Elizabeth Boynton Harbert

By Davis Stubblefield – Loyola University Chicago, Masters in Public History Program, Fall 2019.

When people think about the major figures of the Suffrage movement, several names immediately spring to mind: Susan B. Anthony, Jane Addams, Ida B. Wells-Barnett, Elizabeth Cady Stanton. For Illinois, and particularly Evanston and the Chicago area, another name should be just as famous: Elizabeth Boynton Harbert. Active in the suffrage movement from the 1860s through the ratification of the 19th Amendment, Harbert wrote and spoke on a wide variety of topics. She was an avid supporter of making higher education accessible for women and expanding the roles available to women in society, and she engaged in extensive philanthropic work.

From Willard and Livermore’s “A Woman of the Century”. Public Domain image.

Elizabeth Boynton Harbert was born in Crawfordsville, Indiana, in 1843. She attended Western Female Seminary in Oxford, Ohio and graduated with honors from the Terre Haute Female College [1]. Harbert served as vice-president of the Woman’s Suffrage Association of Indiana and president of the Woman’s Suffrage Associations of both Iowa and Illinois [2]. Upon moving to Evanston, Illinois in 1874, she took up the role of editing the “Woman’s Kingdom” section of Chicago’s Inter-Ocean newspaper, founded her own newspaper entitled New Era, and presided over the Social Science Organization of Illinois [3]. To say that Harbert was heavily involved in the cause of women’s rights would be quite an understatement. In a biographical review of influential women in nineteenth century America, Frances Willard and Mary Livermore sing the praises of Harbert’s skill as an author and orator: 

“Her pen and voice have been ready to render praise and encouragement, and her eyes have been closed to ingratitude on the part of those for whom she has unselfishly labored, that a better spirit of cooperation might spring up among womankind.” – Frances Willard and Mary Livermore, A Woman of the Century [4].

Title page of the Third Volume of History of Woman Suffrage, 1886. Public Domain image.

Harbert’s many publications include her chapter in the third volume of The History of Woman Suffrage, published in 1886 and edited by Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, and Matilda Josyln Gage. Harbert provided wonderful insights into the work undertaken throughout the state of Illinois up to that time. In her chapter, she exhaustively documented, almost month-by-month, the increasingly radical, active nature of the women’s rights and suffrage movements in Illinois.

She began her chapter with a discussion of the history of suffrage activity in the state, which she identified as having begun with the writings of A.J. Grover in 1855 and the resulting creation of the state’s first suffrage society [5]. She noted that the Civil War had a marked effect on the women’s rights movement of the 1800s, stating, “during the six years subsequent to that time we witness all previously defined boundaries of spheres brushed away like cobwebs, when women, north and south, were obliged to fill the places made vacant by our civil war” [6].

Harbert’s chronicle then moves steadily into the post-Civil War years and the journal Chicago Legal News’ first publication in 1868. Harbert declared that this new paper, run by Myra Bradwell, made sure that “no opportunity was lost for exposing all laws unjust to woman, or for noting each indication of progress throughout the world” [7]. Throughout the late 1860s, there occurred a “decided ‘awakening’ on the question of woman suffrage in central Illinois” according to Harbert, and, in 1868, a formal State Association was established for the cause of universal suffrage [8].

The amount of activity in the city of Chicago and beyond related to women’s suffrage and women’s rights more broadly steadily grew in the 1870s. As described by Harbert, the State Association held meetings with ever-increasing attendance, and women petitioned against limitations in opportunities for work and education. Following the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, “women sprang to the rescue, and actively engaged in business,” further intensifying demands for their representation in government and beyond [9]. The Evanston College for Ladies was founded in 1871 and merged in 1873 with Northwestern University, which had opened its doors to women in 1869 [10]. In 1873, women became eligible to run as school officials, with ten elected to counties across Illinois [11].

Beyond simply documenting the history of suffrage activity in Illinois, her deliberate inclusion of the names and activities of multitudes of individuals who fought long and hard for these rights, but who are so seldom recalled, was perhaps Harbert’s most important objective in authoring this chapter. Despite her best efforts, she concluded her chapter by noting that this brief history did not and could not include every person who gave time, energy, and devotion to the cause of women’s rights and universal suffrage:

“In concluding this meager record of the methods of earnest men and women of Illinois in their brave work for liberty, we are painfully conscious of a vast aggregate of personal toil and self sacrifice which can never be reported.” – Elizabeth Boynton Harbert, The History of Woman Suffrage: Volume III, [12]

Producing this detailed, if necessarily incomplete, historical record of efforts to promote woman’s suffrage in Illinois was just one of Elizabeth Boynton Harbert’s important contributions. Her chapter rightfully includes information on some of her own efforts for the cause. Through her other writings, her speeches to activists and politicians, her years as president of the Illinois Woman Suffrage Association, and in other ways too, Harbert herself played a key role in making suffrage a reality for women in Illinois and beyond.

[1] Harvey Bostwick Hurd and Robert Dickenson Sheppard, History of Northwestern University and Evanston (Illinois: Munsell Publishing Company, 1906), 861.

[2] John W. Leonard, Woman’s Who’s Who of America: A Biographical Dictionary of Contemporary Women of the United States and Canada, 1914-1915 (New York: American Commonwealth Company, 1914), 561.

[3] Mary Ashton Rice Livermore and Frances Elizabeth Willard, A Woman of the Century: Fourteen Hundred-Seventy Biographical Sketches Accompanied by Portraits of Leading American Women in All Walks of Life (Illinois: Moulton, 1893), 356-357.

[4] Livermore and Willard, A Woman of the Century, 357.

[5] Elizabeth Boynton Harbert, “CHAPTER XLII. Illinois,” in The History of Woman Suffrage, Volume III, ed.  Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, and Matilda Josyln Gage (New York: Susan B. Anthony, 1886), 560-595. 560.

[6] Ibid, 561.

[7] Ibid, 562.

[8] Ibid, 565.

[9] Ibid, 583.

[10] Ibid, 578.

[11] Ibid, 575.

[12] Ibid, 590.

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