"Illinois Women in Public Life" encompasses women who earned the title "philanthropist", "benefactress", "social activist", and "politician". Also included are women in the public eye because of their husbands' business, social, or political position in Illinois society.
During Illinois' first century of statehood, the role of women in American society underwent dramatic change. In 1818, few women were activists or politicians. As the 19th century progressed, women became more autonomous. In 1918, women were actively campaigning in the suffrage movement to gain women's right to vote (the 19th Amendment was signed into law in 1920).
Women's influence in political and social reforms was felt in several arenas. Abolition of slavery was supported by many Illinois women. Social programs to aid immigrants and children were another. Harriet Vittum of the Northwestern University Settlement House, Jane Addams of Chicago's Hull House, and many others were instrumental in improving health care, child care, child labor, and education of Chicago's immigrant population. Many of these same women were strong supporters of the women's suffrage movement. Temperance and prohibition were other causes pursued by women.
Social and literary clubs became increasingly popular in the late 19th century. Topics were often of a literary or light social nature, but these women's clubs also focused on important social issues of the time. The Friends of Council of Quincy discussed philosophy and history, but meetings included more controversial topics. In 1869, club discussion included "Woman's Suffrage - Right and Policy". These clubs and the social reforms they brought were not always popular. For example, in the 1830s, distaste for women's involvement in public affairs resulted in gentlemen reading minutes for women during public meetings.
In addition to change effected by activism and physical effort, many Illinois women of means supported social change through gifts of land and property for public and private institutions. Many benefactresses were successful businesswomen in their own right and they conceived of and built Illinois schools, universities, libraries, orphanages, and hospitals. Georgina Trotter, Sarah Withers, and Sarah Raymond played significant roles in education and libraries in Bloomington. Lydia Moss Bradley's legacy to Peoria included Bradley Park, Peoria's Home for Aged Women and Bradley Polytechnic Institute (now Bradley University).
The effects of Illinois' First Ladies on Illinois society may be the most difficult to measure. At a national level, First Ladies often quietly contributed to decisions made by U.S. Presidents. The same most certainly must be true of Illinois' first ladies.
The influence of Illinois' women is intricately woven into the state's history and its future. One cannot imagine life in Illinois without the instituitons and reforms produced by dedicated, hard-working Illinois women.
Photograph of montage, courtesy of Quincy Public Library, Quincy, Illinois