The right of women to vote became law largely because of the courage of such women as Ellen Martin of Lombard, Illinois.
In April of 1891, Martin marched into her local polling place and demanded that she be allowed to vote. Martin had a lot at stake; her job depended on it.
Born and raised in New York, she had graduated from the University of Michigan in 1875 and was admitted to the Illinois bar on January 7, 1876. She and Mary F. Perry had opened a law office on LaSalle Street in Chicago. They commuted there every day from Lombard.
Women lawyers were restricted to filing lawsuits or working in a law office at this time. They could not argue a case in court as they were not officially recognized as a “lawyer” because of their non-status as an “ELECTOR.” In other words, they could not vote.
When Martin arrived at the voting place in the local general store, backed up by 14 of the town's most prominent women, she demanded to be allowed to vote that day. She sported two sets of spectacles, carried a satchel and a giant book of law when she approached the three election judges, Mr. T.H. Vance, Mr. Ed Reber, and Mr. Fred Marquardt.
A lengthy argument ensued and 2 of the 3 judges, Vance and Reber, allowed the votes to stand. Marquardt called the County Judge George W. Brown from Wheaton and notice was given for a contest. One account had a judge so flabbergasted that he fell into a flour barrel.
The consensus was, as a result of this furor, that the women “still held the fort” and the other 14 women were allowed to vote after Martin.
The victory was short-lived in Lombard for soon after, the town council changed the charter to read, once again, that only men were allowed to vote. Ms. Martin’s actions must have stirred something in Illinois however because just three months later the state charter was altered to allow women to vote in local school elections beginning in July of 1891.
Miss Martin raised the point that the Special Charter of the Incorporated Town, did NOT include the word “male” but in Section 4, it's stated that “All citizens above the age of 21 years shall be entitled to vote at any corporation election.”
Ellen Martin was an advocate for women’s rights but for a personal reason as well. By not being a voter, Ms. Martin was prevented from the full practice of her legal profession. It is unknown whether or not her vote allowed her to advance in her own career.
The women of Illinois won limited voting rights on July 1, 1913, through the legendary work of Grace Wilbur Trout, Jane Addams, Frances Willard, and countless others. Women had the right to vote only for Presidential electors and most local offices, but not for Governor, State representatives, or Members of Congress.
In Chicago, icon Ida B. Wells-Barnett founded the Alpha Suffrage Club in 1913 to educate Negro women about the right to vote. Their power at the polls helped elect Chicago's first Negro alderman, Oscar DePriest, in 1914.
Ellen Martin returned to her native state of New York and died in 1916, just 4 years before the 19th Amendment to the US Constitution gave women the right to vote Nationally.
Compiled by Neil Gale, Ph.D.