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Local Suffragists and the 19th Amendment

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As Illinois and Wisconsin raced to be the first states that enshrined women’s voting rights in the Constitution, a wider movement was also being led by women in our region. Learn how their work impacted life as we know it today.

(Library of Congress photo)

More than 70 years elapsed between the first women’s rights convention and the ratification of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which granted women the right to vote in 1920. Many women from our region played pivotal roles in the suffragist movement that occurred during this time, and it was their work that led Illinois and Wisconsin to become the first to ratify the Amendment in June 1919. (Library of Congress photo)

Women didn’t have property rights, let alone voting rights, when our nation was founded. But by the 1840s, the situation was starting to change.

Mississippi passed a law giving married women the right to maintain ownership of property they brought into their marriages, causing New York to consider doing the same. That led to the first women’s rights convention, held in Seneca Falls, N.Y., in the summer of 1848.

At that event, the Declaration of Sentiments – a document focused on equal rights for men and women, which Elizabeth Cady Stanton modeled on the Declaration of Independence – was adopted.

“It was signed by all of the people there,” says Dr. Catherine Forslund, History, Politics, and International Studies Department Chair at Rockford University. “One of the resolutions in it is a call for women to have the right to vote. That’s the first time it’s formally on a piece of paper with important people signing it, including Frederick Douglass, who was one of the men in attendance at the convention.”

And so a movement began.

The Home Front

In 1913, Illinois became the first state east of the Mississippi River to give women partial suffrage – the right to vote – thanks in large part to the efforts of Catharine Waugh McCulloch (see sidebar on pg. 76).

“Illinois was more pro-suffrage than Wisconsin at the time,” says Jenny Kalvaitis, the Wisconsin Historical Society’s coordinator of secondary education. “Illinois had partial suffrage, versus Wisconsin where the brewers had a ton of power.”

In large part because suffrage was aligned with the temperance movement – which promoted moderation and restraint from consumption of alcoholic beverages – the Wisconsin referendum introduced by Wisconsin state senator David James failed by a wide margin.

By 1919, views had shifted, and there was a hot rivalry between Illinois and Wisconsin over which state would ratify the 19th Amendment first.

“Illinois, unlike a lot of Midwest states, had a sizable African-American population, and African-American women were working hard for suffrage, too,” says Lori Osborne, historian at the Evanston History Center and director of the Evanston Women’s History Project. “That was happening statewide, not just in Chicago, so part of the story is that it’s at least a partially integrated movement. Lots of suffrage happened across race lines.”

On June 10, 1919, Wisconsin state senators were still in session when they learned their counterparts in Illinois had just ratified the 19th Amendment.

“They very quickly decided to pass it with the sole purpose, apparently, to try to race Illinois,” Kalvaitis says. “Sen. David James was chosen to head out to Washington, D.C., to get the papers filed first. He didn’t change his clothes; he didn’t pack a bag. The secretary of state gave him some pocket money and [his daughter] Ada handed him her purse so he’d have something to carry it in, and they put him on a train. He wasn’t a young man at this point – he was in his 70s – and he was racing across the United States to get to D.C. to file the papers first. And he did so successfully.”

Osborne counters: “None of the other votes were counted by when they reached Washington. The thing that matters is when the vote was taken. And that first vote was always Illinois’ vote. It was one hour ahead of Wisconsin. Nothing was altered. It was never challenged. It was never under question.”

What really matters is that the 19th Amendment passed and became law in August 1920, giving women across the nation the right to vote. By then, some states and territories had already granted women suffrage or partial suffrage. Wyoming was the first, in 1869.

“The earliest suffrage granting for women, in a large measure, was in the Wyoming, Utah and Washington territories out west, before they became states,” Forslund says, noting, however, that the territories’ motives were less about women deserving the right to vote and more about building populations large enough to qualify for statehood.

Unlike westward expansion, women’s suffrage moved west-to-east. Northern Illinois and southern Wisconsin became home to suffragists who helped shape the course of history.

Midwesterners may have been slightly more receptive to the movement’s message because the area had been settled by pioneering men and women just decades earlier.

“Women gained a lot of equality then because they basically had to be equal partners,” Forslund says. “They couldn’t sit in the parlor all day embroidering or playing music. They needed to help build houses, do farm work. They gained a lot of self-reliance, independence and self-confidence by doing all of that, which didn’t happen much on the East Coast, where people were no longer faced with the wilds of the frontier.”

