Women’s Suffrage in Decatur, Illinois

By Mark W. Sorensen

Note: This guest essay comes to us from Mark Sorensen whose 2004 essay “AHEAD OF THEIR TIME: A brief history of woman suffrage in Illinois,” https://www.lib.niu.edu/2004/ih110604half.html provided the foundations for the research and work of this website. Thanks Mark for all your work to save and tell the Illinois suffrage story!

It also shows how important the work of researching at the local level is for uncovering the whole story of the suffrage movement. The rich history of Decatur is just one example of the ways the suffrage movement really was a grassroots movement.

August 18, 2020 marks the 100th Anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution while August 26th is the anniversary of its certification. This amendment forbade any person or government entity from denying the right to vote to any adult citizen on the basis of sex.  While many people refer to this as when American women were “given” the right to vote, the distaff sex will certainly argue that for three generations they fought for and “earned” equal suffrage. 

In July 1848, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and over 200 hundred other women held America’s first Women’s Rights Convention in Seneca Falls, New York and fiercely debated over their Ninth Resolution, “to secure to themselves their sacred right to the elective franchise.” [By 1920, 91-year-old Charlotte Woodward Pierce was the only signer of the Seneca Falls Declaration who lived long enough to cast her ballot in a presidential election.] In 1851 Susan B. Anthony joined the women’s rights movement and for the next 55 years fought nationally for equal voting rights for women. 

The first documented speech in favor of women’s suffrage in Illinois was made in the 1850s by the editor of the Earlville Transcript which inspired another LaSalle County resident Susan Hoxie Richardson (a cousin of Susan B. Anthony) to organize Illinois’ first woman suffrage society. In 1870, Mary Livermore of Chicago helped create the Illinois Woman Suffrage Association whose members were greatly disappointed that year when the new Illinois state constitution did not include equal suffrage.[i] Because a “women’s sphere” was thought to be the home and children, in 1873 Illinois passed a statute which allowed any woman, “married or single,” who possessed the qualification required of men, to be eligible to hold any school office in Illinois created by law and not the constitution. Even though they couldn’t vote for themselves, on November 4, 1873 ten women were elected as County Superintendents of Schools around the state. [ii]

The first known women’s rights organization in Macon County was organized by Universalist minister the Rev. Sophie Gibb when 100 women met in her church at 135 East Prairie Street on July 30, 1888 to form the Decatur “Women’s Suffrage Club.” Rev. Gibb was formally elected president in September and Mrs. E.A. Gastman served on the board.  [Mrs. Gibb and her minister husband left Decatur in 1891 and later retired in California where she voted for president in 1912 after that state passed universal women’s suffrage in 1911.][iii]

Decatur Daily Republican, July 30, 1888

All through the 1890s the Decatur suffrage club mostly met at member’s homes, but also at the newly formed Women’s Club, Brunswick Hotel, Opera House, the “old” Presbyterian church, the “Christian” church, the Congregational church, the Woman’s Christian Temperance rooms and the Pythian Hall in the Library Block building, and after 1910, in the new YWCA on North Main Street. Each summer they also rallied on Suffrage Day during the Temperance meeting at Oakland Park, now the east part of the Millikin University campus. On January 21 and 22 of 1891 Decatur was to be host city for the Illinois Equal Suffrage State Convention but it was suddenly cancelled due to a personal matter related to famous suffrage speaker Zeralda Wallace of Indiana.[iv]

On March 1, 1892, Decatur school superintendent E.A. Gastman spoke to the now-named Decatur Equal Suffrage Association’s bimonthly meeting and opined that “public sentiment would be elevated and the laws would be better enforced if women were equal in political rights.”  Echoing a typical belief of women suffrage advocates of that era, he concluded “Give women the ballot and the moral standard of society will be raised….”[v]  A few months later, “lady lawyer” Effie Henderson of Bloomington spoke in favor of equal suffrage to 200 people in the Decatur courthouse and as was often the case, the reporter described the female speaker more than the message she delivered: “She is not over 30 years of age, is a good looking woman, and speaks with a soft gentle voice, quite unlike most of the women who make public addresses. She talks as though she knew what she was talking about.”[vi]

