The Women’s Suffrage Movement and the “Good Roads” Movement

By Dana Gordon – Loyola University Chicago, Masters in Public History Program, Fall 2019

Today, Americans take roads for granted as they commute to their destinations. In Illinois, the Interstate system and U.S. Route system currently create a web of steady automobile traffic throughout the state. What about the history of the Illinois roads themselves? There is a surprising connection between the suffrage movement in Illinois and the history of Illinois roads.

In 1909 and 1910, suffragists embarked upon auto tours across Illinois to grow support for the suffrage movement throughout the state. Early 20th century Illinois road improvements facilitated these tours. Consequently, certain key figures participated in both the Good Roads movement and the suffrage movement, including suffragist Catharine Waugh McCulloch. 

A muddy road in 1903 Illinois. Hearst’s International.

The Good Roads movement predated the Model-T by several decades.  The bicycle’s increasing popularity in the late 19th century necessitated that road conditions improve to accommodate this new mode of transportation. Bicycle clubs lobbied governments for better roads, starting the “Good Roads” movement [1]. The effectiveness of the Good Roads movement frequently was discussed in local Illinois newspapers. In the July 23, 1911 edition of the Chicago Daily Tribune, it was reported that “no less than 15,000 miles of public highways” were planned or under construction, and “the fact remains that the good roads movement is under way most decidedly” [sic] [2].    

The first issue cover of Good Roads

According to the April 1, 1912 edition of the Chicago Tribune, the inaugural meeting of the Illinois Woman’s State Good Roads association was set to take place at the Auditorium Theater the following Wednesday. The program was to feature Illinois’ Governor Deneen, Chicago’s Mayor Harrison, Catharine Waugh McCulloch, Mrs. Frank B. Orr, and others [5]. McCulloch informed the audience about future plans for a southern Illinois suffrage auto tour, hosted by Rev. Kate Hughes and Harriet Grim, as well as an eastern Illinois tour led by Ella S. Stewart and Mrs. W.S. McCrea [6]. 

The auto tours through central Illinois were described as “suffrage by relay” in a July 21, 1910 edition of the Chicago Tribune. After three days of traveling, Dr. Anna Blount would relinquish leadership of the tour to Rev. Kate Hughes at Galesburg. Rev. Hughes would lead the tour through the following Friday, where the tour would reach its farthest point at Table Grove, Illinois. At Table Grove, Grace Wilbur Trout would direct the tour on its way back toward Chicago. McCulloch was the point person coordinating all of the destinations. On modern roads, just Monday’s itinerary would cover 68 miles and 1 hour 26 minutes of driving time, visiting five towns [8]. The skeleton of what would eventually become Illinois’s highway systems was still far from being fleshed out making these tours a real challenge. 

A contemporary account from Carbondale, Illinois provides another perspective of a 1910 women’s suffrage auto tour stop in Rockford, Illinois:

Catharine Waugh McCulloch, ca. 1890.

“The suffragists did not find intrenchments thrown up against them here, but they did find the working men in the factory districts provokingly timid.”

McCulloch was quick to act.  If the men could not be induced to surround the autos from which the yellow banners were flying and listen to good suffrage arguments, then they should be made to hear it inside the factory.  She went right up to the open windows to make her speech [11]. 

The auto tours continued beyond 1910-1911 and exceeded the scope of just Illinois. In the July 12, 1912 edition, the Chicago Tribune described how McCulloch and Dr. Anna Blount were on a suffrage auto tour in central Wisconsin [12]. Without the “Good Roads” Movement’ impact on upgrading roads, women’s suffrage activists would have found it much more difficult to reach areas of the state that had limited train access. The Women’s Suffrage auto tours and the “Good Roads Movement” share an overlapping history which affects both today’s Illinois politics, and the Illinois road system. 


[1] William Kaszynski. The American Highway: The History and Culture of Roads in the United States. (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2001), 19.

[2]“The Good Roads Movement.” Chicago Daily Tribune, June 23, 1911.

[3] Wikimedia Commons. “Good Roads Magazine Vol 1 Jan 1892.”  Wikimedia Commons.

[4] Wikimedia Commons. “Muddy Roads Illinois 1903.” Wikimedia Commons.

[5] “Women Unite for Good Roads.” Chicago Tribune, April 1, 1912.

[6] “Holds Office Is No Place for Mother; Refueses Candidacy.” Chicago Inter Ocean, October   1, 1910.

[7] “Leads Suffragette Charge.” The Daily Free Press, Carbondale, Ill. July 28, 1910.

[8] “Plan ‘Suffrage by Relay’ in Auto Tours of State.” Chicago Tribune, July 21, 1910.

[9] “Good Roads: How the New Highways of Illinois will Cover the State When the Provisions   of the Meents $60,000,000 Bond Bill Have Been Carried Out.” Chicago Daily Tribune, Jun 04, 1917.

[10] “Map from Macomb, Ill. to Colchester, Ill., to Webster, Ill. To Burnside, Ill., to Ferris, Ill, to Carthage, Ill. Google Maps, accessed October 28, 2019.

[11] “Predict Trouble for University.” Woodford County Journal, Eureka, Ill., September 1, 1910.

[12] “Sick Boy Stops Suffragists.” The Chicago Tribune, July 12, 1912.

The Chicago Tribune archives provide a time capsule into public perception of both the Good Roads Movement and the Women’s Suffrage Movement.

“Suffragists See Gains.” Chicago Daily Tribune (1872-1922), Jul 06, 1910.

“Equal Suffrage Missionaries.” Chicago Daily Tribune (1872-1922), Jul 02, 1910.

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