Bruce D. Janu and Wendy Hamand Venet
At 10:30 a.m. on February 11, 1869, Mary Livermore called to order the first women's suffrage convention ever held in Chicago. Delegates packed Library Hall for two days of sessions. Livermore had spent months carefully planning this gathering, inviting some of the most prominent women and men in the state. Myra Bradwell was one of them. Bradwell, author and publisher of the Chicago Legal News—considered to be the most important legal journal in the region—had won acclaim and achieved financial success in a profession dominated by men. Her husband, a leading attorney who had become a county judge, also attended. Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, two of the best-known advocates of women's enfranchisement in the East, travelled by train from New York to Chicago in order to show their support for suffrage efforts in "the West." Although most of the delegates were white and probably middle class, a few were African-Americans.
Livermore was a little tentative at first in her role as chairwoman, having never presided at a convention before and with limited experience as a public speaker. She was, in her own words reported by the Chicago Tribune, "not very good at talking, but was pretty good at working." She was unequivocal, however, in her commitment to women's suffrage. In her opening remarks to the convention, she presented an overview of suffrage efforts in different regions of the country, then called for the creation of a strategy through which to approach the Illinois Constitutional Convention with the demand for women's enfranchisement. She urged all in attendance to participate in the discussions, including those who might wish to express antisuffrage views.
The morning, afternoon, and evening sessions were lively and occasionally acrimonious, especially when Anna Dickinson, a young woman who had risen to prominence during the Civil War as an antislavery and women's rights orator, engaged in a spirited debate with the Reverend Robert L. Collier. Dickinson argued that women must be included in the political process in order
to promote passage of laws to protect them against abusive, alcohol-dependent husbands. Collier, whose beliefs probably mirrored those of a majority of Americans in 1869, contended that women's considerable influence must remain in the home and behind the scenes, not the political arena. Livermore had to restore order on several occasions after audience response to the two speakers became loud and disruptive.
Delegates passed a series of resolutions stating that women's suffrage was the key to female independence and the betterment of society. All adults—male and female, white and African-American—must be included in Illinois' new constitution, declared the convention. Before the convention ended, delegates organized the Illinois Woman Suffrage Association, whose purposes would be to "remove all legal barriers" that prevented Illinois women from voting, to change Illinois laws that encouraged the courts to favor fathers in divorce/child custody cases, and to grant married women equal educational opportunities and the right to own property and sign contracts without their husbands' consent.
Mary Livermore was elected president of the Illinois Woman Suffrage Association in recognition of her efforts in organizing the convention, her proven abilities as an administrator, and her reputation in Chicago as an intelligent, hard-working, and dedicated reformer. She promised to begin a women's suffrage newspaper in Illinois, a much-needed counterpoint to the city's daily papers, which had covered the proceedings in detail but without sympathy. While conceding that the convention had attracted a respectable audience, the Tribune told readers to show suffragists the error of their ways. The Evening Journal contended that "the 'cause' is evidently on the John Brown trail," a reference to the fiery pre-Civil War abolitionist whose uncompromising fanaticism led him to plan an armed insurrection of slaves in Virginia.
Mary Livermore later wrote that "the fire which had been smoldering for years burst suddenly into a flame, and soon spread to other cities and towns." Women's suffrage conventions met in St. Louis and Springfield. Although the Illinois Constitutional Convention ultimately rejected women's suffrage, the legislature did enact married women's property legislation in 1869. For the first time, married women could control their own wages and hold title to real estate in their own names. In discussing the "fire" that had been "smoldering for years," Livermore was also referring to her own evolution as a reformer and feminist. Active in reform causes for twenty years, she had only recently embraced suffrage for women.
Mary Ashton Rice Livermore was born in Boston in 1820, a time of rapid change in America. Like many others, her family experienced economic ups and downs. When her father caught "western fever," the family moved to western New York, since her mother refused to move as far away as Michigan or Illinois. They traveled by stage coach and canal boat along New York's famed Erie Canal. After two years of struggling unsuccessfully to make their farm profitable, the family returned to Boston.
Mary was intelligent, energetic, and serious. Bored with public school, she transferred to a private girls' academy, where she graduated with top grades and became a teacher herself at the age of sixteen. When her younger sister died after a long illness, she experienced a religious crisis. Her parents were devout Baptists and adhered to the old Puritan idea of "election," the notion that God decides whether you are destined for heaven or hell before birth. Tormented by concern for her sister's salvation and unable to come to terms with her parents' religious views, Mary left home at eighteen.
Since teaching was one of the few job opportunities available to educated women before the Civil War, Mary accepted an offer to become the instructor for six children of a wealthy slave-owning family in southern Virginia. The three years she spent there would dramatically alter her life. As a northerner, she had virtually no previous exposure to slavery. Although she admired the intelligence and gentility of
her employers and acknowledged that they treated their servants less cruelly than some masters, she was appalled by the oppression inherent in the institution of slavery. She returned to the North at the end of her service "a pronounced abolitionist, accepting from no one any apology for slavery."
