Illinois During the Gilded Age

Women’s Experience and Gender Roles in GIlded-Age Illinois

by Drew E. VandeCreek

In the antebellum period moral reformers and the workings of the marketplace had combined to lead many Americans to imagine separate spheres of activity for men and women. Increasingly men went away to work outside the home, while women maintained the household and raised children. The rise of an economy characterized by more wage-paying jobs, as opposed to subsistence farming, contributed to this development. But moralists like Catharine Beecher had also argued that women possessed unique moral capacities that suited them to child-rearing and made them especially sensitive to the jolts and pressures of a rough-and-tumble world.

In the Gilded Age many middle and upper class women seemed to revel in this status, and many working class women sought it. Publications like Godey's Lady's Book and Harper's Weekly idealized women's supposedly sensitive nature. While many women understood this ideology as a charge to stay home and raise children, others interpreted it as a call to political action.

The struggle for woman's suffrage had emerged in the national spotlight in a small convention held in a Seneca Falls, NY church in 1848. There the gathered delegates drafted a call featuring twelve goals for women, including gaining the franchise. But the movement often languished in the antebellum and Civil War years as the abolition of slavery moved to the forefront of reform efforts.

In the war's aftermath, many suffrage seekers were disappointed when the Fifteenth Amendment specifically granted the vote to black men, while ignoring all women. The Whig and Republican parties had provided women with limited political roles, usually as symbols of morality and civilization, while Democrats largely barred them from political life. But now the Republicans sidetracked suffragists' concerns in favor of African-Americans. The controversy essentially split the movement. Some women argued that the moment belonged to the African-Americans, and did not want to jeopardize the Amendment in Congress by tying it to controversial cause of woman suffrage. Others, including Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, rejected the bargain, and continued to push for woman suffrage.

In 1869 Illinois reformers founded the Illinois Woman Suffrage Association, but failed to add women's vote to the 1870 state constitution. As another constitutional convention could not be called for two decades, activists began a push for changes in individual laws, yielding impressive gains in specific woman's rights. Reformers including Alta Hulett, Myra Colby Bradwell, and her husband Judge James secured passage of laws between 1860 and 1890 that included women's right to control their own earnings, to equal guardianship of children after divorce, to control and maintain property, to share in a deceased husband's estate and to enter into any occupation or profession. In 1873 Judge Bradwell helped to pass a new law which allowed women who met the qualifications to be eligible for any school office in Illinois created outside the state constitution. Although they could not vote, ten women were elected as County Superintendents of Schools in 1874.

Frances E. WillardFrances Willard of Evanston (pictured at right) and the Woman's Christian Temperance Union brought the women's rights movement together with a powerful political ideology that asserted women's special role in politics. Many women believed that only their moral perspective could clean up the increasingly corrupt world of male politics. Many sought the vote as a means to this end.

The WCTU concentrated their political efforts upon the scourge of alcohol consumption, which, they argued, led so many men to mistreat their families. The temperance movement, long a staple of antebellum reform, emerged with new vigor among Midwestern women after the Panic of 1873, and the WCTU was formed in 1874. The organization framed its arguments in terms that used women's maternal role to mount a defense of the family, or what they called "Home Protection." WCTU women selected the white ribbon bow as a symbol of purity, and took up "Agitate - Educate - Legislate" as their call to action.

The WCTU argued that only women's votes could push temperance legislation into law. On March 6 1877, Frances Willard became the first woman ever to address an official session of the Illinois General Assembly. A WCTU delegation had delivered hundreds of Home Protection petitions calling for woman suffrage and temperance legislation, and Willard urged the legislators to heed her maternal advice and pass the measures. Although the men provided her with a largely polite reception, the bill never became law.

