Women's Rights in Illinois

Presented to the Champaign Business and Professional Women's Club - - October, 1998

It is a pleasure for me to have an opportunity to speak about women's rights in Illinois to members of the local Business and Professional Women's club. For one thing, this is a topic very close to my heart both as a teacher of women's history at Parkland for 30 years and as a long-time activist for women's equality within the feminist movement. It is also a topic important to each of you, personally and as an organization. Since its founding in 1923, the National Federation of Business & Professional Women's clubs has had women's rights as a major goal and priority. It was one of the first national women's organizations to endorse the Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution and was one of the major players in getting it passed through Congress in 1972. State organizations were involved in attempting to get it ratified by 38 state legislatures, the number required to add an amendment to the Constitution.

I am also happy to be with you because of a personal attachment I have always felt to the B&PW. My paternal grandmother, Ione Long Sargent, was deeply involved with her local and state (Texas) chapters. The B&PW was her major voluntary commitment from the time she became a charter member of the Ft Worth club in 1923, until her death in 1975. She was a member of the state legislative committee and made frequent trips to Austin, the state capital, to lobby the legislators about a myriad of women's rights issues from jury service for women, to equal guardianship of children, to inheritance and property rights issues. The Texas organization's biggest victory was the addition of the Texas Equal Legal Rights amendment to the Texas Constitution in 1973 and my granny Sargent was at the core of that long struggle and eventual victory.

I also remember with great nostalgia attending the local club's annual spring luncheon with her. It was called the Bluebonnet luncheon, was usually held in the ballroom of a downtown hotel and the tables were always decorated with thousands of bluebonnets. That is until the legislature passed a law forbidding the picking of the fast disappearing state flower. I used to love my granny's stories of the women going out into the Texas countryside in the early spring and literally filling the back of her 1938 Chevy and several other cars with bluebonnets they picked in an afternoon. I also loved attending these luncheons as an adolescent and being around my grandmother's friends and co-workers. Little did I realize then that this was a part of her relentless campaign to turn me into an active feminist. Something worked and for all I know it was those luncheons.

Tonight I can only give a brief summary of the ongoing struggle for women's equality in Illinois. Like all movements for social change, it has taken millions of woman-hours to achieve what we now enjoy. It has taken the creativity and commitment of dozens and dozens of organizations that have carried out thousands of actions and campaigns. To review this history is to be filled with awe at what women accomplished without e-mail, telephones and other technologies. To know this history is to learn once again how long it takes to get change, and how so few did so much for so many.

Most of you are probably aware that the modern US women's rights movement dates from 1848 when the first woman's rights convention was held in Seneca Falls, New York. This summer was the 150th anniversary of the convention, and some of you may have seen the celebrations on C-Span or other news media.

In the 1850's the movement spread across Ohio, New York, Indiana, and Illinois. What usually happened is that a local woman called a meeting where either a local or national speaker would appear. If there was enough interest, a local organization would be formed or a larger convention organized where women's rights resolutions would be drafted and voted on.

The first speech for woman suffrage in Illinois which has been recorded in the historical record was given in 1855 by A.J. Grover in Earlville, Illinois in LaSalle County. Soon after this speech, the first women's suffrage society in the state was organized at Earlville by Mrs. Grover and Susan Hoxie Richardson, the niece of Susan B. Anthony. This is an example of how the newly created women's rights movement was spread by female networks of friends and relatives.

In 1860 and 1861 several Illinois woman's rights activists, including Amelia Bloomer, the popularizer of dress reform for whom the bloomer costume was named, toured Illinois advocating for woman suffrage and women's property rights. One thing that it is important to remember is that woman suffrage was considered radical at the time and was not supported by many women, including women who were for other women's rights. The idea of voting violated the social norm ingrained in middle class women that they occupied separate though equal spheres and that they were morally superior to men and needed to be separate from men. Participating in politics was seen by many middle class white woman as a violation of their sphere that could lead to its destruction.

An important goal of the new Illinois women's rights movement was achieved in 1861 when the Illinois legislator passed the women's property rights act, which Bloomer and her co-workers had drafted and lobbied for in Springfield. The act granted women control of property they brought into the marriage. Prior to that the English Common law doctrine, whereby a woman lost all property rights and legal rights when she married, had prevailed in Illinois.

