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McCormick unsung
heroine in U.S. politics


Kristie Miller. Ruth Hanna McCormick: A Life in Politics, 1880-1944. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1992. Pp. 339 with bibliography, notes and index. $24.95 (cloth).

When I was growing up, my grandmother told me stories about her life. One of my favorites described her experience of voting for the first time in 1920 when she was 35 years old. She recalled how she and a female neighbor were laughed at as they walked to the polls in Rochester, Illinois, and how determined as well as pleased they were to cast their ballots that day. When I heard this story as a girl, I didn't realize the persistent effort required of other women who had preceded my grandmother and who had helped to make her exercise of the franchise possible. Now I know that Ruth Hanna McCormick was one of those political pioneers.

Ruth Hanna McCormick
Courtesy of University of New Mexico Press
Ruth Hanna McCormick

Kristie Miller's biography of Ruth Hanna McCormick, her grandmother, opened my eyes to the fascinating story of one of the most unjustly ignored American political figures of the first half of this century. To Miller's credit, she describes the lows as well as the highs of McCormick's career. It would be difficult for me to write as objectively about my grandmother as Miller has done about hers. Miller's book is based not only on what her mother told her about McCormick, but also on her own independent research. In fact, Miller's mother insisted that Miller discover for herself the role McCormick had played in the history of the state and the nation.

The result makes compelling reading for students of contemporary political history, particularly those interested in women activists. Born in 1880, the daughter of U.S. Senator and Republican Party leader Mark Hanna, Ruth was reared in Ohio. In 1903 she married Medill McCormick of the Chicago Tribune family. She spent most of her adult life in Illinois, where her husband entered politics in 1912, eventually serving in the General Assembly, the U.S. House and the U.S. Senate.

Not to be outdone by her father or her husband, Ruth Hanna McCormick became the first woman to serve on the Executive Committee of the Republican National Committee and as manager of a presidential nomination campaign. In 1928 she earned the distinction of being the first woman to have her photograph on the cover of Time. Three decades would pass before another woman was so honored in 1959.

While her career in the U.S. House of Representatives and her candidacy as the first woman to run for the U.S. Senate from Illinois were probably McCormick's greatest achievements, her record is notable in other ways. She formed the Illinois Federation of Republican Women in 1925. Its clubs became her power base five years later when she ran for the Senate. She also espoused many causes of special concern to women, ranging from the abolition of child labor to the passage of women's suffrage. From its exciting accounts of Progressive and Republican national conventions in Chicago where McCormick played an influential role, to its vivid descriptions of dinners at Springfield's Leland Hotel where she lobbied for greater inclusion of women in the political process, Miller's biography brought American political history alive for me as a state senator.

McCormick followed a different career path from many of today's elected women officials because she was born into one prominent political family and she married into another. Because of her connections, she was able to forge close alliances with such important leaders as Jane Addams and Alice Roosevelt Longworth. Her position and power were not appreciated by everyone, however. For example, in 1929 Lottie O'Neill, a fellow Republican and the first woman elected to the Illinois legislature, urged the "rank and file of Republican women" in the state to rally against McCormick's "bossism" and resigned in protest as vice president of the Illinois Republican Women's Club. O'Neill felt that McCormick's family ties and personal ambitions denied other women leadership opportunities within the party.

In chronicling her grandmother's life, Miller reveals many past practices which limited women's participation as equals in the democratic process. In the 1920s, for instance, men's and women's votes were counted separately in Illinois elections. In this way as in others, we have made progress, and it is appropriate to acknowledge our debt of gratitude not only to Ruth Hanna McCormick for her inspiring example but also to Kristie Miller for her balanced biography.

Karen Hasara began her political career in 1975 as a member of the Sangamon County Board. After serving as Sangamon County Circuit Clerk from 1980 to 1985, she was elected to the Illinois House in 1986. She served there until 1992, when she was elected to the Illinois Senate from the 50th District.

28/July 1993/Illinois Issues

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