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Florence Fifer Bohrer with mother and daughter
Florence Fifer Bohrer (right) is congratulated for her election to the Illinois Senate by her mother-in-law (left) and her daughter (center).

Florence Fifer Bohrer
A Woman Before Her Time

Whitney Freund Thomas
Horatio G. Bent Elementary, Bloomington

Florence Fifer Bohrer was born in 1877. She lived at 909 N. McLean Street in Bloomington, Illinois. Most of her life she was an active member of the Unitarian Church. Her father was Governor Joseph W. Fifer and her mother was Gertrude Lewis Fifer. She had one brother, Herman Fifer. When Florence was a young girl, she got along most of the time with her brother. Typical children, they often played pranks on each other and their friends. Florence went to the progessive Unitarian Hillside Home School, an institution in Spring Green, Wisconsin, devoted to the individualized education of a child.

At home, Bohrer had a pony that she rode around town. She once taught her pony to march up and down the steps and into the governor's mansion. People in town thought it was wrong for a girl to have so much free time that she could go around town without adult supervision. Bohrer's parents were thought to be too lenient with their children. They did not believe in hitting their kids, and they encouraged them to think for themselves.

Bohrer's father was an important politician during the 1800s. He had known Abraham Lincoln before Florence was born. When she was a little girl, Florence listened to her father talk to other important people like David Davis, Jesse Fell, Carl Sandburg, and Theodore Roosevelt. She also lived next door to the Adlai Stevenson family. Her father was the Governor of Illinois from 1888 to 1892. This might have helped inspire her to become an Illinois senator later in life.

ILLINOIS HISTORY / APRIL 1998 59


During her school days, Florence and her friend Charlotte Capen took a street car to school. Street cars were pulled by mules. Once in a while the two girls would sit facing each other in the car and jump up and down on the back platform. This would cause the mules' hind feet to lift off the ground. The conductor of the car would then bring the girls up to the front of the car to watch them more closely. In 1898, when Florence was twenty-one years old, she married Jacob Bohrer. Florence and Jacob had two children, a girl named Gertrude and a boy named Joseph. Both children were named after her parents.

In the early 1900s Florence became very active in civic causes. In 1910 Florence formed the McLean County Tuberculosis Association. Florence was a women's rights activist too. During World War I, she helped with the civilian relief work and served as the local director of the American Red Cross.

As her own children grew, Florence became interested in the relationship between school age-children and the home. It was through her intense interest in this subject that the first Mothers Club was formed in the city of Bloomington. Later this club merged with the National Parent-Teacher Association.

In 1924, four years after women won the right to vote, Florence ran for state senator and won without assistance from her Republican party. Bohrer's friends made a club in her name and helped get her elected. She fought for the rights of women, children, prisoners, the sick, and the poor. She wrote a law that gave women the right to serve on juries. She sponsored twenty child welfare bills; half became laws. She was the first woman state senator in Illinois. She ran for a second term in 1928 and again she won. During this time she sponsored many laws and acts in the Senate. One was to make Illinois the official state song. She also helped create changes for care of dependent, delinquent, and handicapped children. In 1932 Bohrer ran for a third term of office and lost because of the Democratic landslide in that year.

Once when Bohrer was visiting a mental hospital, she was locked up because her visit was unannounced. She said she was a senator and in those days women were not senators.

Florence was interested in many causes. She helped raise money to build the Girls' Industrial Home. She formed the McLean County League of Women Voters in November 1933. From 1933 to 1934, she was chairman of the McLean County Emergency Relief Commission. Florence was elected president of the McLean County League of Women Voters. She later served on the National Board of the League of Women Voters. In 1941 she became president of the Illinois branch of the league.

Bohrer also worked very hard for children, the poor, and women of Illinois. She was recognized by several organizations for her hard work. In 1934 Bohrer received the Bloomington Community Service Award, and in 1945 she won a citation from the Illinois Welfare Association.

Florence Fifer Bohrer died at the age of eighty-three in July 1960. She had contributed much to Illinois as the state's first woman senator. She was a humanitarian, someone who was concerned with the welfare of those who are underprivileged in society. Bohrer lived by a strong motto, "I saw a thing to do and I did it."[From Florence Fifer Bohrer, 'The Unitarian Hillside Home School," Wisconsin Magazine of History (Spring 1955); Florence Fifer Bohrer, "Memoirs: Chapter VI Governor Oglesby and Milton Hay," Illinois State Register, June 18, 1956; "Famous Bloomington Women: Illinois' Only Woman Senator," Pantograph Feb. 27, 1949; "Mrs. Bohrer, State's First Woman Senator Dies at 83," Pantograph, July 20, 1960; "No Special Praise for the Lady, Please," Pantograph, July 4, 1976; Beth Thomas, "Florence Fifer Bohrer, First Woman State Senator," Illinois History (March 1992); Unitarian Church of Bloomington, One Hundred Fifteen Years of Chwchmanship.]

60 ILLINOIS HISTORY / APRIL 1998


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