Northbrook Historical Society: Local leadership roles for women remained scarce long after 1920

There likely are few better examples of how the influence and contributions of women in government have expanded during the past several decades than the current composition of the Northbrook village board. As 2020 draws to a close, five of the seven Northbrook trustees are women, including Village President Sandra Frum.

Frum, about to step down after her third term as president, is a perfect example of how long it took for local women to gain such positions. When first elected in 1987, she was only the third woman ever to serve on Northbrook's village board.

It was not until 1965 - 64 years after incorporation of the village - that Northbrook elected its first woman for the village board: Ellen "Sally" Probst, who during that era was most often referred to as "Mrs. Charles Probst." Lucinda Kasperson became Northbrook's first female village president in 1981 after joining the board in 1967.

The history of Northbrook Park District commissioners is similar, with Linda White the first female board member in 1971; she later became the first woman president of the park board in 1977. Frum and Lorraine Wax joined the park district board in 1981.

Three members of the park district's current seven-member board are women including President Mary Ann Chambers and Penelope Randel, a former president.

Such accomplishments by local women are worth noting during this century year of the Constitution's 19th Amendment. When the right to vote in all elections for all eligible American women finally became a reality on Aug. 18, 1920, the achievement undoubtedly captured the attention of Shermerville residents just as it did for the entire nation.

Like this year, 1920 also was a presidential-voting year. It sometimes is overlooked, however, that women in Illinois were able to vote for president in 1916 due to a 1913 state law that enabled them to do so in presidential elections. Women in Illinois actually had been able to vote in school-board elections since 1891.

In 1920, the Village of Shermerville had just 551 residents. Like other Americans, many in Shermerville saw ratification of the 19th Amendment as the climax of a long struggle that began with the amendment's introduction in Congress in 1878. It was voted down in one way or another 28 times until Congress finally approved the measure on June 4, 1919.

Then came the need for ratification by three-fourths (36) of the 48 states. Illinois, Wisconsin and Michigan were the first to ratify, all on June 10, 1919. Tennessee became No. 36 on Aug. 18, 1920.

By then, the 1920 presidential election was only weeks away. Republican Warren G. Harding easily defeated Democrat James M. Cox on Nov. 2, 1920, to become the nation's 29th president. But just 36 percent of eligible women voted compared to 68 percent of eligible men.

Many attribute that low turnout by women to the barriers they faced - including literacy tests, long residency requirements, poll taxes, and intimidation. "Persistent beliefs that voting was inappropriate for women may also have kept turnout low," one analyst noted.

That trend endured for six decades after 1920, but in every presidential election from 1980 through 2016, a greater proportion of eligible women voted than men. Another national statistic: In 1920, Congress had only one female member (Jeannette Rankin of Montana), and as late as 1980 there were only 17. In 2021, there will be at least 141.

Back in Shermerville, one of the first instances of women playing a role in determining policy might involve the name change to Northbrook in 1923. When the village board voted 6-1 in favor of the change on Jan. 8, 1923, board members were responding to a petition signed by 127 citizens who were legal voters. At least 46 of the names on the petition belonged to women.

Still, even after 1920, local women in leadership roles were rare. One pioneer was Florence Law, who assumed the presidency of the District 225 school board in 1951 during tense negotiations regarding construction of Glenbrook High School. But according to "Northbrook, Illinois: The Fabric of Our History": "it was not until the Village was more than 60 years old that a woman [Probst] was elected to Village office and still longer before women were admitted to membership in the Civic Foundation, Jaycees or Rotary clubs."

Some of those "first women" in village leadership positions included Sharon Florczak, the first female Civic Foundation member in 1980; Sandra Kent (village clerk, 1981); Sheryl McAuliffe (Rotary Club member, 1988); Barbara Lawrence (Northbrook Jaycees president, 1992); Judith Warchol (Rotary Club president, 1996), and Lucy Schmidt (Civic Foundation president, 1998).

Another of the courageous female pioneers in government who served Northbrook residents was Marguerite Stitt Church, who represented the old 13th Congressional District that included Northfield Township in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1951-63.

At least two Northbrook women have been members of the Illinois General Assembly: Kathleen Parker (state senator, 1995-2003) and Elaine Nekritz (state representative, 2003-17).

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