A year before these talks, the Illinois legislature passed a bill that entitled women to vote at any election held to elect school officials. Since these elections were often held at the same time and place as elections for other offices, women by law had to use separate ballots and separate ballot boxes.[vii]  In April 1892 women reportedly voted in school elections around the state including Warrensburg and Harristown. On June 7th of that year one of three Decatur school board seats were up for election. On the morning of the election Isabella (Mrs. Moses) Stafford agreed to run. Since the state had yet to adopt the Australian ballot system, each candidate handed out their own ballots and the election judges demanded the women to give “their Christian names” when stepping up to the pole. With just three minutes left before the one and only polling place closed seven women reached the location and took Stafford ballots. Incumbent board member Mr. W.B. Chambers lost by five votes in the first Decatur election in which women could vote, and because separate ballot boxes were used, the local paper could report that 725 men had also voted for Mrs. Stafford. Miss Sarah J. Montgomery was recognized as the first woman ever to vote in Decatur as first-time votes were also cast by several African-American women, octogenarian Sarah G. Wright and Margaret Roup, age 93.[viii]

At this time the Illinois courts also determined that women could both be elected as and vote for University of Illinois Trustees. Therefore, on October 17, 1894, with the adoption of secret ballots printed by government officials and not political parties, the Decatur Republican women met to discuss voting a straight GOP ticket in the November election while a week earlier the non-partisan Decatur suffrage group met and urged all women to register to vote. In November, Chicago child-rights advocate Lucy Louisa Coues Flower became the first woman in Illinois elected to a statewide office.[ix]

On April 11, 1895 the Decatur Daily Republican headlined that “Scores of Bright and Brainy Women in Convention Assembled” as Decatur Equal Suffrage president Mrs. A. C. Foulke and her 52 members welcomed the annual Illinois State Suffrage convention back to Decatur. But after this event many Illinois women lost interest in voting just for school-related issues and nothing else. Local suffrage efforts waned in Macon County while the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union prohibition efforts strengthened. Meanwhile anti-women’s suffrage groups organized and strengthened around the country[x]

Decatur Herald, April 2, 1898

In 1897 Chicago homemaker Caroline Fairfield Corbin founded the Illinois Association Opposed to the Extension of Suffrage to Women. Her group believed that women should stay in their “sphere” of home life and allow their husbands and fathers to legislate for their protection. On April 1, 1898, Corbin and her new ally, Emma (Mrs. Gov. Richard J.) Oglesby [now of Elkhart] came to Mrs. Oglesby’s former Decatur residence, 421 W. William Street, the then home of Mrs. J. E. Bering [today the Gov. Richard J. Oglesby Mansion]. Corbin told about 20 women invitees that women should not have the ballot because only men “could do and dare to suffer and die for freedom in ways impossible to women.” She also said “that women have never shown themselves superior in morals to men” unless there was no outside temptation. Thus, women would not purify politics but rather “Put upon the same basis with men, exposed to the temptation of outer life, released from social and domestic restrictions, they add to immorality, to weakness and to intrigue.”[xi]

Other than Decatur Mayor C.F. Shilling’s statement in December 1902 that “tax-paying” women should be allowed to vote “on questions of public improvement,” the city’s women’s suffrage movement from 1898 to 1906 was subsumed by work to strengthen local libraries and to ban alcoholic beverages. Even the gavel for the Decatur Equal Suffrage Association was given to the Women’s Club in their new building on North Park Street.[xii]

Suffrage interest picked up again in 1910 after University of Chicago student Miss Harriet Grim gave her award-winning talk “The Womanly Woman in Politics” in the just-opened Decatur YWCA as Decatur women reorganized as the Political Equity League.[xiii]  In August, Eugenia (Mrs. George) Bacon welcomed the state-wide women’s suffrage auto tour to Decatur’s Central Park and introduced state president and former Decatur resident Ella Seass (Mrs. Oliver) Stewart, Catharine Waugh McCulloch, Miss Grace Nicholls and Miss Bertha Seass to a large audience of supportive women and men curious to see females navigate Illinois’ byways by automobile in the days before “hard roads” connected towns.[xiv]

IESA members at State Convention, Decatur Daily Herald, November 3, 1911.

