When many of us think of the phrase ‘votes for women,’ we may be reminded of a scene from the Disney classic Mary Poppins. Mrs. Banks comes home from women’s rights meeting with an electric energy that swoops her, her cook, and her maid into song: “Cast off the shackles of yesterday! Shoulder to shoulder into the fray! Our daughters’ daughters will adore us and they’ll sing in grateful chorus: ‘Well done, Sister Suffragette!’”
The word ‘suffragette’ is commonly recognized because of this song, “Sister Suffragette.” However, this term was only used in the United Kingdom. When the name traveled to the U.S., it was used instead by the opposition to belittle American suffragists because of its feminine and delicate sound. For instance, “She’s only a little suffragette.” American women’s rights activists called themselves suffragists.
American women did not receive the constitutional right to vote in an election until 1920, but did you know that Rockford women did participate in the vote before then? They had been voting since 1891! In fact, the first woman suffrage convention in Illinois met at Rockford’s Centennial Church in 1888.
This ballot box was used by Rockford women in the 9th District between the years of about 1891 to 1921. On June 19, 1891, Illinois Legislature passed an act that allowed Illinois women over the age of 21 to vote in school elections after July 1, 1891. The law at that time indicated that ballots cast by women “shall be deposited in a separate ballot box.” (Laws of Illinois, Chapter 46, Section 332)
In 1913, a bill came up at the Illinois General Assembly for women’s right to vote. For years it had been dismissed by the Assembly, but incredibly the Illinois Municipal Voting Act was passed. Women could vote in Presidential elections and for all local offices, but still could not participate in state representative, congressman or governor elections. Illinois became the first state east of the Mississippi River to pass a bill like this.
A suffrage parade was arranged to take place in Chicago on June 6, 1916. Marie Perry Forbes, daughter of a Rockford mayor, organized Rockford women to march. Those women whose husbands didn’t approve of their going donated money for those who could not afford to go. The ladies wore white dresses with yellow sashes and hats. As they marched down the streets of Chicago, it began to rain, and the yellow ran over their dresses. Marie commented that they were an “awful-looking outfit” when they returned home.
It wasn’t until the ratification of the 19th Amendment in 1920 that Illinois Legislature declared “that it shall not be necessary at any election to provide separate ballots or ballot boxes for women” in 1921. (Illinois Revised Statues, Chapter 46, Paragraph 67)
This ballot box was used for a total of thirty years, and while it might look worse for wear, it symbolizes the struggle and transition of Winnebago women to achieve what they believed to be their greatest right of all: a voice.