The Suffrage Train

March 7, 2012

In 1911 women voted in some states--but not in Illinois. On this date 101 years ago, a group of female activists from Chicago chartered a train and traveled to Springfield to lobby for voting rights.

At 9 a.m. the special "Suffrage Train" pulled out of the Illinois Central 12th Street Station. On board were over 300 women. The main group was from the Chicago Political Equality League, headed by Grace Wilbur Trout.

Women had lobbyed the legislature before. This time the contingent included female students from the University of Chicago. "We're going to smile and look pleasant at them, and tell them how young they look," one 20-year-old said. "That's the only way to make a man do what you want him to, anyway."

The Suffrage Train chugged south, stopping at dozens of stations along the way. People had gathered at each stop. Trout spoke to them from the train's rear platform, while her associates moved through the crowd, passing out literature.

They reached Springfield at 5 p.m. Two hours later, the women made a grand entrance at the Capitol. They had changed into evening clothes.

The Illinois House of Representatives was meeting as a Committee of the Whole. Fifteen women spoke for three minutes each. Encouraged by the demonstrations of support that had greeted the Suffrage Train, they presented their case forcefully.

The speakers said that logic was on their side. There was no reason to deny women the vote, except outmoded custom. It was time the legislature move forward into the 20th Century. "We are dreadfully tired of the soft dwaddle of procrastination," Trout declared.

Margaret Dreier Robins was even more direct. Pounding the lectern for emphasis, she shouted: "We are not asking you for suffrage--we demand it!"

The legislators thanked the speakers for their insights, then adjourned. The day concluded with a reception at the Governor's Mansion. Most of the Chicago women remained in Springfield a few more days, to lobby on behalf of other issues.

The Illinois General Assembly failed to enact women's suffrage in 1911. The activists redoubled their efforts. They secured some voting rights in 1913. And in 1920, the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution finally settled the matter.