How suburban leaders pushed movement for women's votes
The first woman to vote in Illinois lived in Lombard.
The leader of a pioneering 1910 auto tour across northern Illinois to stump for suffrage lived in Oak Park.
The architect of the law that let Illinois women vote for municipal and presidential elections after 1913 hailed from Evanston. So did the longtime president of the Women's Christian Temperance Union, a group that led a major push for the suffrage cause.
The suburbs were fertile ground for the decadeslong movement that eventually allowed women the vote nationwide 100 years ago with the ratification on Aug. 26, 1920, of the 19th Amendment.
Nearby in Chicago, women like Ida B. Wells and Jane Addams also pushed the needle forward by forming a suffrage club among African American women and taking a leadership role in the National American Woman Suffrage Association. With these efforts, adding in the actions of women across the suburbs, historical experts say, the region took on a strong importance in the push to secure "Votes for Women," as suffragists' campaign signs often read.
"It's the whole Chicago area that is influencing the movement," said Lori Osborne, director of the Evanston Women's History Project.
Women in the suburbs were joining the movement by the 1880s or earlier.
For one example, 1888 is the year when three women and two men founded the Naperville Equal Suffrage Club. Many of those who later got involved were students at what's now called North Central College. Rebecca Skirvin, North Central's coordinator of archives, said the college from its founding was coeducational, allowing in both women and men and laying the "groundwork for considering women as equals in many ways."
Then came Ellen Martin's pioneering vote. On April 6, 1891, in her hometown of Lombard, the 28-year-old attorney who ran her own firm walked into her local polling place and cast a ballot in a general election.
The election judges laughed at her and declined to see the legal brief she drafted explaining her rights (it hinged on the wording of Lombard's town charter, which -- at the time -- said "all citizens" were allowed to vote). But they let her vote. Martin later returned with 14 other prominent Lombard women who subsequently cast their own ballots.
"She was ahead of her time," said Alison Costanzo, executive director of the Lombard Historical Society. "She bucked the norms."
Women's advocacy for the vote was heating up elsewhere, especially in Evanston. There, attorney Catharine Waugh McCulloch was searching for a way to get women statewide started voting, a few positions at a time.
Osborne calls this the "wedge approach" and says it was a purposeful strategy to "crack the door" open toward voting rights.
Women in Evanston also specialized in a theory Osborne called the "home protection argument" to convince skeptical women and men alike of the importance of women's votes. It called on those in power to let women vote as an extension of their responsibilities to their husbands and children.
"They're going to vote for things that protect their families and their homes, and they are going to make the world better with their votes," Osborne said, explaining the argument. "You wouldn't want to limit women's ability to do that -- it's part of their traditional role."
Zach Bishop, curator of the DuPage County Historical Museum, calls this strategy "municipal housekeeping."
"Women argued that they were the only ones who knew how to take care of the broader community, similar to how they took care of their families," Bishop said. "So that ideology was in play."
Using these tactics and her legal and political skills, Osborne said, Waugh McCulloch became the "architect" of the 1913 Presidential and Municipal Suffrage Bill. The law gave women in Illinois the right to vote for president in 1916 and made Illinois the first state east of the Mississippi River where that was possible.
Advocacy for that bill spanned the state, as supporters knew they needed to put local pressure on every state senator and state representative to ensure the measure would pass.
In 1910, for example, the Chicago Political Equality League, led by Grace Wilbur Trout of Oak Park, launched an auto tour from Chicago across 16 cities in suburban and northern Illinois. Without many paved roads or street signs, using borrowed vehicles, the women traveled through Evanston, Highland Park, Lake Forest, Waukegan, Grayslake, McHenry, Woodstock, Marengo, Belvidere, Sycamore, DeKalb, Geneva, Elgin, Aurora, Naperville and Wheaton. They advocated for suffrage at each stop along the way.
Pioneering suburban women in the early 1900s also advocated for their votes and their choices through an early version of the feminist credo, "the personal is political."
By making art at metalworking shops in Chicago instead of staying in the home, women like Lombard's Christia Reade and Clara Welles, among other leading craft workers, pushed for a world with more women's involvement, the Lombard Historical Society's Costanzo said.
"To be a part of that work for this time period is not heard of," Costanzo said. "They were making change."
Activism continued at the collegiate level, as suffragists in Naperville sat dressed in white with a banner reading "woman suffrage" atop a float in the 1914 Booster Day parade at North Central College, Skirvin said.
Many suburban women, organized in women's clubs, traveled from their homes to Chicago for some of the major suffrage parades or marches, such as events in 1914 and 1916. Clara Farson led one such group from St. Charles to join Chicago's 1916 parade, Costanzo said, and she later organized women to go cast ballots once the 19th Amendment was approved.
"The women's club movement picked up the steam of suffrage and started pushing forward," said Jeanne Schultz Angel, an Illinois Humanities Road Scholar on the suffrage movement who works as director of learning experiences and historical research at the Naper Settlement. "It leads into so many other riveting stories about local women and what they've been able to accomplish."