How Long Must Women Wait? Woman Suffrage and Women's Rights in Champaign County
Voting is at the heart of democracy. But until August of 1920, when the 19th amendment to the U.S. constitution was passed, American women did not fully share the basic right of suffrage—that is voting—and could not completely participate in determining their fate, their future or their children’s future. As partial suffrage laws were passed state-by-state, the women of Champaign County cast their first ballot in a local election in July of 1913. However, the right to vote was only the beginning. From the earliest days of our county until today, women have contributed in immeasurable ways to the social fabric while experiencing restrictions based on gender and fighting to correct them
Backstory and Context
The woman suffrage movement, locally and nationally, is only one landmark in a long continuing struggle for women, and other marginalized people, to claim an equal role in society and establish that their lives are important and have worth, allowing them to achieve their full potential and maximize their contribution to greater good of society.
The goal of the exhibit is to facilitate a deeper awareness of the historic struggles for women to participate equally in society, so that visitors can make meaningful connections between those struggles and current challenges endured by women and marginalized people that facilitate self-reflection and sensitivity in thought, word, and deed toward others.
When they first made contact with Europeans, Native American women in the Midwest had a more equal place within their cultures than white women had in theirs. For example, the Five Nations of the Iroquois Confederation, a Native American group that would eventually make its way to Illinois territory in the late 1600s, all practiced matrilineal descent or centered their culture on females and female ancestors. In Native American creation stories, it was often the woman who created life on Earth. With such a powerful role in their culture, early Native American women were highly influential in governing their societies, including having the power to appoint and remove chiefs on an all-female council often referred to as a “Clan of Matrons.”
Following a handful of exchanges and observations, some notable U.S. suffragists were inspired by Native American women and the role they played in their respective cultures. After many visits and interactions with Native Americans, including the Iroquois in her hometown of Seneca Falls, Elizabeth Cady Stanton wrote in 1891 that she was impressed by the fact that “women sat in the councils of war and peace, and their opinions had equal weight on all questions.” 1 Matilda Gage, co-founder of the National Woman Suffrage Association, wrote in 1875 “the family relation among the Iroquois demonstrated woman’s superiority in power…in the home, the wife was absolute…if the Iroquois husband and wife separated, the wife took with her all the property she had brought … the children also accompanied the mother, whose right to them was recognized as supreme… never was justice more perfect, never civilization higher.”
The national struggle for the vote began formally in July, 1848. Elizabeth Cady Stanton organized the first Woman’s Rights Convention in Seneca Falls, New York. It fought not only for suffrage, but also for the social, religious, and political rights of women. The Woman’s Rights Convention generated movement which certainly had a local effect. In 1870, when Susan B. Anthony spoke in Champaign, Illinois, her topic was Wages and Women; she fought for the vote and fair compensation. When Sojourner Truth visited Bloomington, Illinois in 1883, she spoke about being injured by a streetcar conductor as she was being shoved aside. She fought violence against woman and people of color, and fought for the right to vote. Julia Burnham, local philanthropist, helped to form the Women’s Social and Political Science Club. While advocating for suffrage, they discussed the issues of the day. As a result, Burnham founded Champaign’s first hospital and library, because education and health care were of primary importance to women and families. Local women joined those on the national stage in pursuit of equal and fair treatment.
When Mary Perkins cast her ballot on July 29, 1913, it was the first time a woman had voted in Champaign County. On June 26, 1913, Governor Edward Dunne had signed the suffrage bill into law, giving women the right to vote for President as well as for local officers. While the issue for Perkins was whether Champaign City should bond for a new fire truck, the mere fact of voting was a profound breakthrough for the rights of all local women. Illinois was the first state east of the Mississippi to allow women the right to vote for President. It was also the first state to ratify the 19th amendment, doing so on June 10, 1919. In 1917, a group called the "Silent Sentinels" stood outside of the White House until the 19th amendment was ratified in 1919. Included in this group were three Champaign County locals; Lucy Ewing, Matilda Gardner, and Gertrude Crocker, who spent 30 days in jail for their protests. With Tennessee’s ratification on August 20, 1920, the 19th Amendment was added to the U.S. Constitution. Equity in voting rights did not provide social equality. Claiming the right to vote clarified the rest of the work to be done: equal pay for equal work, equal treatment under the law.
Shortly after suffrage became a reality, the country fell into the Great Depression which was followed quickly by World War II. Both national crises made it difficult for women to continue with the fervor they had in getting voting rights. However, the war provided new opportunities for women. Over 350,000 women served in the Armed Forces during World War II, and one third of all manufacturing jobs were held by women, many in the business of making armaments. In Champaign and Effingham, Illinois women worked in the Illinois Glove Factory, making gloves for military use. In Peoria, Caterpillar provided more than 50,000 crawler tractors to the military, employing women to build them. Women in the armed forces and those in factory work experienced the freedom and affirmation of knowing they were contributing in a real way to a national effort.
During World War II, women experienced working outside the home. During the 1950s, technological advances freed up women’s time. By the 1960s, women lived longer and saw an expansion of reproductive health options. All of these factors converged to give women the ability to push back against structural sexism. Women sought to exercise and expand both their creative and intellectual sides. They demanded to be included, recognized and paid for their talents and contributions. By the early 1980s, women sought to pass the Equal Rights Amendment. On June 7, 1982, to draw attention to the urgency of passing the amendment, fifteen local ERA supporters, the Second Class Citizens, chained themselves to the doorway of the Senate chambers in the Illinois statehouse. In the late 1960s, feminist Carol Hanisch popularized the phrase, the personal is political. It became a rallying cry for the women’s movement of the 1970s and beyond. It exemplified the feminist belief that the personal experiences of inequity were rooted in systemic power differentials. Violence against women, sexual harassment, pay inequity, barriers to workplace advancement and educational opportunities all resulted from inequalities in social and political structures.
Today, many people continue to work for legal protection of women’s rights. In a stunning echo to the 1913 Women’s Suffrage Parade, the Women’s March of 2017 was held the day after the inauguration of Donald Trump. While the ERA was originally ratified in 1972 by Congress, it still needed ¾ of states to ratify to become an amendment. In 2018, Illinois became the 37th state out of the needed 38 states to ratify. 172 years after the 1848 convention, women are still fighting for the amendment which states, Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex. In 2006, Tarana Burke, an African American woman working with survivors of sexual assault, started a movement based on empathy for and by survivors. She named that movement Me Too. In 2017, hashtag #metoo went viral on social media. Alyssa Milano, a white actress, tweeted, “If you’ve been sexually harassed or assaulted write ‘me too’ as a reply to this tweet.” What followed were over 12 million social media posts in the first 24 hours. Currently, Ms. Tarana Burke and the Me Too movement remind the media and political candidates that women are working people, consumers, taxpayers, and voters. Women constitute 51% of the USA population and 53% of voters. From the earliest times until today, women continue to struggle for equal and fair treatment in the law and in society.