From 1861-1865, the years of the American Civil War, the seeds for a powerful women's rights movement were sewn. Hundreds of Illinois women were involved in organizing the US Army Sanitary Commission, the forerunner of the American Red Cross. The Commission was founded and run by women and set up hospitals and provided medical supplies and nurses to serve the needs of Union soldiers. Other women gained organizational experience in the anti-slavery movement, which was gaining momentum during the war. You can not imagine how much these women accomplished. Mary Livermore, Myra Bradwell and others had responsibilities comparable to that of modern CEO's of large corporations. They organized major fundraising events that raised over a million dollars at a time and coordinated thousands of volunteers.

Suffrage agitation began again in 1865 after being interrupted during the war. Myra Bradwell, who studied law with her attorney husband, started the Chicago Legal News, a newspaper which included a regular column on the legal status and problems of women. By the way, her bust is in the Illinois state capitol commemorating her achievement as the first woman to pass the bar in Illinois and to attempt to practice law.

In 1869 two state-wide suffrage organizations were formed, one of which survived until the suffrage amendment was ratified in 1920. Mary Livermore and Myra Bradwell, who had worked together in the US Sanitary Commission during the Civil War, were friends of Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. They organized a Midwest Suffrage Convention in Chicago where the Illinois Woman Suffrage Association was created as a state affiliate of Anthony and Stanton's National Woman Suffrage Association. Both Stanton and Anthony spoke at the organizing convention in Chicago. Each was a nationally known public figure by this time, and their appearance sparked a lot of interest and enthusiasm. After the convention Mary Livermore and a few friends went to Springfield to work for a revision of the married women's property act, which would allow a working woman to keep her own wages (under Common Law a woman's wages were controlled by her husband). The law passed, the first victory for the organized women's rights movement.

That same year Myra Bradwell applied to practice law before the Illinois bar. Her request was denied, so she brought a suit before the US Supreme Court arguing that the equal protection clause of the 14th amendment prohibited states from passing laws that denied women equal treatment under the law. In 1872 the court ruled against her asserting that the right of citizenship did not automatically include the right to practice law and that the "Laws of the Creator" placed limits on the functions of womanhood.

The first annual convention of the new Illinois Woman Suffrage Association was held in Springfield in 1870. The main goal of the suffragists at this point was to convince the Illinois Constitutional Convention, which was revising the Illinois Constitution, to include woman's suffrage. Not only did they not succeed, but they had to fight off an attempt to include a section outlawing women from holding any office named in the new constitution.

In that year Catherine Waite tested the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment by registering to vote in Hyde Park, Illinois. This was two years before Susan B. Anthony did the same thing in Rochester New York. Anthony's vote in 1872 led to a famous trial during which she was found guilty of voting illegally. Also in that year Anthony came to Champaign as part of tour of Illinois to organize local suffrage groups. You can see a plaque commemorating her visit on April 2, 1870 at the corner of Main and Neil in downtown Champaign. She spoke to an overflow crowd in an opera house located in the Barrett Block on that site. Her topic was "Work, Wages and the Ballot."

The 1870's was a period of both gains and losses for women in Illinois. In 1872, the same year that the US Supreme Court denied Bradwell's petition to practice law, several women law school graduates lobbied a bill through the Illinois legislature which prohibited discrimination in employment because of sex. This was the first such law in any state in the country and opened the legal profession and others to women. It did, however, exempt women from service on juries, county road work and elective office.

In 1873 women made several important gains. An act was passed recognizing women's eligibility to hold school offices, and immediately nine women were appointed as County Superintendent of Schools. Also in 1873 Illinois women won one of the most important legal rights for women-- equal guardianship of children after divorce. Women in Illinois also benefited from ongoing divorce law reform, and Illinois had some of most liberal laws governing divorce. Interestingly, during this period it was easier to achieve equal rights laws in other areas than it was to get votes for women. One reason is that these laws affected fewer people and were less threatening, while suffrage involved half the population, would empower women and would transform the whole structure of public decisionmaking.

A huge advance for Illinois women came in 1874 when the Women's Christian Temperance Union was formed at convention in Bloomington, Illinois. Although it began as a conservative temperance organization, it soon became a strong force for women's rights and suffrage under the leadership of Frances Willard, a founder and long-time leader of the organization. She was a strong feminist and close friend of Susan B. Anthony but had the skill of bringing moderate and conservative women into the movement. Interestingly, her statue is in the US. Capitol. Each state gets two statues, and Willard is one of our two. In 1879, the Illinois WCTU presented a woman suffrage petition to the legislature with 180,000 signatures.