Spreading the Message

Prominent suffragists toured the country speaking at county fairs, courthouses, even private homes. Kim Ortega, assistant curator for Midway Village Museum, in Rockford, has unearthed notices of some area speeches.

“Susan B. Anthony came to Rockford in late 1888,” she says. “The event was at Mr. and Mrs. Ralph Emerson’s home on North Church Street. At least 500 responses came in saying they wanted to attend.”

The Reverend Olympia Brown, an influential and outspoken suffragist from Racine, Wis., spoke in Rockford several times, as well. After Catherine McCulloch (see sidebar above) heard one of those Rockford lectures, she called it “a thrilling ride and a splendid address,” according to Ortega, who adds: “A lot of these women were interconnected, even though they’re from different states or towns. They were all running in the same circles.”

Wisconsin was home to two pro-suffrage newspapers that were instrumental in promoting the cause. Transplanted New York natives Emma Brown and her brother, Thurlow, established “The Wisconsin Chief” in 1857.

“Emma Brown was located in my hometown of Fort Atkinson,” Kalvaitis says. “Her brother was with her for about the first decade of printing, then she took over and ran it alone for about 20 years, until 1889. It was a great suffrage paper. She covered a lot of information in the region and beyond. She was a temperance leader as well, so she included a lot of important reform pieces – moral reform, prison conditions and women’s issues.”

In 1870, Beloit College graduate Joel B. Dow – son of Rock County Assemblyman John Dow, who had introduced Wisconsin’s first full suffrage bill in 1867 – launched the “Beloit Journal” newspaper.

“His paper covered suffrage stories and was known as a pro-suffrage newspaper, which is a really powerful tool to recruit voices to share the news,” Kalvaitis says. “Newspapers played an incredibly important role in this movement because that’s how people knew what was happening, and what the tactics were.”

Over time, the arguments supporting suffrage began to shift.

“Women’s suffrage arguments from the East Coast tended to be based around the idea of natural rights, that women deserve these rights as humans,” Osborne says. “In the Midwest what you get is this idea of women who are more intimately involved in their homes and farms, in settling towns, starting schools, and seeing how their work is critical to their communities. They don’t deserve the right to vote because they deserve rights just by being human; they deserve the right to vote because they’re going to make the world a better place.”

The new twist proved especially persuasive in the Midwest.

“There was a generational shift, too,” Osborne adds. “Willard is of the earlier generations. McCulloch, Adams, and Ida B. Wells, for example, were the next generation. Their concerns changed and evolved as they looked at the world differently and grappled with different problems like urbanization and labor, in Chicago especially. They stated their cases and built on the previous arguments.”

Suffragist tactics evolved over time, too.

“By the time we get to 1900, we have the entrance of the National Woman’s Party and Alice Paul who were the radicals,” Forslund says. They were the ones going on hunger strikes after getting arrested. They were the ones most prominently picketing in front of the White House.”

By contrast, groups using the rule of law and parliamentary procedure to effect change suddenly appeared less extreme.
“The fundamental lesson,” Forslund adds, “is that if you keep plugging away you can achieve something that seems impossible.”

Local Leaders in the Suffrage Movement

Our region was home to key players in the suffragist movement, partially because women had opportunities to pursue higher education.

Rockford Female Seminary (now Rockford University) was founded in 1847, North Western Female College in Evanston opened in the mid-1850s, and Beloit College began admitting women in 1895.

Cedarville, Ill., native Jane Addams (1860-1935),who graduated from Rockford Female Seminary in 1881 before moving to Chicago where she founded Hull House, is arguably one of the world’s best-known suffragists and social reformers. In 1931, her legacy as a peace activist made her the first American woman, and second woman overall, to receive the Nobel Peace Prize. But Addams was not alone in promoting suffrage in our area.

Frances Willard (1839-1898) was about 6 when her family moved to a farm outside of Janesville, Wis. Twelve years later, in 1858, the family relocated to Evanston, where Willard attended North Western Female College.

“After she became a teacher, she taught for a very short time in a schoolhouse in Janesville, which is now part of the Rock County Historical Society,” says Jenny Kalvaitis, the Wisconsin Historical Society’s coordinator of secondary education.