Nevertheless, the organization did not end its attack on strong drink. Willard urged WCTU members to "do everything" for social reform. In 1889 the Chicago chapter of the WCTU operated a low-cost restaurant, a lodging house for men, a free medical dispensary, a mission shelter housing four thousand homeless women per year, an industrial school, and two Sunday schools. But the WCTU's loose organization allowed local chapters to take up those issues they chose, while avoiding those without local support. Thus the organization grew without piling other offending doctrines atop its challenge to local tipplers.

The Woman's Christian Temperance Union claimed many small town and rural chapters. By the 1880s many Populist women drew upon the WCTU's techniques by organizing political groups separate from the party's men, and placing woman suffrage on the Populist agenda. But the WCTU leadership, starting with Willard, remained largely prosperous, well-educated, native-born and Protestant, and never established entirely comfortable ties with Populists, African-Americans and immigrants.

The WCTU’s emphasis on home protection influenced the Republican Party’s electoral appeals. Portraying the organization as the defender of American domesticity, Republicans argued that the high tariff produced larger wages for working men, protecting them and their families from the hazards of unfettered market competition and enabling wives to stay at home and concentrate their full attention on their families.

Immigrant women in Illinois and across the North struggled to find ways to stay at home with their families, in spite of the fact that many of these families struggled to make ends meet. Some immigrant women took in home work, such as pieces of clothing to be stitched or assembled for tailor shops or clothing manufacturers. Many took in boarders as a convenient way to earn extra income without leaving home. Boarders usually came from their hosts' ethnic group, and often took up residence immediately following their immigration. But this task brought women the additional work of shopping for and feeding additional mouths, and often resulted in crowded apartments.

The Knights of Labor provided women workers with a rare opportunity to join a labor organization, and their emphasis on cooperation and negotiation appealed to many. The Knights provided members with social activities as well as representation in the work place, organizing not only workers but also their families in social groups that hosted picnics, rallies and festivals.

The African-American woman Lucy Parsons (pictured below) became a major figure in Chicago's labor movement and radical politics in the Gilded Age. She married a white man named Albert Parsons, and together they became two of the city's most prominent radical social critics and organizers. Lucy Parsons was a renowned orator, and helped to organize the Chicago Working Women's Union. In 1891 she began publishing her own newspaper – "Freedom."

Lucy Parsons

Few women in Illinois cities went away to work early in the Gilded Age, but more found jobs later in the period. Usually these were young women who went to work, enjoying a period of autonomy before marrying. Some found jobs as clerks and stenographers, but all found little upward mobility. Rural women often continued to find lives of almost ceaseless toil on the farm, though many struggled to take on the roles and forms of domestic ideology. Granges provided women with membership equal to men, as well as social opportunities.

In the 1880s new women's clubs organized among the wives of the prosperous middle class. Many devoted themselves to the causes of social reform and charity. Many female reformers found that, while they could not vote, their status as wives and mothers provided them with political capital valuable in the fight to provide better conditions for women and children. In Illinois, the Chicago Woman's Club became a leader in this movement, devoting special attention to the cause of preventing youthful offenders from becoming lifetime criminals. Clubwomen began to demand, and receive, seats on the boards governing important state and private institutions for children and families. Many also turned to the task of converting immigrant families to Protestantism and middle-class American ideals of family life.

Not welcome in white clubs, African American women often founded their own organizations. Their clubs largely resembled white women's organizations in their devotion to education, suffrage, temperance, moral reform, and self-help. Ida B. Wells brought another perspective to Illinois. She came to Chicago from Memphis, Tennessee in 1893. Born a child of Mississippi slaves in 1862, Wells found education and began teaching school as a teenager. Working as an educator in Memphis, Wells challenged the southern practice of segregated facilities by suing a railroad, and became a journalist devoted to exposing blacks' unfair lot in society. In 1892 three of her friends were lynched by white mobs, and Wells wrote scathing exposes of the practice which received wide national attention. Facing intimidation and violence in Memphis, Wells became a traveling lecturer before marrying Ferdinand Barnett, a black lawyer and newspaper publisher.

