First woman to vote in Illinois honored by new suffrage exhibit by Lombard Historical Society

ByZach Ben-Amots via WLS logo
Saturday, March 7, 2020
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The first woman to ever vote in an Illinois municipal election found a loophole in the laws of west suburban Lombard decades before the passage of the 19th Amendment.

LOMBARD (WLS) -- A new exhibit about women's suffrage from the Lombard Historical Society is honoring the first woman to ever vote in an Illinois municipal election, an attorney named Ellen Martin who cast a ballot decades before the passage of the 19th Amendment.

"On April 6, 1891, Ellen Annette Martin walked into her local polling place in Lombard, Illinois, and demanded her right to vote," said Sarah Richardt, executive director of the Lombard Historical Society.

The town charter of Lombard was written with gender-neutral language that stated:

"All citizens of said state of Illinois, above the age of twenty-one years, who shall have been actual residents of said town of Lombard ninety days next preceding any election held under the provisions of this act, shall be entitled to vote at any such election."

That charter was written by General Benjamin Sweet who, according to Richardt, had strong relationships with his two daughters and intentionally omitted male-specific language.

As a female attorney in the 1800s, Martin spent her life as a women's rights advocate working to promote the advancement of women in democracy and the workplace.

Martin used the language of her town charter to write a massive legal brief over the course of several years, outlining women's legal right to vote in Lombard.

During the local 1891 election, Martin arrived at her polling place with her legal brief in-hand.

Richardt recounted the story of that day and the rumored reaction of the three poll workers.

"It's said that one man had a spasm, one man fell into a vat of flour, and one just stood there with his gaping mouth open," Richardt said. "They just couldn't even imagine that women would even fathom (voting)."

After a prolonged argument, Richardt said that Martin presented the poll workers with an ultimatum: either read her legal brief or let her vote.

"They said, 'I'd rather let you vote than read your legal brief,'" Richardt said.

Martin then left to meet 14 other prominent female friends in the community, and brought them all back to cast their own votes.

It wasn't until 1920 that women were granted the constitutional right to vote. And the 15 votes cast in 1891 by women in Lombard marked a historic moment in the state of Illinois and in the national fight for women's suffrage.

Once the 19th Amendment was passed, Illinois made history again as the first state to ratify.

The exhibit at the Lombard Historical Society's Victorian Cottage Museum looks at many of the artists and activists from the suffragist movement in Illinois. Ellen Martin is just one of several figures who played a vital role.

"We look back to that moment, and we see how strong and important (Martin) is. But it's also for all women in Lombard and all citizens in Lombard," Richardt said.