Mary Perkins has a special place in the history of Champaign County.
One hundred years ago next month, Perkins became the first woman in the county to cast a ballot. She voted shortly after the polls opened at 7 a.m. July 29, 1913, on a proposal to issue $17,000 in bonds for the purchase of Champaign's first motorized fire trucks. The bond issue passed, 514-471, with the votes of 120 women.
"No, I'm not going to tell you how I voted," the history-making woman told a nosey reporter for The Champaign Daily Gazette. But she gave a pretty good hint where she landed on the proposal.
"You ask, 'How do the women stand on the proposition?' Well, I hear some of them saying that they are going to vote against it. They think the city is bonded enough; it will never get out," said Perkins, who lived at 311 S. New St., C, and was employed in the curtain department at the W. Lewis & Co. department store, just down the street from the City Building, where the tax-increase vote was conducted. "It is getting so now that a poor man can't own a home. Didn't you know that?"
She added that she was skeptical about "how those fire trucks are going to get about on muddy streets in bad weather" while the horse-drawn fire equipment "can go anywhere."
Mrs. Perkins and the 119 other female voters in Champaign owed their vote that day to the suffragists who campaigned for voting equality, and to 83 Illinois House members who voted 100 years ago this week — on June 11, 1913 — to give women a limited right to vote.
According to the bill that passed, they could vote for presidential electors but not in preferential presidential primaries. They could vote for University of Illinois trustees, but not for a county superintendent of schools. They could vote for county surveyor and collector, but not county judge or sheriff. They could vote for mayor or alderman, but not for state senator, state representative or congressman.
The suffrage bill was signed by Gov. Edward Dunne at 9:54 a.m. June 26, amid much hoopla and celebration.
"Disregarding all political consequences, I do what I think is just and right," Dunne said as he signed the bill. A progressive Democrat, Dunne faced those consequences in 1916 when he was defeated for re-election by Republican Frank Lowden.
But June 26 was a day for festivities. The governor used four pens to sign the bill, handing them to the leaders of the suffragist movement. It took four minutes to sign the bill, the Chicago Daily News said, and it was recorded by photographers and a man "with a motion picture machine."
"Every move made as a part of the final act in the suffrage campaign was within range of the camera, and the scene will be transmitted to canvas in a thousand or more communities at a later date," said the Chicago Evening Post. "The suffragists received $5,000 for the (movie) concession, which will go toward paying the expenses of their campaign."
The downtown sections of Springfield and Chicago celebrated the occasion, according to the Chicago Tribune.
"At the moment the bill was signed, the secretary of state had run to the peak of the mast of the Capitol dome a new United States flag. It was the signal to the women of Springfield, and within 10 minutes, the residence district bristled out with red, white and blue," said the Tribune. "The downtown business district surrounding the old Statehouse caught the spirit, and the capital city properly celebrated what is classed by the women as the greatest day in the movement for equal suffrage."
In Chicago, flags were unfurled at the Fine Arts Building on Michigan Avenue, headquarters of the Illinois Equal Suffrage Association, and at school buildings.
And the women gave Dunne, his wife and Illinois House Speaker William McKinley bouquets of pink and white carnations.
"There were enough flowers for a June wedding or for a full-grown downstate high school commencement where all the graduating class are girls," reported the Tribune.
The Evening Post and the Tribune saluted Dunne for his political bravery.
"We congratulate him with all our heart," said the Evening Post. "He has justified the faith which 'forward looking' men and women of all parties have held in his intellectual morality."
Said the Tribune: "He could not veto it as an act contrary to public policy because he had announced that he regarded it as equitable and beneficial. That was the fortunate circumstance of the act."
It would be another seven years before women in Illinois had the full right to vote. Congress passed the 19th Amendment on June 4, 1919, and Illinois was among the first states to ratify it (six days later). The 19th Amendment took effect in August 1920.
Tom Kacich is a News-Gazette editor and columnist. His column appears on Wednesdays and Sundays. He can be reached 351-5221 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.