In the 1880's the women's club movement was organized in Illinois and nationally and transformed itself from clubs for socializing and self-improvement into a powerful force for social reform. The WCTU and the General Federation of Women's Clubs brought thousands and thousands of women into the cause of social reform and women's rights.

By 1891 the women's movement was so powerful in Illinois that an act was passed through the legislature allowing women to vote in school elections. Subsequently, Illinois Supreme Court cases allowed women to vote for and serve as University of Illinois Trustees, and in 1894 a Chicago social welfare leader, Lucy Flower, was the first woman elected by voters state-wide. The WCTU was a major proponent of the school elections bill and is probably more responsible than the Illinois Woman Suffrage Association for getting it passed due to their much larger membership.

By the late 1890's women had worked for suffrage in Illinois for so long that they began to use more and more creative tactics. In 1898 the IWSA got a member of the Illinois Senate to introduce a bill which would exempt women's property from taxation until they could vote, expressing by their action, "No Taxation Without Representation." In 1901 the Joint Guardianship act was passed, granting women equal say in decisions affecting their children. Illinois did this earlier than most states, many of which did not pass comparable legislation until the 1920's.

In the twentieth century the work for suffrage intensified and gained momentum. That story is too complex to go into here. But suffice it to say that the Illinois Equal Suffrage Association, as the old IWSA was now called, worked constantly and tirelessly for suffrage. Because the Illinois state constitution forbade women from voting for offices named in the 1870 revision of the state constitution, an attorney from Chicago, Catherine Waugh McCulloch, hit on the strategy of working to get municipal and presidential suffrage for women in Illinois, offices which were not specified in the Illinois constitution. The IESA pursued the municipal and presidential suffrage strategy from 1893-1913. They introduced McCulloch's bill in every session. The bill finally passed in 1913, thanks to the votes of 23 Progressives and 4 Socialists and the conversion to suffrage of such nationally prominent women as Jane Addams and her Hull Mouse sisters - - Florence Kelley, Mary McDowell, Grace and Edith Abbott, Dr. Alice Hamilton. All were leading social reformers and national figures, and their support contributed to the eventual success of partial suffrage in Illinois.

With this victory, Illinois became the first state east of the Mississippi and the first northern industrial state to give women the vote. Leaders of the national movement credited Illinois with providing the final push needed to get the national amendment passed in 1919 and ratified in 1920. Victory in Illinois helped create victory in New York in 1917, and this prepared the way for passage of the federal amendment in Congress in 1919.

The important role of Illinois suffragists in the struggle for the vote is symbolized by the fact that the last convention of the National American Woman Suffrage Association was held in Chicago in 1920. It was at that meeting that the suffrage organization transformed itself into the National League of Women Voters.

I want to end with a very brief history of the Equal Rights Amendment in Illinois. In 1923, the National Women's Party, led by Alice Paul, had the ERA introduced in Congress. At the same time, the Illinois chapter of the NWP, led by Susan Lawrence Dana of Springfield (some of you may have visited the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Dana-Thomas house in Springfield) had the Illinois Equal Rights Bill introduced in the state legislature. She was legislative chair of the Illinois NWP. At that point only the NWP and NFB&PW clubs supported the concept of sweeping equal rights bills at the state and federal level. Most progressive women's organizations and social reform groups were afraid that this approach would undo all the labor laws protecting women which had been gained in the late 19th and early 20th century. It was not until the late 1960's and early 1970's that groups like the LWV and others supported ERA. Consequently, from 1923 until 1972, when the ERA passed Congress by overwhelming majorities, there was little movement or interest in the amendment, though it was introduced in every session nationally. I do not know the history of Dana's Illinois Equal Rights Bill except that it did not pass. In the 1970 revision of the Illinois state constitution, however, an equal rights clause, with similar wording to the national amendment, was included in Article I, Section 18.

After the ERA passed through Congress in 1972, thirty states ratified in the next 18 months. Constitutionally 38 states had to ratify for the amendment to become law. Unfortunately, Illinois was not in that number, and for the next ten year hundred's of thousands of woman-hours were spent working for the amendment's ratification in Illinois. That tale is also too long and too complex for this talk, but having been involved I can say it is one of the most heartbreaking stories any proponent of women's rights could ever hear.