By Ron Grossman
Chicago Tribune reporter
June 23, 2013
Shortly before Illinois women won the right to vote, 100 years ago this week, the state's delegation to a suffragettes march in Washington was bitterly divided over the issue of what to call each other. Belle Squire, herself unmarried, insisted on addressing all delegates, married or not, as "Mrs." According to a Tribune reporter aboard the train carrying them to the nation's capital, another member vigorously protested: "I am a married woman and object to maids taking the title 'Mrs.' They are parading on a married woman's preserve."
That drew the rejoinder: "the first married woman was not 'Mrs. Adam' but Eve." Still another of the 65-member group proposed dropping all gender-specific titles in favor of addressing each other, just as men do, simply as "Mister." When the question of what they wanted to be called was put to the 14 unmarried delegates, Miss got 8 votes, Mrs got 4, and Mister got 2.
The debate spoke to how much enfranchising women pushed society into such uncharted waters with scarcely a vocabulary to discuss it. The same women who organized statewide tours to advance their causes also made sure there were matrons to chaperon the unmarried women. The same legislature that finally voted yes to women also considered a bill that would have allowed a woman to shield her age in legal proceedings because that "concerns her alone." And the same newspaper that supported women's rights also published a story that asked: "Would you rather have a vote than a husband? Wherein lies woman's greatest chance for happiness and advancement?"
So when Gov. Edward Dunne signed into law on June 26, 1913, a bill making Illinois the first state east of the Mississippi where women could vote, the milestone was hailed — and decried — around the world. When Jane Addams, of Hull House fame, announced the news at an international suffragette conference in Budapest, the delegates wildly applauded and sent their congratulations to Dunne.
An opinion writer in the Tribune predicted: "Illinois' victory will push the woman's suffrage movement forward in every country in the world where the women are working and waiting to have slow ground justice accorded them by the men."
Reading a textbook account a century or so later could leave the impression that Illinois took a giant leap forward from a dark age of male chauvinism to a new era of equal rights. Actually, Dunne and the legislature did quicken the pace toward the 19th Amendment, which extended voting rights to women nationwide, and which Illinois would be the first state to ratify.
Yet Illinois' actual leap forward was more a giant baby step.
For one thing, Illinois' legislation didn't give the sexes equal voting rights. They won the right to vote for presidential electors, mayor, aldermen and most other local offices, but not for governor, state representatives or members of Congress. For a while, women were separate and unequal, as the Trib reported of a Morgan Park election, a month after Illinois women got the vote: "A separate ballot box was used for the women on the advice of the city attorney."
Still, there are always those who know how to mark a victory, no matter how limited. Shortly after the Illinois House of Representatives passed the voting rights bill, Florence Peterson — described by the Tribune as "a comely little woman"— walked into the auditorium of the Hart School and joined a meeting of the West North Edgewater Improvement Association, the first woman ever to do so. "The uproar died down," the Tribune reported of her reception. "Most of the smokers threw away their cigars."
Peterson, Squire and the legion of those who had worked for voting rights had something to celebrate. The suffragettes' battle had been long and bitterly fought. They'd been mocked and belittled by their opponents, whose ranks included women as well as men. An anti-suffragette woman writing in the Tribune decried the prospect of female voting rights as "the grave peril that threatens our fine American womanhood."
When suffragettes took their campaign to Chicago street corners in 1910 — for the first time, according to the Tribune — after a day of speeches and handing out literature, "thousands had passed by unheeding or contemptuous."
The insults weren't only spoken, or the disdain expressed only with dirty looks. That train carrying Illinois suffragettes to Washington in 1913 stopped at Harper's Ferry, so they could preach their cause where John Brown had made his fateful stand against slavery. "In the midst of a speech by Mrs. Trout, while the platform was crowded with women, men and boys threw snowballs at the speaker and her brigade," the Trib correspondent reported.
In Washington, the rights parade they joined was set upon by counterdemonstrators, the police refused to intervene, and 100 women ended up in hospitals. They got no sympathy even from Rep. James Mann of Illinois, who led the fight for the amendment in the House, who said: "They should have been at home."
Many suffragettes took an extra burden on themselves, linking their cause to the campaign for Prohibition. Frances Willard of the Evanston-based Woman's Christian Temperance Union, was a prominent advocate for both causes. That bought the enmity of men who felt that giving women the vote would close their favorite saloon's doors, a fear that would not be unfounded, and which was played upon by the alcoholic-beverage industry. "Liquor Interests Defeat Suffrage In Ohio Election," a 1912 Tribune headline announced.
When they finally did get the right to vote, women didn't waste time flexing their political muscle. At their first major opportunity, the local elections on April 7, 1914, more than 200,000 women registered to vote in Chicago. In another "innovation," eight women ran for aldermanic seats. While female voters were credited with kicking a number of bums off the council and saving what the Tribune called "good men," they failed to elect one of their own.
Still, across the state, more than 1,000 bars were voted closed, and 16 counties moved to the "dry" column. So on balance, those election returns fulfilled a prophecy made by Mrs. George W. Plummer in the thrilling moment when Illinois women won the vote: "Before we had bricks without straw, now we have the straw and the bricks and we have an opportunity to do the things for the city that we have only desired to do."
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