A carefully calibrated legislative strategy in Springfield led to Illinois becoming, in 1913, the first state east of the Mississippi to grant women the right to vote. On June 10, 1919, the state then became the first in the nation to ratify the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
Illinois’ suffrage initiatives were mostly orchestrated by the Chicago-based Illinois Equal Suffrage Association, but central Illinoisans, both men and women, played significant roles in the process as well.
The 1913 law wasn’t the first time Illinois women had been able to cast ballots; they won the right to vote in school elections since 1891, and they soon began winning seats on school boards. In the Springfield area, Mrs. E.A. Malouen (local news reports continued to identify married women by their husband’s names for years) was elected president of the Riverton School Board in 1894.
In the momentous 1911 local elections — in which city voters adopted commission government, Willis Spaulding won the first of his eight terms as utilities comissioner, and Capital Township was made coterminous with the city (all with only male votes) — two women were elected to the Springfield School Board for the first time. Ida Hanes and Mary Morrison, the only two women on the 18-person ballot, “were both elected by substantial majorities,” the Illinois State Register reported on April 5, 1911.
Some Illinois women had been advocating for the right to vote since the 1860s, but the effort escalated in the 1910s, when Grace Wilbur Trout became president of the Equal Suffrage Association. The first need was for basic organization, Trout said in a detailed report on the final successful push, published in the Transactions of the Illinois State Historical Society for the Year 1920.
Immediately after my election to the presidency we realized the necessity of strengthening the organization work, for … there were many Senatorial districts in which there was no suffrage organization of any kind, and as the time was short, competent women were immediately appointed in such districts to see that their respective legislators were properly interviewed, and to be ready to have letters and telegrams sent to Springfield when called for.
Trout and her allies focused on the 1913 legislative session, settling on a bill sponsored by Sen. Hugh Magill, a Princeton Republican with roots in Sangamon County, to allow women to vote in presidential elections and to fill some local offices, though still not in elections for state government posts.
“After nearly three months of strenuous effort the bill finally passed the Senate on May 7th by a vote of 29 yeas (3 more than the required majority) to 15 nays,” Trout wrote. “It is doubtful whether we could have secured this favorable action had it not been for the good judgment and diplomacy of Senator Hugh S. Magill, Jr., who had charge of the bill in the Senate.”
The House posed a stiffer challenge, right up to the day of the vote on June 11, 1913, Trout wrote.
We all wanted to be in the gallery where we could see that last dramatic struggle, but it seemed to me wiser to have the entrance of the House guarded to prevent any friendly legislators from leaving during roll call, and to prevent any of our opponents from violating the law and entering the House during the session. The husky doorkeeper, who was opposed to suffrage, could not be counted upon to keep out anti-suffrage lobbyists if they desired to enter, consequently I took my post near the House door, which was the only entrance left open that day, and was furnished a chair by the man who conducted a cigar stand near the entrance. …
Shortly after the session opened the before mentioned doorkeeper came and very brusquely ordered me to go to the gallery. Around the rotunda rail lounged a number of our opponents, so I said I preferred to remain where I was. He scowled his disapproval, and presently returned and said that one of the House members who was an active opponent of our measure, said if I did not go to the gallery at once he would introduce and pass a resolution forcing me to do so. I answered politely saying that of course the member was privileged to introduce any resolution he desired, but in the meantime I would remain where I was.
The men around the rotunda rail were watching the whole procedure and when I still remained in spite of this warning they regarded me with unfriendly eyes. There was a lawyer among them who longed to get inside that day, but he did not like, even with the backing of a friendly doorkeeper, to violate the law — that forbade any lobbyist to enter the House after the session had convened — in my presence.
The doorkeeper in reporting the incident afterwards, said, “I did not dare touch her and march her up into the gallery where she belonged.” As a matter of fact any citizen of Illinois had a legal right to be where I was, if he so desired. …
Shortly afterwards there was a deafening roar and several men rushed out and exclaimed “We have won. The bill has passed.” I remember turning my face to the wall and shedding a few quiet tears and when I looked around there were about ten men who were all surreptitiously wiping their eyes. The Presidential and Municipal Suffrage Bill passed the House by the following vote: Yeas 83 (6 more than the required majority) to nays 58.
After the drama of the suffrage law, Illinois’ ratification of the 19th Amendment six years later was anticlimactic. The vote totals on June 10, 1919, were 46-0 in the Senate and 135-3 in the House.
Sangamon County suffragists
Acknowledged leaders in the women’s voting movement in Sangamon County included: Maude Gregg Palmer, who headed the 21st district of the suffrage association and was president of the Springfield Woman’s Club; Mary Mather, whose personal checks included the stamp, “Votes for Women”; and Harriet Reed, president of the Springfield Suffrage Association.
Other women involved in the suffrage movement locally, according to an Aug. 18, 1920 article in the Illinois State Register — which, again, mostly identified the women by their husbands’ names — included “Mrs. Howard T. Willson of Virden; Mrs. Harry Barnes, Mrs. Stuart Brown, Mrs. D.M. Pierce, now of Des Moines, but formerly of Springfield, Mrs. Will Vredenburgh, Mrs. S.J. Haines, Mrs. S.A. Bradley, Mrs. S.E. Prather, Mrs. C.D. Wright, Mrs. C.T. Branson, Mrs. George E. Lee, Mrs. E.E. Hamlin, Miss Mary Humphrey, Mrs. I.G. Miller, Miss Joanna Engelmann, Miss Sallie Perkins, Miss Rena George, Mrs. J.W. Parrish, Mrs. James A. Jones, Mrs. Marie Moore Smith, and Mrs. Susan Lawrence Gehrmann.”
Mrs. George E. Lee was Maydie Spaulding Lee, a major force in Springfield’s progressive movement in the first two decades of the 20th century. And Mrs. Susan Lawrence Gehrmann is better known as Susan Lawrence Dana, who had Frank Lloyd Wright design the Dana-Thomas House.
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