On this centennial of the great Women’s Suffrage Parade, remembering a bit of Rockford history

On this date in 1913, a big parade was held in our nation’s capital in support of a constitutional amendment guaranteeing women the right to vote.

But since it was also the day before the inauguration of Woodrow Wilson as president, the parade did not entirely go well, as we see HERE:

Though the parade began late, it appeared to be off to a good start until the route along Pennsylvania Avenue became choked with tens of thousands of spectators — mostly men in town for the inauguration. Marchers were jostled and ridiculed by many in the crowd. Some were tripped, others assaulted. Policemen appeared to be either indifferent to the struggling paraders, or sympathetic to the mob. Before the day was out, one hundred marchers had been hospitalized. The mistreatment of the marchers amplified the event — and the cause — into a major news story and led to congressional hearings, where the D.C. superintendent of police lost his job. What began in 1913 took another seven years to make it through Congress. In 1920, the Nineteenth Amendment secured the vote for women.

All of this brings to mind a certain chapter in Rockford history, which is recorded in this excerpt from “Rockford — Big Town/Little City,” a book written by some obscure amateur historian:

The Rockford Morning Star was afraid.

Several Western states had granted women full suffrage rights, and now Illinois was creeping in that direction by allowing them limited voting privileges. For weeks on end, the newspaper fired its editorial guns at this disturbing trend.

Women’s suffrage in the West, the paper said, had been exposed as “evil…a horrible travesty…a foolish and regrettable experiment…The semi-drunken harlot votes beside the mother and sister.” Allowing women to vote is “ruinous to all that is becoming and admirable” in them.

Editorials were gleeful when Rockford women seemed unenthused by only limited voting rights.

“Interest in women’s suffrage has completely died out,” the paper crowed. “In Illinois, women are privileged to vote for university trustees. Few, however, have even taken the trouble to register. In this city, always a women’s rights hotbed, the women have resolutely refused to register. By this token, they do not want the ballot. The home-loving woman will not vote. She looks upon the ballot as something beyond her ken to know.”

After the election, the paper gloated: “Women do not want the ballot…In this city, the seat of the women’s suffrage movement, only 68 voted.”

That was in 1900. Thirteen years later, Illinois granted women broader, but still not full, voting rights. It was enough, however, to significantly impact Rockford politics, especially with respect to the long-term controversy over the sale of liquor.

Women always were the moving force in the local temperance movement, but because they were barred from voting, the cause was often frustrated. In 1881, Rockford women were permitted to cast ballots in an advisory referendum on alcohol prohibition, but the one-sided tally of votes was ignored by a Rockford City Council elected only by men.

Three decades later, in a series of binding referendums, with only men allowed to participate, prohibition was voted in and out and in again, each time by a narrow margin. Then, in 1914, a fourth such referendum was held, this time with women voting under the state’s new newly expanded suffrage statute: Prohibition prevailed by more than 4,000 votes.

The Morning Star had been wrong. Women, indeed, wanted voting rights, if they were more than just token. Also wrong was the concern among some men that women might radicalize the electoral process with feminist and Socialist ideologies. In the Rockford mayoral election of 1915, it was men who more heavily voted for Socialist Party candidate Oscar Ogren. Three-fourths of the nearly 5,000 women voters went for prohibitionist William Bennett, who won in a landslide.


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