By Lucas Bensley – Loyola University Chicago, PhD in History, Fall 2019
On the afternoon of June 7, 1916, 5,000 women marched through a torrential rainstorm to the Republican National Convention site in downtown Chicago. Their goal: to compel the delegates of the Grand Old Party to add a woman’s suffrage plank to the party platform. Accompanied by thousands of “bobbing umbrellas,” a brass band, and even an elephant, the parade marked a new height in the suffrage movement’s public influence and voice .
This march was the product of a decades-long campaign to expand suffrage in Illinois. By 1900, women in Illinois only had the right to elect school officials. After years of failed petition drives, suffragist organizations pursued more direct action to pressure lawmakers toward expanding the vote. One such organization, the Chicago Political Equality League, helped Illinois women secure the right to vote in presidential elections. Under the leadership of Grace Wilbur Trout, the League established local organizations in each senatorial district and lobbied hard for the State House of Representatives to bring a bill to expand suffrage to a vote. On June 11, 1913, Trout and other members of the League even marshalled supporters to the floor of the House and barred the entry of anti-suffrage lobbyists to assist the bill’s passage. Days later, on June 26, Governor Dunne signed the bill into law with Trout and other League members in attendance .
Activists around the country were eager to turn the victory for suffrage in Illinois into momentum for expanding voting rights nationwide. In 1916, Carrie Chapman Catt, the president of the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA), announced a national drive for suffrage that was to begin in Chicago. NAWSA chose Chicago as the new “trench” in the suffrage campaign both to confront the Republican National Convention to be held there and to tap into the “thousands of emancipated women” in Illinois. At a February luncheon with activists in Chicago, she assured attendees, “We shall not have an Illinois drive, but a national one. We want every man in this country to know that we not only want the vote but that we insist we have it .”
The organizers behind the parade met with resistance from within its own ranks and from other women’s organizations. The Congressional Union, another women’s organization formed to campaign for a suffrage amendment, scheduled the first national convention of the newly-formed “Women’s Party” on the same day as the NAWSA parade. The Congressional Union’s (CU) leaders drew outrage over their decision to hold the convention on the same day and not support or affiliate with the NAWSA parade, as march organizers felt that their meeting threatened to reduce the march’s turnout .
Furthermore, members and leaders within NAWSA argued over who would lead the parade and present the suffrage plank to delegates at the G.O.P. Convention. Some expressed anger that Grace Wilbur Trout was not assigned a more central role in spite of her contributions to the movement in Illinois. In the press and writings afterwards, however, Trout maintained that she bore “no ill feelings” towards the other leaders and was content to serve a supportive role .
In spite of these controversies, there was a festive atmosphere and excitement in anticipation of and on the day of the parade. Suffragists who had traveled to Chicago told the press to expect a lot of “zip” and energy in the day’s procession. Janet Kellogg Fairbank, an ardent worker for women’s suffrage and member of a prominent Chicago family, was the parade’s grand marshal. She chose a chose a “military” and “compact” uniform for the marchers: black shoes, a plain white shirt and blouse, with a straw hat wrapped with a yellow band and matching yellow sash.
The parade was to commence at four in the afternoon, accompanied by a brass marching band, speakers traveling by car, and even an elephant adorned with suffrage slogans intended to signify the G.O.P. . The weather in Chicago tested the spirit of the marchers. According to the press, the day had already been cold and windy when rain began to pour in the early afternoon. In spite of these conditions, 5,000 women gathered on Michigan Avenue, sharing hastily-procured raincoats and umbrellas. As delegates at the Republican National Convention adjourned at four o’clock at the end of the first session, they were shocked to see thousands of women marching outside the windows of the Coliseum in the pouring rain, defiantly singing “Nobody Knows How Dry We Are,” among other suffrage ditties of the day. The march culminated with Carrie Chapman Catt addressing Convention attendees and presenting Illinois Senator William Borah a suffrage plank to be adopted into the Republican Party platform .
This parade marked a shift in the tide of women’s voting rights in American politics. The NAWSA’s plank was accepted by the G.O.P. as part of its platform. Then-presidential candidate Charles Evans Hughes even went on to endorse a suffrage amendment to the U.S. Constitution in the campaign . Although the 19th Amendment would not pass until 1919, the Suffrage Parade in Chicago in 1916 demonstrated the role women in Illinois played in securing the ballot for women nationwide.
1. “Suffragists March in Spite of Storm: Thousands Parade Through Rain in Chicago Streets to Impress Delegates.” New York Times: New York, NY. June 08, 1916.
2. Catt of the NAWSA later wrote, “The effect of this victory upon the nation was astounding. When the first Illinois election took place in April, (1914) the press carried the headlines that 250,000 women had voted in Chicago. Illinois, with its large electoral vote of 29, proved the turning point beyond which politicians at last got a clear view of the fact that women were gaining genuine political power.” Mark W. Sorenson. “Ahead of Their Time: A Brief History of Woman Suffrage in Illinois.”
3. “Mrs. Catt Plans Vote Campaign: New Suffrage Drive Will Begin in Chicago, She Says.”Chicago Tribune: Chicago, Ill. February 6, 1916.
4. “Suffrage Union in a Row over Rival’s Parade: Mrs. L. Brackett Bishop Starts Stormy Session at Tea for Miss Paul.” Chicago Tribune: Chicago, Ill. April 30, 1916.
5. “Suffrage Fuss Over Mrs. Trout; Slight Claimed: Leader Not Assigned Place in Parade and Friends Demand Reason.” Chicago Tribune: Chicago, Ill. June 3, 1916.
6. “Suffrage Parade to Have Lots of Zip.” Chicago Tribune: Chicago, Ill. April 29, 1916.
7. “Suffragists March in Spite of Storm: Thousands Parade Through Rain in Chicago Streets to Impress Delegates.” New York Times: New York, NY. June 08, 1916.
8. Sorenson, “Ahead of Their Time.”