Wells confronted the northern reform establishment as well as southern racism. In the 1890s she confronted Willard and the WCTU for their support of southern reformers who accepted the practice of lynching. In 1894 she published The Reason Why the Colored American Is Not in the World's Columbian Exposition, which detailed blacks' exclusion from the fair by white organizers. After 1895 Wells largely confined herself to local political causes and raising her family.1

Illinois women finally received limited franchise rights in 1891 when the state legislature passed a bill that allowed them to vote at any election held of school officials. Since these votes were often cast at the same time and place as those for other offices, election officials devised a complex system of separate ballots and separate ballot boxes for women. In 1894 Lucy Flower became the first woman elected by state voters when she became a Trustee of the University of Illinois.

While the Women's Christian Temperance Union and other middle-class women's movements for social reform often struggled to understand and reach immigrants and workers, others learned about their customs and assisted them in their new lives. In 1889 Jane Addams (pictured below, at left), the daughter of a wealthy banker from northern Illinois, founded Hull House on the city's west side. Established as a settlement house after the example of English reformers who took up residence in London's slums, the dilapidated mansion soon featured public baths, a kindergarten and nursury, a playground and gymnasium, an employment bureau, and educational programs for neighborhood residents.

Rather than openly attempt to change the lives and attitudes of poor immigrants, as so many devotees of social uplift had done, Addams proposed to provide them with an opportunity to organize and help themselves. In an eloquent argument for Hull House's relevance, Addams emphasized not only the settlement house's impact upon the poor, but upon its well-to-do organizers as well. Citing the "snare of preparation" that led so many women of America's middle and upper classes to forever prepare, and never actually do, anything, Addams urged women to become active in civic life.

Jane AddamsHull House's notable residents came to include, at different times and in addition to Addams, Florence Kelley, Sophonisba Breckinridge Dr. Alice Hamilton, Julia Lathrop, and Ellen Gates Starr. These women supported neighborhood residents in the formation of important reform societies, including the Immigrants' Protective League, the Juvenile Protective Association, and the nation's first juvenile court. Hull House also facilitated the State of Illinois' investigations of social ills, including truancy, infant mortality and sanitation. In a city and period often marked by bitter conflict among the classes, Hull House provided social reformers with reason for optimism.2

The Hull House reformers in many ways marked the emergence of what came to be known as the "new woman" in this era. College educated, often unmarried and self-supporting, these women first emerged from the period's new, eastern women's colleges. Such institutions provided women with a sound education, but they enjoyed few professional opportunities outside of teaching. College-educated women also faced another dilemma: how to reconcile family life with career. Overheated social critics further stirred the pot by arguing that career women simply did not want to be mothers, or even that too much education damaged the female reproductive system.

While many women worked to turn their supposedly domestic and maternal talents and natures to political ends, a few American men began to doubt the tenets of domestic civilization. Led by the New Yorker Theodore Roosevelt, authors began to complain that American men had become over-civilized and effete. Many feared that a lack of aggressiveness and other manly virtues left the United States open for social decline. Partially in response to this dialogue, many men began to take up what Roosevelt called "the strenuous life." College football and other forms of organized athletics became popular in the 1890s.

More significantly, the call for a return to what one author has called "the barbarian virtues" contributed to a more aggressive American foreign policy. While the United States' expanding continental heft and growing economy certainly led many Americans to search for new frontiers and new markets, many expansionists persistently framed their calls for empire in terms that reflected a concern for renewing American vigor. Thus debates about gender roles not only influenced domestic politics, they also came to influence international affairs.3


  • 1. Ida B. Wells-Barnett Crusade for Justice: The Autobiography of Ida B. Wells (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1972)
  • 2. Jane Addams Twenty Years at Hull-house (New York: Macmillan, 1910)
  • 3. Matthew Frye Jacobson Barbarian Virtues: The United States Encounters Foreign Peoples at Home and Abroad (New York: Hill and Wang, 2000)]