While teaching school in Duxbury, Massachusetts, she met Daniel Livermore, a Universalist minister whose religious outlook emphasized the possibility of salvation for all people. It was a philosophy that appealed to her personally and was far more receptive to her social activism than her parents' Calvinism had been. Daniel Livermore had won her mind, and eventually he won her heart. They were married in 1845. For several years, Mary devoted her time to caring for the couple's three children, writing short stories, and playing a traditional role as a New England minister's wife. In 1857 the couple moved to Chicago, where Daniel Livermore accepted a pastorate. Together they edited a reform newspaper called the New Covenant. In addition to espousing their Universalist beliefs, the couple promoted a variety of reform causes including antislavery and temperance, the nineteenth-century movement that favored abstinence from alcohol. Mary found that living in Chicago was a challenge in the 1850s. She would later recall that Michigan Avenue had the only decent pavement and sidewalks in the city, and open sewers left foul odors. Dust and mud were everywhere.
When the Civil War began in 1861, Mary Livermore was forty years old. On a trip to visit her family in Boston, she witnessed at every railway stop scenes of chaos prompted by the North's mobilization for the war. Soldiers appeared to be inadequately clothed; food was sometimes scarce. Later that year, the government gave its blessing to a privately organized agency called the U.S. Sanitary Commission, designed to coordinate relief efforts. Mary accepted a position in the Chicago office, eventually becoming codirector. With her husband's support and encouragement, she hired a housekeeper to care for the family and devoted most of her energies for the next four years to the Chicago branch office, nursing the wounded, traveling widely, and giving her first public speeches.
In every American war, women had acted as nurses, prepared food, knitted socks, and stitched clothing for soldiers. What was notable about Mary Livermore's contribution—and that of several others in this war—was that she was involved in a massive relief effort involving a level of administrative skill, organizational achievement, and assertiveness never before exhibited by American women. Along with her colleague Jane Hoge, Livermore went on a hospital inspection tour that took her to southern Illinois, Kentucky, and Missouri. The scenes of battle wounds, camp illness, and food shortages both sickened and inspired the women. Returning home, they began a relief effort that would eventually lead to the shipment of nearly eighty thousand packages to hospitals and battlefronts containing food and medical supplies worth $1 million.
Mary and Jane received national recognition for their efforts on behalf of Union soldiers, when, in 1863, they organized the Great Northwestern Sanitary Commission Fair. Receiving little encouragement from either the city fathers of Chicago or the Sanitary Commission's national office, they began an impressive campaign to solicit donations of food, farm equipment, needlework, china, crystal, and silver. For two weeks in late October and early November, hundreds of people took trains to Chicago to purchase these goods at the fair, attend evening entertainments, and show their support for the Union cause. President Lincoln donated his own copy of the Emancipation Proclamation, which brought $10,000 at auction. The Fair raised close to $100,000, an enormous sum for that time. It was the most successful such undertaking of the war and inspired women in other cities to organize similar fairs.
By the time the war ended in 1865, Mary Livermore had decided that it was time for a reform movement to help women. In her memoirs, published in the 1890s, she recalled: "[D]uring the war, and as the result of my own observations, I became aware that a large portion of the nation's work was badly done, or not done at all, because woman was not recognized as a factor in the political world." Aware that she and other women had been a "factor" in Union victory, she believed that women's talents should now be used as members of the electorate. Clearly her wartime experiences had given her new self-confidence and determination. Through the pages of the New Covenant, she began to espouse women's suffrage, and in 1869 she organized the Chicago suffrage convention.
Later that year she began the Agitator,
a newspaper devoted to women's suffrage. In its inaugural issue, March 13, 1869, she wrote about her "large experience of life, and thirteen years experience in editorial work" and demanded women's "admission with man to political partnership in the government." Each issue contained a variety of articles written by Livermore and others promoting suffrage as both a "natural right" that society owed to women and a way to allow an underutilized group to contribute its considerable skills toward the creation of a better nation. Other articles that underscored the achievements women were making in admission to colleges and the professions warned them against such pitfalls as an obsession with fancy clothing and the dangers of getting married too young. Although circulation totals for the newspaper are not known, advertisers bought space selling everything from books to pianos, hair tonics, corsets, furniture, sewing machines, and opera tickets. These ads would seem to imply that business people understood the newspaper's appeal to middle- and upper-class women.
In 1870, Mary Livermore and her family moved to Boston so that she could edit the nationally circulated newspaper Woman's Journal. She merged the Agitator with this paper, serving as editor for two years. The American Woman Suffrage Association, which sponsored the Woman's Journal, was the more moderate of two competing suffrage organizations based in the East. For the last thirty-five years of her life, Livermore lived in Boston, writing articles, lecturing widely, and earning a reputation as a stalwart in the women's rights movement. The work of the Illinois Woman Suffrage Association was carried on by others including Myra Bradwell, who served on its executive committee for many years. Sadly, Mary Livermore did not live long enough to see women enfranchised. The Nineteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was not ratified until 1920, fifteen years after her death at age eighty-four. In 1913, the Illinois state legislature granted women the right to vote in presidential elections. All women in Illinois owe a debt of gratitude to Mary Livermore, one of our earliest and most persuasive political advocates.
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