Burnham MGP

Julia Burnham, for whom Champaign’s first hospital and library were named, was an ardent supporter of women's suffrage.

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Ever wondered why March is Women’s History Month? We at the Museum of the Grand Prairie have. Especially as we’re ready to open, on March 7, our latest exhibit which celebrates the centennial of women’s voting rights, “How Long Must Women Wait? Woman Suffrage and Women’s Rights in Champaign County.”

You can blame Women’s History Month on the suffragists. Concurrent with their struggle for the vote, the first Women’s History Day happened in March 1909. Presidential proclamations stretched that into a week in the 1970s and a month in the 1990s, but the question remains, why March?

It is possible that March is the month for marching. The first ever march on Washington, D.C., occurred on March 3, 1913, and was spearheaded by Alice Paul and the National American Woman Suffrage Association. Paul thought that the suffrage issue had to be made nationally visible. That very visible march happened the day before the inauguration of Woodrow Wilson and disrupted the attendant presidential festivities. Suffragists — 8,000 in number — from across the country and the world paraded up Pennsylvania Avenue, with floats, bands and mounted brigades.

Among them were three women from Champaign County: Lillie Belle Sale, Eliza Vincent and Edith Dobbins. Sale was the mother of Chick and Virginia Sale, renowned vaudevillians. Vincent was a schoolteacher from Rantoul, and Dobbins, the wife of a prominent Champaign lawyer, who would later be mayor of the city. When they returned, they reported on their experiences to the local Twin City Equal Suffrage League, which would eventually morph into the League of Women Voters. Every national story has a local component.

Let’s also blame the protest march on the suffragists. All sorts of people have been marching on Washington and in the streets elsewhere ever since. Local women marched in Champaign-Urbana, in Chicago and in Washington in the 1980s to promote passage of the ERA, a moment we’ll also cover in the new exhibit.

We’ve planned an entire year of women’s history activities as well. At the opening, 1:30-4 p.m. March 7, we’ll be featuring the Eastern Illinois students doing first-person interpretations of three strong women: Angelina Grimke, Jeannette Rankin and Grace O’Malley. Museum director Barb Oehlschlaeger-Garvey will be giving a History on Tap talk titled “Women, Alcohol, and The Vote,” at 7 p.m. April 29 at 25 O’clock Brewery.

At the museum throughout the summer we’ll have:

— Jeanne Schultz-Angel will give a talk, “Casting A Historic Vote: Suffrage in Illinois,” at 2 p.m. May 30.

— Noted suffragist Elizabeth Cady Stanton will be brought to life by first-person interpreter Laura Keyes at 7 p.m. June 7.

— July 19 brings singer Kristin Lems for a special program, “Songs and Stories from the Women’s Movement in Champaign-Urbana, 1973-1983,” at 2 p.m.

— On Aug. 16, we’ll commemorate the historic ratification of the amendment with an “Afternoon with Suffragists,” a presentation by the Champaign-Urbana Alliance Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution.

All events are free.

Barb Oehlschlaeger-Garvey is the director of the museum and education department of the Champaign County Forest Preserve District.

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