Municipal Charter Reform in Chicago: Civic Duty, Women’s Role, and Women’s Suffrage

By Joan Linsenmeier, Evanston Women’s History Project Research Volunteer.

The Cities and Villages Act adopted by Illinois in 1872 specified how city governments could be structured, the actions they could take, and what powers were retained by the state. Many Chicagoans opposed this act. Chicago was much larger than other Illinois cities, more diverse, and more industrialized. Its challenges and priorities were different, and state-level decisions were often seen as creating problems for Chicago or even as intentionally hostile.[i] Chicagoans also worried about corruption and patronage in city government. This led to the Municipal Charter Reform movement in the early 1900s.  

From a publication of the
Woman’s City Club. Illustration in
The American City Magazine.
Vol. 29, July-December 1923, page 319.

At a 1906 Charter Convention, a committee of Chicagoans drafted a new city charter and sent it to the state. The state legislature made changes, and Chicago voters rejected this revised plan. Charter Convention members then drafted a set of more focused bills addressing separate aspects of city government; these were submitted to the state in 1909.[ii][iii] All charter committee members, all state legislators, and all city voters were men—but Chicago-area women were actively involved in these attempts to improve their city.

People who agreed that changes were needed often disagreed on what the changes should be. They held different ideas about good city government and focused on different facets of city life. Of particular interest to many women’s groups were education, public utilities, sanitation, and, as a consequence, city finances. These women “understood that one critical obstacle toward implementing their demands on, for instance, public education and public baths was that the municipal government lacked both the power and the revenues to make changes even if it had wanted to.”[iv]  

In addition, many women’s groups hoped the new charter would include municipal suffrage for women, the right to vote for candidates for city offices. Thus, the Women’s Trade Union League asked the Chicago Federation of Labor to advocate including women’s suffrage in the charter. Leaders of the Chicago Women’s Club sent a letter to their members asking them to work toward this goal.[v] However, neither the 1906 draft prepared by the Charter Convention nor the revised version submitted to voters included women’s suffrage. This contributed to the decision by many women’s organizations to argue against approval.[vi] 

Some men opposed women’s involvement in charter reform efforts, and women were excluded from formal decision making roles. However, to other men, women’s input was more acceptable. Some viewed it as a natural extension of traditional female roles. Caring about the health and education of Chicago’s children, or about safe working conditions, related to caring about the safety and education of one’s own family. Arguing for changes that would facilitate improved sanitation related to caring about the cleanliness of one’s home.

Jane Addams and Elizabeth Burke.

A striking aspect of the Municipal Charter Reform movement in Chicago is the degree to which women came together across class and race lines to address shared concerns, including the right to vote. Chicagoan Jane Addams described this in the chapter on Civic Cooperation in her autobiography, Twenty Years at Hull House:   

“During two long periods of agitation for a new city charter, a representative body of women appealed to the public, to the charter convention, and to the Illinois legislature for this very reasonable provision. During the campaign when I acted as chairman of the federation of a hundred women’s organizations, nothing impressed me so forcibly as the fact that the response came from bodies of women representing the most varied traditions. We were joined by a church society of hundreds of Lutheran women, because Scandinavian women had exercised the municipal franchise since the seventeenth century and had found American cities strangely conservative; by organizations of working women who had keenly felt the need of the municipal franchise in order to secure for their workshops the most rudimentary sanitation and the consideration which the vote alone obtains for workingmen; by federations of mothers’ meetings, who were interested in clean milk and the extension of kindergartens; by property-owning women, who had been powerless to protest against unjust taxation; by organizations of professional women, of university students, and of collegiate alumnae; and by women’s clubs interested in municipal reforms.”[vii]

When the state legislature considered the separate Chicago Municipal Suffrage bill in 1909, the Illinois Equal Suffrage Association arranged for representatives of several women’s groups to travel to Springfield, the state capital, to voice support for the bill.[viii]

In the end, neither this suffrage bill nor any other bill coming out of the 1909 Charter Convention was approved by the legislature.[ix] Nevertheless, the Municipal Charter Reform movement had long-term effects. For example, a group of private citizens in Chicago set up a Bureau of Public Efficiency to help make city departments financially accountable.[x] There were also continuing efforts to emphasize merit, as opposed to political patronage, in selecting people for city posts. 

In addition, the Municipal Charter Reform movement had a lasting impact on the involvement of Chicago women in civic affairs. As one example, the Statement of Purpose of the Women’s City Club of Chicago, founded in 1910, explained that the club was organized:

“To bring together women interested in promoting the welfare of the city; to coordinate and render more effective the scattered social and civic activities in which they are engaged; to extend a knowledge of public affairs; to aid in improving civic conditions and to assist in arousing an increased sense of social responsibility for the safeguarding of the home, the maintenance of good government, and the ennobling of that larger home of all—the city.”[xi]

Despite lack of success in the first decade of the 1900s, Chicago-area women continued to work together for women’s suffrage, and their efforts paid off. In 1913 women across the state gained the right to vote in municipal elections and for president of the United States.

[i] Flanagan, Maureen A. (1980). Charter reform in Chicago, 1890-1915: Community and government in the progressive era (Unpublished doctoral dissertation). Loyola University Chicago.

[ii] Flack, Horace E. (1910). Municipal charter revision—Chicago. The American Political Science Review. Vol. 4 (2), 220-223.

[iii] Flanagan, Maureen A. (1986). Charter reform in Chicago: Political culture and urban progressive reform. Journal of Urban History, Vol. 12 (2), 109-130.

[iv] Flanagan, Maureen A. (2002). Seeing with their hearts: Chicago women and the vision of the good city, 1971-1933. Princeton University Press, p 76.

[v] Flanagan (1980)


[vii] Addams, Jane. (1910) Twenty Years at Hull-House with Autobiographical Notes. New York: The MacMillan Company.

[viii] Steward, Ella S. and McCullough, Catharine W. (1909). Special train to Springfield for the Woman Suffrage Hearing”; “Record Broken in Illinois,” Woman’s Journal, April 24, 1909, Nineteenth Century Collections Online.

[ix] Flack (1910)

[x] Woodruff, Clinton R. (1911). Municipal review 1909-1910. American Journal of Sociology, 16(4), 485-518.

[xi] Quoted on page 1032 of Flanagan, Maureen A. (1990). “Gender and Urban Political Reform: The City Club and the Woman’s City Club of Chicago in the Progressive Era.” The American Historical Review, Vol. 95 (4), 1032-1050. From Woman’s City Club of Chicago, Bulletin, 1 (July 1911)

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