The 1918 Spanish Flu: How Suffragists Like Ella Flagg Young Continued Their Fight

By Annie Cebrzynski, Evanston Women’s History Project, 2020 Intern

The suffrage movement almost came to a halt with the sudden onset of the Spanish flu epidemic in 1918. The introduction of an international crisis became a major threat to advancing women’s rights in the U.S. Prior to the pandemic, women were starting to gain momentum with their political ambitions in the years during and after WWI. More women were serving in the workforce because men were serving in the war effort, which allowed women to gain a voice within their respective areas of work and communities. The introduction of women into the workforce also was used to show the high level of patriotism they possessed, and this became an argument for why they should be included in the voting process. 

The 19th amendment was introduced in Congress on January 10, 1918. The House, with the support of President Wilson, voted in favor of the bill with a vote of 274 to 136; however, the Senate did not pass the bill. There were two main reasons for this: some states were hesitant to create a national standard for voting, and southern senators were hesitant to give African American women the right to vote. After the loss in the Senate, suffragists were determined to continue the fight, but things changed when the Spanish flu began affecting the daily lives of Americans. 

By mid-October, Congress came to a halt, passing little to no legislation. This was a major set-back for the suffrage movement because the fight in Congress couldn’t be resumed. The suffragists continued to promote suffrage through events and publicity. For example, in Chicago the Illinois Equal Suffrage Association still held its annual convention. They did make some changes, which included setting the chairs four-feet apart and banning members of the general public, but the suffragists made a statement by not wearing protective masks (a debate that happens today too). Other campaign events, rallies, and large group events were cancelled.

Ella Flagg Young

Ella Flagg Young, was a suffragist and an education trailblazer in Chicago. Young’s education career spanned 53 years (1862–1915). Young was a school teacher who went on to become a professor of education at the University of Chicago in 1899; principal of the Chicago Normal School in 1905; and serve on the Board of Education for the State of Illinois from 1888 to 1913. She was the first woman in America to head a large city school system, serving as superintendent of Chicago Public Schools from 1909-1915. She was known for her work to reform the schools and also for advocating for “sex hygiene” education, the introduction of kindergartens, and adding vocational training to the curriculum.

After her retirement from her education career, Young’s work for suffrage began in earnest. But when the U.S. finally joined the war, like many suffragists, Young’s focus turned to promoting the war effort. For Young, this meant promoting the liberty loan program, which was a key way for Americans to help finance the war effort. In the fall of 1918, Young was on a speaking tour to promote the program and became ill with the flu in Cheyenne, Wyoming. We do not know exactly how Young contracted the flu, however, by traveling and meeting many different people in various locations it is not a surprise. Young did not let the flu stop her journey. She continued her trip through Wyoming and Utah, then traveled to the nation’s capital to speak on behalf of the liberty loan a week later. Unfortunately, Young developed pneumonia once in Washington D.C and she died on October 26, 1918. She was 73 years old.

A small memorial service was held graveside for Young, which was “semi-military in style” at Rosehill Cemetery in Chicago. Young was viewed as a “soldier for her country.” Treasury Secretary William McAdoo used these words to describe Young: “Mrs. Young died in the service of her country, working like a soldier.” The Ella Flagg Young School in Chicago was named for her as a memorial. Also, in 1924, Chicago Public Schools created an Ella Flagg Young Scholarship fund to help children access education that could not afford it.

Suffragists like Ella Flagg Young played a dual role during WWI and the epidemic that followed. Women were fighting for their country, while also fighting for the right to be equal citizens. The epidemic pushed the public to endorse women’s voting rights, partly because of their additional contributions during the war. The epidemic may have halted public gatherings and rallies, but it did not stop the work of suffragists, like Ella Flagg Young, or their work in public as citizens and activists for reform.


“Ella Flagg Young Dies in Service of Her Country.” Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society (1908-1984) 11, no. 4 (1919): 654-56. Accessed April 17, 2020.–suffragists-scorn-flu?page=root;size=125;view=image

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