution adopted in 1870 did contain advances in some voting rights, but not for women. To keep the effort moving, Livermore started a pro-suffrage newspaper called the Agitator. Local chapters of the ISWA were soon formed throughout the state.

“The fire, which had been smoldering for years burst suddenly into a flame, and soon spread to other cities and towns,” Livermore wrote.

While their efforts at the Constitutional Convention were not successful, there was still plenty of work to be done, and the expanding membership of the IWSA set about doing it.

State law did not only exclude women from the voting booth, it restricted their rights in most aspects of daily life. Women were largely restricted from property ownership, juries or signing contracts. In many cases married women had no legal right to keep money they earned; instead it was entrusted to their husbands. The IWSA would make it its goal to start chipping away at these restrictions, all the while keeping the momentum toward suffrage moving forward. In the same year as the inaugural convention, the IWSA succeeding in persuading the legislature to remove restrictions on property ownership by married women.

Over the next two decades, the IWSA achieved a series of victories, even after Livermore returned to her native New England and new leaders stepped up to take her place. Included among these were Willard, Chicago Legal News publisher Myra Colby Bradwell and the organization’s new president, Elizabeth Boynton Harbert of Evanston.

Harbert had been born in Indiana and lived in Iowa. She was active in suffragist movements in each state before coming to Illinois. She founded the Woman’s Club of Evanston and was active in other civic causes as well. While she headed the IWSA she also served as a vice president of the National Woman Suffrage Association and wrote a column for the Chicago InterOcean newspaper.

They took advantage of a unique opportunity offered them by Chicago’s geography. As the central railroad hub of the nation in the late 19th century, Chicago hosted many of the era’s political party nominating conventions, giving Chicago suffragists the chance to present their arguments to the nation’s power brokers when they came to town.

Ironically, one of the first major advances concerned the very elected officeholders whom women could still not help in selecting. In 1873 state law was changed to allow women who were otherwise qualified to hold school offices. They could not vote in the election, but so long as they met the same eligibility requirements as male candidates, they were allowed to run. The effect was immediate. In the 1874 fall elections ten Illinois counties elected women as their school superintendents.

As the 1870s progressed, the suffrage movement and the temperance movement became intertwined, and many of the victories they won together in Illinois concerned efforts against liquor. But these campaigns also grew the movement and refined the skills of its organizers. A key example is an 1879 petition drive to enhance local control of liquor sales. Advocates, most of them women, collected more than 180,000 signatures in support of the initiative.

It also included a provision granting women the right to vote on the referendum at the local level. As part of the push for the legislation, Willard spoke to a session of the General Assembly, the first woman ever to do so in Illinois. The initiative did not succeed, but it helped in building strength for the movement toward suffrage.

Suffragists march in Decoration Day Parade
in DeKalb, 1892.
By 1891 the drive for voting rights was back in the forefront. Near the end of that year’s legislative session it achieved another important step toward its goal, if in a limited fashion, when the state legislature extended voting rights to women in school elections. The Illinois Supreme Court would eventually rule that the law applied to elections for the board of trustees of the University of Illinois. Thanks to this ruling, in 1894 Chicago philanthropist and social worker Lucy Flower was elected to the board, the first Illinois woman to win a statewide election.

But the progress did not move unimpeded. The suffragists were resisted at every turn, including by a rival organization called the Illinois Association Opposed to the Extension of Suffrage to Women, which had been founded in 1897 by Caroline Fairfield Corbin of Chicago. Corbin argued that women were by and large opposed to suffrage and should focus on maintaining their families’ homes. However it was becoming increasingly clear that hers was a minority position.

With the turn of the 20th century, the suffrage movement had taken on a truly statewide character, establishing clubs and chapters in every part of the state and becoming a political force to be reckoned with. These groups merged into the Illinois Federation of Women’s Clubs which lobbied for many different pieces of legislation, including suffrage. One especially creative proposal would have enacted a tax exemption for women who weren’t allowed to vote, embracing the age-old American notion of “no taxation without representation.”

By this time the movement was in the hands of leaders like Grace Wilbur Trout and Catherine Waugh McCulloch, who would, in the new century’s second decade, secure the final steps in the drive for equal voting rights under the law.

The 1913 extension had a dramatic effect, both in Illinois and nationally. The spring 1914 election saw a quarter of a million Illinois women exercise their newly-acquired right, which had a significant impact on Illinois politics, but also sent a message to the nation as a whole.

Carrie Chapman Catt, one of the movement’s most prominent national leaders would remark that, “The effect of this victory upon the nation was astounding. When the first Illinois election took place in April, 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.”

Six years later the Constitutional amendment would finally pass and become the law of the land a year later. Its success was attributable to many advocates in many parts of the nation, but in particular to a group who set things in motion when they gathered in Chicago almost 50 years before.