As we celebrate the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, which guaranteed women the right to vote, I can’t help but think of how daunting a task this must have been. Suffragists endured ridicule, condescension, and vicious attacks as they tried to persuade an unsympathetic public to expand voting rights to include women. They also lived in an era not unlike our own. The early twentieth century, like the early twenty-first century, was burdened by war, pandemic, political upheaval, and economic crisis, all of which made political activism difficult. In the face of these challenges, suffragists pushed forward, securing the vote at the local, state, and eventually--the national level.
The suffrage movement in Illinois provides an inspiring example of how voting rights activists overcame obstacles and mobilized communities across the state. Many people are familiar with Illinois leaders such as Jane Addams and Ida B. Wells-Barnett, but the names of most suffragists have receded from historical memory. Grace Wilbur Trout, president of the Illinois Equal Suffrage Association, may no longer be a household name, but she cleverly harnessed the power of the early twentieth century to create a successful and sustainable movement. Her political savvy combined with a willingness to embrace modern technology ensured that Illinois would be the first state east of the Mississippi to secure the vote for women.
In the summer of 1910, Trout organized the first “Suffrage Auto Tour” to generate support for a women’s suffrage across the state. Trout, along with three other women and two reporters from the Chicago Tribune, traveled to sixteen cities, including Aurora, Geneva, Naperville, DeKalb, and Sycamore. They rode in a seven-passenger touring car donated by the Winton Motor Carriage Company, one of the earliest automobile manufacturers in the United States. At each stop, the women would speak from the car, educating listeners about the legal, social, and political necessity of women’s suffrage. Several years later, after an unsuccessful attempt to pass a referendum on women’s voting rights in Chicago, Trout decided to approach the Illinois State Legislature about other options. She created information cards on each member of the General Assembly to help suffragists tailor their lobbying efforts. Understanding the influence that the press could exert, she asked editors to write pieces in favor of women’s suffrage. These editorials surreptitiously made their way to the legislators’ desks and convinced lawmakers that the voting public was growing increasingly supportive of women’s suffrage. In 1913, when it appeared that a women’s suffrage bill was going to stall in the General Assembly, Trout quickly organized a telephone campaign, calling every suffrage supporter she could reach. Men and women flooded Springfield with calls, telegrams, and letters, urging the Speaker of the House to bring the bill to a vote. The Speaker relented, and in June, the General Assembly passed the Illinois Suffrage Act, which gave Illinois women the right to vote in municipal and presidential elections.
The story of women’s suffrage, of course, did not end in 1913. Grace Wilbur Trout, Jane Addams, and Ida B. Wells-Barnett took their movement to Washington D.C., where they marched with suffragists from all over the country—and from all over the world—in a national parade. Despite derisive taunts and brutal beatings, the Woman Suffrage Procession continued, along with the suffragists’ demands for a constitutional amendment. In 1920, after years of parades, lobbying, and information campaigns, the 19th Amendment granted all women the right to vote—in all elections, at every level.
Although the 19th Amendment holds a special place of honor in our national history, I find Grace Wilbur Trout and the journey of the Illinois suffragists particularly interesting. Illinois women adopted the tools of the modern age, using automobiles, the telephone, the press, and public pressure to achieve a goal that very few people thought would succeed. Even without the communication and transportation marvels that we have today, these early twentieth-century suffragists nevertheless excelled at spreading their message to a skeptical public. Perhaps their determination and dedication can serve as an inspiration for our current age. The first few decades of our century have been similarly tumultuous, producing a sense of uncertainty that I am sure would resonate with our twentieth-century predecessors. Perhaps we can find solace in their dedication despite our own monumental challenges that lie ahead.
If you are interested in learning more about Grace Wilbur Trout and the Illinois Suffrage Movement, I recommend Side Lights on Illinois Suffrage History, Trout’s autobiographical account published in 1920. I took much of the information for this article from this source, which was reproduced in the Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society that year (Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society (1908-1984) Vol. 13, No. 2 (Jul., 1920), pp. 145-179). Fortunately, Trout was diligent in her efforts to secure press coverage of her events, so I was also able to find several interesting articles in the Chicago Tribune: July 16, 1910, July 21, 1910 and March 5, 1913.