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The Chicago Suffragists Who Fought for Women’s Right to Vote

Meredith Francis
Frances Willard, Grace Wilbur Trout, Jane Addams, Ida B. Wells
From left: Frances Willard, Grace Wilbur Trout, Jane Addams, and Ida B. Wells. Images: Courtesy of the Library of Congress, Wikimedia Commons (Ida B. Wells)

The Vote: American Experience airs Tuesday, September 22 at 8:00 pm, and Tuesday, September 29 at 10:00 pm and is available to stream.

Chicago has always been a mainstay for activists, a city where political movements in support of labor, immigrants, civil rights, and more have all taken root and blossomed. The city was also home to leading suffragists who organized for women’s suffrage. Their efforts brought women in Illinois the right to vote – with some limitations – even earlier than the national ratification of the 19th Amendment in 1920.

As early as the mid-nineteenth century, women began forming organizations on the national level that fought for women’s suffrage. In July of 1848, famed women’s rights leaders Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott joined forces with hundreds of women for the Seneca Falls Convention to discuss women’s rights. In the 1870s, suffragists authored an amendment, then called the Susan B. Anthony Amendment, that they sent to Congress.

But much of the work on suffrage happened at the state and local level. One Evanston resident, Frances Willard, got her early start in political activism with the Women’s Christian Temperance Union. Prior to joining the cause, Willard served as president of the Evanston College for Ladies and then Dean of Women when that institution merged with Northwestern University. But her tenure was short-lived, and after having a series of disagreements with the University’s president – her ex-fiancé – she left to join the WCTU in 1874. She eventually became the second president of the organization and expanded its focus from beyond temperance into political issues such as prison reform, labor rights, and especially women’s suffrage. 

Willard died in 1898, years before women would have the right to vote. Though her leadership was flawed (read more below), under her tenure, the WCTU became the largest women’s organization in the country in the 1800s, according to the Encyclopedia of Chicago, providing women with a platform to mobilize. 

As the 19th century turned into the 20th, other groups formed and other women took the lead to continue the fight for the right to vote. One such woman was Grace Wilbur Trout, a Chicago activist who was instrumental to two groups: the Chicago Political Equality League and the Illinois Equal Suffrage Association.Trout was elected president of CPEL in 1910 and IESA in 1912, and it was her non-confrontational lobbying style that allowed her to create a successful state-wide suffrage campaign, according to the Evanston Women’s History Project. She even toured the state in an automobile to get women across Illinois to join the cause.

Trout worked with Jane Addams, a well-known social reformer and founder of the Hull House, the first settlement house in the United States. Addams was a busy woman: she developed sociological and political theories, was involved with the pacifist movement, co-founded the American Civil Liberties Union, was one of the founders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and became the first American woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize. 

Trout and Addams lobbied the members of the Illinois legislature years before the passage of the 19th amendment. And their efforts were successful: in 1913, Illinois was one of a handful of states that granted women a limited right to vote, and the first state east of the Mississippi River to do so. Women were allowed to vote for president and in some local elections, but were not allowed to vote for state-wide or federal offices, like governor or congressman. 

The nationwide fight for equality continued, crossing racial and ethnic lines. Enter investigative journalist, abolitionist, and anti-lynching advocate Ida B. Wells. As a black woman fighting for civil rights and the enfranchisement of black women, Wells often experienced discrimination from white suffragist groups. She had a public dispute with Frances Willard, denouncing the WCTU president for her silence on the issue of lynching and Willard’s racist comments.

In addition to Wells’ long list of accomplishments (like Addams, she was one of the founders of the NAACP), she was among the founders of the Alpha Suffrage Club. Founded in 1913 (the same year that the Illinois legislature would give women the limited right to vote), the club’s purpose was to engage black women voters and involve them in a political process from which they were intentionally excluded. According to the Encyclopedia of Chicago, the club was instrumental in the 1915 election of Oscar DePriest, the city’s first black alderman. In July of 2018, the city of Chicago renamed Congress Parkway, honoring the prominent leader with Ida B. Wells Drive. 

There were countless other women in Chicago and the rest of the state that fought for a woman’s right to vote, and it took decades of debate. The women of Illinois were promised full suffrage, along with the rest of America, when Congress passed the 19th Amendment on June 4, 1919. (Illinois claimed to be the first state to ratify the amendment, but, according to the National Park Service, because of a language error, they technically weren’t.) The 19th Amendment was ratified nearly 100 years ago on August 18,1920. The amendment is succinct: “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.”