Women's Suffrage: Illinois: A Turning Point

by Carrie Chapman Catt and Nettie Rogers Shuler
A New Impulse
The Story of Ohio

Illinois: A Turning Point

After 1912 woman suffrage prospered with the fortunes of the Progressive party. The Progressives in 1912 elected fifteen members of the House of Representatives, one United States Senator and many members of Legislatures, especially in the West. The division in the Republican party was credited with the election of the Democratic President, Woodrow Wilson. The year 1913 showed the effect of this break in party regularity by concessions to progressive demands in many directions. Seven States submitted woman suffrage amendments, with the vote set for November, 1914. And there were other significant victories, notable among which was the grant of suffrage in Alaska.

The first Territorial Legislature of Alaska met in Juneau in 1913. The National American Woman Suffrage Association had circularized each legislator with “Five reasons why Alaska should adopt woman suffrage,“ and had corresponded with some of the leading men of Alaska. There was no suffrage organization in Alaska and no other campaign, yet the first bill introduced was one extending full suffrage to women, and it passed unanimously, one member only absenting himself from roll call. It was the first bill approved by the Governor and was signed March 21, 1913, thus becoming the first act of the newly organized Territory.

This victory at the North, however, was completely overshadowed by a greater one, the victory of the “Illinois law“ in the great Middle West.

Two outstanding forms of limited suffrage characterized this law. One, municipal suffrage, had been in operation in Kansas since 1887, and its operation had been uniformly commended by all except the liquor sympathizers. Its constitutionality had never been tested. Michigan, in 1893, after ten years of continued effort on the part of the suffragists had passed a similar law but a case had been immediately filed to test its constitutionality and the Supreme Court had declared that “the Legislature had no authority to create a new class of voters.“ After 1893 the legislators of no other State could be persuaded to extend municipal suffrage, the example of Michigan being held universally applicable.

The other form of limited woman suffrage covered by the Illinois law was presidential suffrage, the right to vote for the electors who vote for the president of the United States. Separately and in combination with municipal suffrage it was to play a great part in the ultimate triumph of full suffrage. Presidential suffrage inhered in Article II, Section 2, of the federal constitution. That section reads in part:

“Each State shall appoint, in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct, a Number of Electors, equal to the whole Number of Senators and Representatives to which the State may be entitled in the Congress.“

For years women had been growing more and more certain that under its terms a State Legislature had the power to give the women of the State the right to vote for the president of the United States, as well as for certain less significant officials. Indeed, woman suffrage for presidential electors was introduced in the Rhode Island Legislature for the first time in 1892, and a brief defending the claim that authority for such action existed in the federal constitution was ably and, as time proved, unanswerably prepared and presented. It was left to Illinois women to make the application.

While never failing to appeal for the submission of a constitutional suffrage amendment at every legislative session, Illinois suffragists had also striven to gain municipal and presidential suffrage, separately and combined. By 1913 they had begun to formulate the idea of adding to a combined bill for municipal and presidential suffrage a clause covering the right to vote for any State officers not especially named by the State constitution as to be voted for by male electors. As the Governor of Illinois refused to allow any but an initiative and referendum amendment to be submitted to the voters of 1913, there was no possibility that the suffragists could secure successful action that year except through some form of suffrage which could be granted women by the Illinois Legislature. In that body the Progressives, happily for suffrage, held at the moment a balance of power on all legislation.[1]*

A bill was finally drawn up by women lawyers of the suffrage association and introduced in the Legislature. The chief of the wet lobby directed the opposition to the measure and every conceivable parliamentary maneuvre was resorted to in an effort to keep it from coming to vote. Hundreds of men came to Springfield from Chicago and other cities to entreat Speaker McKinley to prevent the bill from reaching a vote. “Haggard and worn,“ he begged suffragists to give him a demonstration of sentiment on the other side. Immediately, letters, telegrams and telephone messages poured in upon him in such an avalanche that he was satisfied that the mandate of the State lay with the suffragists. The bill was allowed to go to vote, and when the vote came up women captains made themselves responsible for the presence of members of the Legislature, stayed on duty through the five hours' debate and saw to it that every pro-suffrage legislator was in his seat on the final count. The Senate voted, ayes 29, nays 15. The House voted, ayes 83, nays 58.

Illinois women stood possessed of the right to vote for the president of the United States, for municipal officers and for those State officers not named in the State constitution as eligible by the votes of male electors only.

The effect of this victory upon the nation was astounding. Suffrage sentiment doubled over night. When the first Illinois election took place in April, the press carried the headlines that 250,000 women had voted in Chicago. The States thus far won were those of comparatively small population, but Chicago was the second city in size in the United States. In the previous presidential campaign it had been generally noted, without making much impression, that the women of the first four full suffrage States had helped choose seventeen members of the Electoral College, and that Washington and California had added twenty more electoral votes which the votes of women affected. It was noted again after the elections of 1912 that that year's victories had added eighteen more electoral votes to the women's list. Illinois, with its large electoral vote of twenty-nine, proved the turning point beyond which politicians at last got a clear view of the fact that women were gaining genuine political power.