“She was best known for temperance, and ended up leading the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, but she widened the view of temperance into the idea of moral reform. She createed a broader network. Then, she fully endorses women’s suffrage through an idea called home protection – meaning that giving women the right to vote, by giving them a voice, meant they could better fight against some of the evils they were pointing out.” In 1870, Willard and others from the Illinois Woman Suffrage Association journeyed to Springfield in an effort to persuade lawmakers to include universal suffrage in the Illinois Constitutional Convention.

Posthumously in 1905, Willard became the first woman to be honored with a statue in the National Statuary Hall Collection.

Catharine Waugh McCulloch (1862-1945) was born in New York, raised in Rockford, and graduated from Rockford Female Seminary one year after Jane Addams. She attended law school in Chicago and was admitted to the Illinois state bar in 1886. When she couldn’t get hired as an attorney in Chicago she returned to Rockford and opened her own law practice. She married fellow attorney Frank Hawthorn McCulloch, in 1890, and they settled in Evanston where they opened a law practice.

“She was incredibly important regionally and nationally,” Kalvaitis says. “Illinois gave women the right to vote in presidential elections in 1913, and it was tested in the courts. Catharine McCulloch was one of the leading lawyers on that case, and they were successful.”

“It was what we call a partial ballot, or partial suffrage, for women,” says Lori Osborne, historian at the Evanston History Center and director of the Evanston Women’s History Project. “It was a big deal, nationally, because they cracked the door, and McCulloch was the one who created the scenario where the partial ballot was possible.”

The partial ballot gave Illinois women the right to vote in the 1916 presidential election, along with other offices which varied by municipality.

Chair of the Illinois Equal Suffrage Association from 1890 to 1912, McCulloch was an active public speaker on the subjects of suffrage, temperance and women’s rights. She drafted a bill to ensure wives equal guardianship of their children, and another to raise the age of consent for women from age 14 to 16. Both bills passed.

In addition to being an active member and first vice president of the National American Woman Suffrage Association (which became the League of Women Voters in 1920), she served as the organization’s legal counsel. McCulloch was president of the Women’s Bar Association of Illinois from 1916 to 1920.

Ada James (1876-1952) was destined to become a suffragist. She was born into a Richland Center, Wis., family that had long supported women’s rights. Her mother, Laura, founded the Richland Center Woman’s Club, which was one of the state’s first organizations focused on women’s suffrage. In 1912, Ada’s father David, a state senator, introduced a bill seeking a statewide referendum to amend the Wisconsin constitution to allow women to vote. It failed, but the family remained undaunted.

“Richland Center was a hotbed of suffrage activity in Wisconsin,” Kalvaitis says. “It’s where the James family was located. For two generations, they were an active part of the movement. Ada James ended up actually breaking off and creating her own separate organization called the Political Equality League. She brought a lot of the modern tactics you see in the 19-teens across the United States to the fight in Wisconsin.”

Kate F. O’Connor (1863-1945) was a Rockford native who never stopped challenging the status quo. Before turning 20, the Rockford High School graduate was appointed Deputy to the County Clerk.

“She was very vocal about her stance on the women’s suffrage movement,” says Kim Ortega, assistant curator for Midway Village Museum, in Rockford. “In a January 1888 article from the ‘Daily Gazette’ she was quoted as saying, ‘There’s certainly no good reason why a woman should not vote if she wants to, and every argument advanced against it so far is without foundation and cannot be sustained by rational proof.’ Wow.”

That same year, O’Connor tied a yellow ribbon, symbolizing equal suffrage, to the flag rope at the new courthouse.

In 1898, O’Connor resigned as deputy clerk to open her own business providing general business services, specializing in real estate, probate law and government claims. She moved her business to Chicago in 1914 but returned to Rockford in 1926.

In 1930, O’Connor served on Winnebago County’s first jury to include both men and women.

“By the mid-’30s she was appointed by the governor to supervise and monitor the minimum wage scales for women and children, which was a high-ranking position to give a woman,” Ortega says.

Clara Louise Thompson, Ph. D, (1884-1963) was the head of the Latin Department at Rockford College (now Rockford University) where she taught Greek and Latin from 1914 to 1919. During that time, and long after, she was an active member of the Advisory Council of the Congressional Union for Woman Suffrage. She eventually relocated to Georgia.

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