On October 31 and November 1, 1911 Decatur hosted its second Illinois Equal Suffrage Convention held mostly at the First Congregational Church as many attendees were appalled to learn that without the vote of women, the legal age of consent for marriage in seven states was 14 years old, age 13 in two states and ten years old in two other states. Active at the convention along with Mrs. Bacon were Decaturites Dr. Jennie Kibbe, Mrs. John Ullrich and Mrs. Mary E. Haworth, who was elected to the state board.  Mrs. Elvira Downey of Clinton was elected the new state president.[xv] 

In 1913, after 43 years of letters, speeches, meetings and lobbying, Illinois women were finally granted increased suffrage, limited by the fact it was nearly impossible to amend the state’s 1870 constitution to grant universal suffrage. On June 26, Governor Dunne signed the law that allowed women in Illinois to vote for Presidential electors and for all local offices not specifically named in the Illinois Constitution. By virtue of this law, Illinois became the first state east of the Mississippi to grant women the right to vote for President. However, they still could not cast a vote for state representative, congressman, or governor; and they still had to use separate ballots and ballot boxes until the 1920 U.S. Constitutional Amendment gave universal suffrage to all adult women.[xvi]

Women are now everywhere on the local and national political scene and in 2020, for the third time, a woman is the vice-presidential candidate of a major party. Starting in 1860, the Macon County Board was originally comprised of township supervisors. It took 64 years for Flora F. Baldwin and Hazel Williford to be elected assistant Decatur Township Supervisors in 1924 and thus become the first women on the County Board under the old format.[xvii]  The Sanitary District of Decatur was formed in 1917 and 61 years later League of Women Voters’ officer Kathy L. Sorensen was appointed the first woman to its “five-man” board in 1978 [and immediately appointed Board Clerk]. After the passage of Illinois’ Municipal Suffrage Bill in 1913 it took 62 years before Carol A. Brandt [1932-2020] became the first woman elected to the Decatur City Council in April 1975. Illinois women could vote for and be elected to the Illinois General Assembly in 1920. It took 67 years for Decatur to elect Penny Severns [1952-1998] its first female state legislator in 1987. Finally, since 1913 any qualified adult could run for Mayor of Decatur. Julie Moore Wolfe [after serving two years as Decatur’s first appointed female mayor] was the first woman elected mayor in 2017 after 104 years of possibilities. 

Mark W. Sorensen is the Official Macon County Historian and a past president of the Illinois State Historical Society.

Notes and Sources

[i] Introductory information taken from Sorensen, Mark W., AHEAD OF THEIR TIME: A brief history of woman suffrage in Illinois,” Illinois Heritage (Nov/Dec 2004) https://www.lib.niu.edu/2004/ih110604half.html

[ii] Illinois Laws, 1873, p. 192, approved April 3, 1873 and in force July 1, 1873.  For a list of women who ran for elective office in Illinois before 1920 see Her Hat Was in the Ring http://www.herhatwasinthering.org/

[iii] Decatur Daily Republican, July 30, 1888 and September 15, 1888.  California Voter Registration records for 1912 from Ancestry.com.

[iv] Decatur Daily Herald, January 6, 1891, January 16, 1891.  .The 22nd annual convention was postponed until October 28 -30, 1891 and then held in Kewanee instead of Decatur.

[v] Decatur Daily Republican, March 2, 1892.

[vi] Decatur Daily Review, May 14, 1892.

[vii] Illinois Laws, 1891, p. 102 approved June 19, 1891 and in force July 1, 1891.

[viii] Decatur Daily Herald, June 8, 1892; Decatur Daily Review, June 11, 1892.

[ix] Decatur Review, October 18, 1894; Decatur Herald, October 27, 1894; Chicago Daily Tribune, November 8, 1894.

[x] The main speaker at the 1895 state convention in Decatur was Unitarian minister the Rev. Celia Parker Woolley, an early member of Chicago’s Woman’s Club who insisted that African-American Fannie Barrier Williams be allowed to join. In 1905 the two of them founded the Frederick Douglass Center, the first interracial social center in Chicago.

[xi] Decatur Herald, April 2, 1898; Decatur Review, April 2, 1898.

[xii] Decatur Daily Review, December 17, 1902; Decatur Herald, March 6, 1903.

[xiii] Decatur Review, February 4, 1910; Decatur Herald, February 5, 1910.

[xiv] Decatur Herald, August 10, 1910.

[xv] Decatur Herald, November 2, 1911 and November 3, 1911. A large photo of 44 of the women attending appeared on page one of Part Two [page 11] of the November 3 edition.

[xvi] Decatur Herald, June 26, 1913; Decatur Daily Review, June 26, 1913, Illinois Laws, 1913, p. 333, approved June 26, 1913 and in force at the next possible election at any level. 

[xvii] Banton, O.T., History of Macon County, 1976, p. 279.

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