Famed activists spoke in Bureau County towns back in the day
For Women’s History Month, here is a sampling of the causes and the women activists who fervently espoused them in our part of Illinois beginning in the mid-19th century.
Female antislavery societies took off in northern Illinois in the 1840s. The first was the Putnam County Female Antislavery Society, formed Jan. 30, 1843. It was soon followed by six others.
The women involved petitioned, wrote articles, held state conventions and worked in collaboration with the Illinois Antislavery Society and the antislavery Liberty Party. In 1844, Lydia Lewis, head of the Putnam County group, was elected president of the Illinois Female Antislavery Society.
Elizabeth (Betsy) Lovejoy, mother of Owen Lovejoy, was part of the Princeton Female Antislavery Society. An early supporter of the radical abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, she was known to shake her fist in agreement while reading Garrison’s newspaper, The Liberator.
When southern congressmen mocked Owen Lovejoy for using that gesture while giving fiery antislavery speeches on the House floor, he would say (proudly, we presume) that he had inherited it from his mother.
Women’s Suffrage Movement
Remarkably, in the 1870s, Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, famous national leaders of the women’s suffrage movement, both spoke in Bureau County.
In April 1871, Anthony gave a lecture at Princeton’s Patterson Hall (above the former Nelson’s Grocery/Classic Touch building). It drew a large audience and, “was listened to with marked attention and evident manifestation of approval” (BCR, April 13, 1871).
Connecting the cause of women’s rights with the Declaration of Independence and the 14th and 15th Amendments, she forcibly argued for women’s right to vote.
Cady Stanton gave a talk in LaMoille in February 1878. Anthony returned to the area to speak at the Unitarian Church in Sheffield two months later. By 1913, Illinois suffrage activists had prevailed in getting state legislation passed securing women’s right to vote in presidential elections.
In 1919, Illinois became the first state to ratify the 19th Amendment guaranteeing that the right to vote “shall not be abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex.” In 1920, it became the law of the land.
The heyday of coal mining in the Illinois Valley (1880-1920) was also the heyday of labor strife, including lockouts and strikes, as mineworkers struggled to make a decent wage and support their families.
Occasionally, famous women in the labor movement of that era made their way to Spring Valley to lend support.
On Labor Day, 1893, anarchist activist Lucy Parsons, widow of the Chicago Haymarket martyr Alfred Parsons, delivered an impassioned address against the “terrible arraignment of the robber classes” to hundreds of miners and their families. After her two-hour speech, a motion for a vote of thanks for her was carried “by a thunderous aye from the entire audience” (UMWA Journal, Sept. 14, 1893).
Mother Jones, the flamboyant and outspoken union organizer, was often on the front lines during labor conflicts. Though she became a thorn in the side of Spring Valley’s John Mitchell, the first president of the United Mine Workers, she spoke at the town’s John Mitchell Day, Dec. 15, 1902. A few months earlier, working in concert with President Theodore Roosevelt, Mitchell had secured a settlement of the national coal strike.
Ever the champion of the working class, Mother Jones privately beseeched Mitchell not to let his fame get to his head and forget the interests of the rank-and-file mineworkers.
Across different eras and different movements, women activists have made their mark on American history, including in the small towns of Bureau County.