First women jurors

In January 1931, Grace Dye of Williamsville became the first woman eligible for jury duty in Sangamon County. But it would take eight years for most other women to enjoy the same right.

The hiatus was thanks to the Illinois General Assembly, which had approved jury service for women via an unusual – and, it turned out, unconstitutional – referendum process.

Dye (1881-1971) was the first of 15 women whose names were drawn Jan. 9, 1931 to serve on county court juries. Separate jury lists were kept for state circuit courts and federal courts, although rules about jury composition applied to all three court levels. The county court list also included 25 men. (The ratio of men to women was supposed to generally match voter registration percentages.)

It’s not known if any of those 15 (full list below) actually served on a jury, although some probably did.

The first major local trial with a mixed jury, the Illinois State Journal reported, was that of Jack McCoy, one of three men accused of the November 1930 robbery of the Rochester State Bank. McCoy was tried in circuit court by a jury that included five women. The trial began Jan. 21, 1931. It turned into a debacle, at least according to the presiding judge, but that wasn’t the women’s fault.

Eleven jurors, including all the women, agreed McCoy was guilty, but one man held out for an innocent verdict.

“The jury which was given the case at 8:10 o’clock last night, included the first women in this county to be given a real taste of jury service by being locked up all night,” the Journal reported Jan. 23.

The next day, after deliberating for 21 hours, the jury reported it was deadlocked. Judge Charles Briggle said he would have ordered the jury to try longer to reach a verdict “were there no women members.”

“It was apparent that the long hours behind closed doors had fatigued the women,” the Journal reported. “Several of them verged on collapse, it was said.”

In declaring the mistrial, Briggle blasted the jury’s failure to reach a verdict. After outlining the evidence against McCoy, Briggle said he was “unable to comprehend” why any juror doubted McCoy’s guilt.

“The member or members of the jury who have declined to find a verdict on the evidence produced in this case may rightfully and justly be held up to the scorn of a law-abiding community,” Briggle said.

McCoy was convicted in a second trial in March. That jury included three women.

During his trial, McCoy seems not to have objected to being tried by mixed juries. Neither did the defendants in another major trial decided by a jury panel that included women: “the Springfield conspiracy,” a bootlegging case in federal court.

Those omissions were mistakes, because on April 30, 1931, the state Supreme Court declared the women-juror law unconstitutional.

(Those convicted in the bootlegging case – one of whom was Springfield’s so-called “godfather,” Frank Zito – later asked appeals judges to throw out the verdict because women had been on the jury. The appellate court made short shrift of that argument. “It was apparent that some of the jurors were women,” the court said, drily. “Had the defendants desired to challenge them upon that ground, they had an opportunity to do so.”)

The problem with the state law was that legislators had passed the buck. Instead of simply changing Illinois’ law on jury composition, the General Assembly gave voters the final word on women jurors. Lawmakers put the issue on the November 1930 election ballot, and voters statewide approved the change.

Counties – even counties like Sangamon, where “no” votes outnumbered “yes” ones – moved quickly to add women to the jury rolls.

A Chicago man challenged the referendum procedure, however, and the supreme court agreed with him that the legislature’s action was unconstitutional. The General Assembly “abdicated its authority” in submitting the issue to voters, the court said in a 5-1 decision.

The ruling meant women were once again ineligible for jury service in Illinois. That situation lasted until 1939, when lawmakers overwhelmingly approved a straightforward woman-juror bill. Gov. Henry Horner signed the measure in May.

“Illinois women should celebrate now even more than they did when they won the right to vote,” said Mathilda Fenberg, who chaired the state committee for women on juries. “Passage of the women jury bills means that we will have full citizenship in Illinois.”

Sangamon County women were back on juries by September.

First jury list

In order after Grace Dye, here are the other 14 women selected for possible jury duty on Jan. 9, 1931:

Jessie Kinnear, 1020 S. Fourth St.; Joanna Gordon, 2109 S. Spring St.; Lucy Irwin, Pleasant Plains; Mabel Bradley, Chatham; Neva Williamson, Riverton; Rose Miller, Riverton; Talba Chamberlain, 817 Fayette Ave.; Marion Drennan, 426 W. Allen St.; Phoebe Duncan, 1201 E. Monroe St.; Kate Griffith, 1118½ S. Fifth St.; Hannah Lederle, 1800 S. 13th St.; Alice Marsh, 1218 N. Fifth St.; Katherine Prokopp, 1037 S. College St.; Elizabeth Rentschler, 2101 S. Douglas Ave.

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One Response to First women jurors

  1. Don Culver says:

    Interesting history. It never ceases to amaze me how far we have advanced in less than 100 years. Thanks to all that help put this piece together.

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