The day following the Illinois municipal election, newspaper headlines announced that “women had closed more than a thousand saloons“ in local option elections, chiefly in the small towns. The liquor trade papers threw “We told you so“ at their readers, and showed their angry disapproval in hysterical injunctions to stop woman suffrage before it wrought any further damage. That brought prohibitionists over to the suffrage side by the thousands, and hundreds of thousands of the indifferent observed for the first time that two great movements were in progress and were unconsciously pushing each other forward.

The wets at once began a series of contests to declare the Illinois law unconstitutional. It was estimated that fifty unsuccessful cases were brought in local option contests by the liquor interests, each based upon the constitutionality of the woman suffrage act. As these contests did not question the entire act but merely the right of women to vote for some specific officer or issue, the constitutionality of the entire law was not upheld by the Supreme Court until 1914. Failing to overturn the law in the courts, the opponents, now openly led by the liquor forces and allied interests, attempted to secure a repeal of the law by the Legislature, which necessitated another all-winter campaign on the part of the suffragists in order to keep what they had won.

The Illinois victory was not only tremendous in itself; it initiated a program of tremendous importance to the suffrage cause. Although the National Suffrage Association had urged presidential suffrage for twenty years, its State auxiliaries had not been able to persuade their legislators of its constitutionality. Now all was changed. Not only presidential but additional suffrage rights by legislative action became a possible aim in all States and, since the courts had established beyond doubt the right of women to vote under the Illinois law, that law became a model for other States to copy. An outstanding feature of the annual suffrage convention at Atlantic City in 1916 was a plan formulated by the president of the National American Woman Suffrage Association to secure presidential suffrage State by State as fast as possible. Delegates to the convention went home and put that program into telling effect, as will be seen later.

Meantime seven suffrage referenda took place in 1914. The States were Montana, Nevada, North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Missouri and Ohio. Of these two only were won-Montana and Nevada.

The liquor interests were particularly and vindictively active in Montana, as recorded elsewhere, and suffragists regarded the winning of the State as a brand snatched from the burning. The young president of the State auxiliary to the National Suffrage Association, Miss Jeannette Rankin, the first woman to go to Congress, won the confidence of the voters by her campaign of “Tell the people.“ Nevada's mining interests were aligned against suffrage, but the Nevada suffragists used a map showing the State colored black and the surrounding States white, for Nevada was now bounded by States where women voted, and the suggestive injunction, “Out, damned spot!“ had a notable effect.

Yet the campaigns in these two States were probably not more efficiently conducted than those in the other western States where defeat was the fate of suffrage. In North and South Dakota the German-Russian vote was again organized against the amendment, although both Legislatures had readily submitted the amendments. In Nebraska the suffragists overcame legislative obstruction by resorting to the initiative and referendum law. The campaign followed the usual lines. It was ably conducted and supported by the best elements of the State. The German-American Alliance fought the amendment privately and publicly and the brewers made no secret of their opposition during the campaign nor, afterwards, of the fact that they had defeated it.

In Missouri the Legislature had proceeded to the date fixed for taking the vote on the suffrage amendment, when the amendment was mysteriously taken from the calendar, referred back to committee and pigeon-holed. The suffragists, however, had a weapon in reserve, and next invoked the initiative and referendum, filing on June 27th the necessary petition of 38,000 voters' names. Woman suffrage was, however, rejected at the Missouri polls.

The seventh State to vote on woman suffrage in 1914 was Ohio, which is another story, pointed enough to be told in a separate chapter.

There was a tedious similarity in all seven campaigns. Some of them were more effective than others, and some were doubtless not big enough to overcome normal indifference when flanked by a secretly working, thoroughly organized and well-financed opposition. The decisive feature of each campaign was the mobilization of the foreign vote against suffrage under the direction and probable pay of the liquor interests, and with the collusion of local bi-partisan election officials, if not that of State central committees. Wherever there were Negroes to recruit, they were recruited. Mr. Andreae's allied organizations, supported by the brewers, were now in full swing. The German-American Alliance passed resolutions in its conventions, and circularized its membership, urging no man to fail in his duty on election day.

Despite the loss of five State campaigns, the year 1914 closed with spectacular suffrage activity throughout the nation, and climaxed in a spirited effort in Washington to secure the submission of the Federal Suffrage Amendment.


* Senate-Republicans 25, Democrats 24, Progressives 2; House-Republicans 52, Democrats 73, Progressives 25, Socialists 3.