In February 1919, more than two dozen women boarded a train to share their story of arrest, imprisonment, and brutal treatment for protesting in front of the White House in support of a federal women’s suffrage amendment.
Although these white women omitted women of color from their claims to the rights of citizenship, their nickname for the train—the “Democracy Limited”—is a reminder that the project of democracy is diminished without full and equal participation of all members of society.
The fight for the vote was a complex movement marked by hope and heartbreak, cooperative action and racist exclusion, hard-fought victories and unmet expectations. It was also part of a longer, ongoing journey by activist women from different backgrounds and varied motivations to build a more just society and create lasting change.
The images that follow offer a glimpse of recent and distant moments when Chicago-area women mobilized for change, part of a long history of activism and protest.
Girls and young women lead a parade down Michigan Avenue, joining suffragists in demonstrations nationwide on May 2, 1914, urging Congress to pass federal suffrage legislation.
At the second annual Women’s March in Chicago, January 20, 2018, a demonstrator acknowledges the efforts of earlier activists in the struggle for women’s rights. Chicagoans joined protestors in cities across the US on the anniversary of the inauguration of President Donald Trump.
Members of the National Woman’s Party protest president Woodrow Wilson’s refusal to support federal action on women’s suffrage. Signs asking, “How Long Do You Advise Us To Wait?” pressed Wilson to urge lawmakers to pass a women’s suffrage amendment, first introduced in Congress in 1878. Wilson was speaking at the Chicago Auditorium Theatre on October 19, 1916, during a reelection campaign stop.
Girls and women demonstrate outside the Dirksen Federal Building at 219 South Dearborn Street on February 19, 2017. Trump’s immigration policies, including a travel ban—a January 2017 executive order barring the arrival of citizens from seven Muslim-majority countries—sparked widespread protest.
Racial justice activist Ida B. Wells-Barnett refused to allow white organizers to hold a racially segregated march in Washington, DC, on March 3, 1913. As fellow white suffragists from Illinois passed by, including Belle Squire and Virginia Brooks, Wells joined them rather than marching separately with Black suffragists as the organizers intended.
Women participate in a Black Lives Matter rally in Millennium Park on July 11, 2016, to protest ongoing, systemic racial inequities and police brutality against African Americans. The demonstration was held in response to the then-recent shooting deaths of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and Philando Castile in suburban St. Paul, Minnesota, during encounters with police.
In September 1910, young women walked off the job at clothing maker Hart Schaffner & Marx to protest wage cuts and unfair working conditions. Their action sparked a months-long strike involving more than 40,000 garment workers, half of them women, including many recent immigrants. Here, women line up for a protest parade during the strike on December 12, 1910.
Employees and union activists protest low wages outside a Chicago Whole Foods Market store in July 2013. In search of a living wage and worker protections, fast food and retail workers were participating in the “Fight for $15” campaign to raise the state’s minimum wage to $15 an hour.
This 1970 flyer announced a “women’s strike” and rallies at the Civic Center Plaza and Grant Park on the fiftieth anniversary of the Nineteenth Amendment’s inclusion in the Constitution, calling attention to just some of the unfinished business of achieving gender equity at work, in education, and in the political process.
Signs carried at the Women’s March in Grant Park signal the range of critical issues demonstrators supported. Marchers in Chicago joined those in Washington, DC, and cities across the US on January 21, 2017, the day after President Donald Trump’s inauguration.
Before joining the movement to secure women’s right to vote, Jones, a free Black woman, fought to end slavery. After moving with her husband to Chicago in 1845, she served as a “conductor,” opening her home to aid those fleeing slavery along the Underground Railroad. Jones assisted her husband’s decades-long campaign to end Illinois’s racially restrictive Black Codes. After the Civil War, she joined Chicago women in organizing for women’s suffrage and was active in the city’s Black women’s club movement.
In 1869, Talbert urged attendees at a Chicago women’s suffrage convention to support “universal suffrage”—voting rights regardless of race or sex— but Talbert wasn’t always credited for her work. Suffragists Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony publicized her speech in their newspaper, The Revolution, but identified her only as “a colored woman.”
Talbert continued to write, speak, and take action for the rights of women and Blacks. In Wichita, Kansas, in the 1880s, she founded an orphanage for Black children excluded from the whites-only children’s home. In the 1890s, she campaigned for suffrage as a paid lecturer, calling for “justice and . . . a voice in making the law” for women.
In October 1871, Catherine Waite demanded to be added to Hyde Park’s registered voters list. When she was refused, Waite took her case to court—as planned.
Between 1868 and 1872, Waite and hundreds of other women tried to register and vote. Although the new Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution defined voters as “male,” it also promised to protect citizens from unjust laws. These women hoped the courts would agree that they should be protected from laws that restricted voting to men.
In 1875 the Supreme Court ruled that voting was not a right of citizenship protected by the federal government. The decision allowed states to keep women from voting.
Without the vote, women had only the right to petition—to formally ask lawmakers for something.
In 1879, Frances Willard, then president of the Illinios Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, presented a petition with more than 170,000 signatures to the Illinois General Assembly, asking for a law allowing men and women to vote on whether saloons could operate in their town. The all-male legislature did not pass the law, but women in other states adopted the practice of petitioning for this limited voting right. Under Willard’s leadership, the WCTU began supporting full suffrage for women in 1883, sparking lasting opposition from the liquor industry.
Three thousand people gathered at Farwell Hall in June 1880 for a three-day women’s suffrage meeting, timed to coincide with the National Republican Convention in Chicago. Suffragists hoped the big turnout would encourage Republicans to include support for suffrage in their party platform.
“Public officials have just gotten into the habit of overlooking women’s needs when women are not able to voice them for themselves.”
To Agnes Nestor, former glove maker, union organizer, and longtime president of the Chicago Women’s Trade Union League, the “working girl” needed the vote just as all workers did. Nestor spent years lobbying for laws to protect workers. She claimed the ballot was necessary to secure health and safety laws and to improve conditions for wage-earning women.
Many suffragists embraced the newly formed Progressive Party, which nominated Theodore Roosevelt for president and marked the first time a national party endorsed women’s suffrage. Jane Addams, social activist and Hull House settlement founder, became the first woman to make a nominating speech at a national party convention, held in Chicago in August 1912. Despite supporting women’s right to vote and other reforms, however, the Progressive Party failed to include a proposed racial equality plank in their platform.
Governor Edward F. Dunne signed the Illinois Suffrage bill into law on June 26, 1913, as suffragists Antoinette Funk, Grace Wilbur Trout, Elizabeth Knox Booth, and Chicago Teachers Federation leader Margaret Haley, looked on. Chicago-area women led the fight to achieve passage of this law. It gave Illinois women a limited but powerful vote, including the right to vote for many local offices and in presidential elections.
This recent League of Women Voters of Chicago postcard encourages participation in the political process.
In 1920, Chicago hosted the final meeting of the National American Woman Suffrage Association at the Congress Hotel. Anticipating the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment, during that convention the NAWSA disbanded, and a new national organization, the League of Women Voters, took its place.