The association lobbied for woman suffrage through appeals to the state and federal legislature, publicized election candidates’ positions on suffrage, and organized lectures and lecture tours to raise funds and awareness for the suffrage cause.
Two sources have attributed the organization of IWSA to Mary Livermore and associates, including Frances Willard. IWSA’s first annual convention was in Springfield, Illinois, to coincide with the Illinois Constitutional Convention in 1870. Livermore lobbied for the inclusion in the Illinois Constitution of an amendment guaranteeing universal suffrage–a proposal that was defeated by the Illinois legislature. After this defeat, Livermore returned to Massachusetts and Frances Willard turned her attention to the temperance movement. Enter Elizabeth Boynton Harbert, who moved to Illinois from Iowa in 1875. Harbert was involved in the “Pro and Con Club” referenced by Frances Willard in “A Classic Town,” which discussed issues relating to women’s suffrage. Harbert was president of IWSA/IESA for twelve years. In 1878 she addressed the Judicial Committee of the United States Senate proposing a bill guaranteeing universal suffrage. In 1884 she was involved in the meeting of the American Woman Suffrage Association in Chicago. After she graduated from law school in 1886, Catherine Waugh McCulloch joined the IESA. In 1890, as legislative superintendent of IESA, she wrote a bill providing for woman suffrage in presidential elections and in local elections not constitutionally limited to male voters. In 1893, McCulloch’s bill was first introduced in the Illinois State legislature. McCulloch traveled regularly to Springfield to testify on its behalf for the next twenty years. She also worked for the National American Woman Suffrage Association and served as its vice president in 1910. In 1904 the Evanston Political Equality League was founded and it served as the local arm of IESA. In 1910, leaders of the equal suffrage movement toured Illinois. Speakers included Mrs. George Trout, president of the Chicago Political Equality League, Mrs. Ella Stewart, president of IESA, and Catherine Waugh McCulloch. The tour included a stop at the Evanston YMCA, then located on Orrington Ave.
IESA was an important part of the national suffrage movement. In the fifty-one years between the organization of IESA and the passage of the 19th amendment, members of IESA pressed on with lobbying, fundraising for, and publicizing suffrage issues, despite numerous defeats and hardships. It was Harbert who in 1878 presented to the United States Senate Judicial Committee the bill providing for universal suffrage. The language of this bill later became the language of 19th amendment. In the interim between 1878 and 1920, the first “generation” founders, notably Harbert, Myra Bradwell, and Frances Willard, passed the torch to a second generation of suffragists including Catherine Waugh McCulloch, who carried the first suffrage bill before many other states. In 1890, as legislative superintendent of IESA, McCulloch wrote the bill providing for woman suffrage in presidental elections and in local elections not constitutionally limited to male voters. Throughout the years, she lobbied in Springfield urging its passage, until success was achieved in 1913, making Illinois the first state east of the Mississippi to grant women the right to vote in presidental elections. In the interim, smaller victories were achieved, such as passage of the law permitting women to vote in school board elections in 1891. The work the EPEL did in raising funds for IESA, publicizing the need for universal suffrage and enrolling women in its organization, assisted in laying the foundation for both women’s suffrage and women’s participation in the political process once suffrage was achieved. Finally, in 1919, Illinois was the first state to ratify the 19th amendment. After the passage of the 19th amendment, the National American Women Suffrage Association held its “Victory Convention” in Chicago and formed the League of Women Voters. The League of Women Voters provided a means for women to fully exercise their newly won right to vote. Evanston formed its own chapter of the League of Women Voters in 1921, including on its enrollment Catherine McCulloch.