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Women's Vote for the Forest Preserves

 
© Special Collections Department, Richard J. Daley Library, University of Illinois at Chicago.

by Chris Gingrich,
Community Services and Education 

The Forest Preserve District of DuPage County marked its 100th anniversary in 2015. Our agency’s origins are rooted in the conservation movement that established local, state and national forests and parks throughout late 19th century. Although legislation was passed to create the DuPage agency in June 1915, the preliminary step occurred in January of that year.

On the local level, efforts were underway to establish more public park space in Chicago as nature lovers pushed for conservation initiatives. Efforts to establish forest preserves in Illinois first began when Cook County voters approved a park system in 1905. The effort, however, ultimately fell to legal challenges. Cook County voters passed another referendum in 1910 but it too was struck down.1

In 1913 the state passed the current Forest Preserve Act, and in 1914 Cook County citizens voted to establish the first forest preserve district in the state. Conservation-minded citizens in DuPage County were determined to follow Cook County’s lead and filed an 800-signature petition on January 11, 1915 for that same purpose. This petition asked, “… the question to be submitted to the legal voters within the limits of the proposed Forest Preserve District hereinafter described, whether or not a Forest Preserve District shall be organized, the limits and boundaries of which shall coincide with and comprise the whole of the territory of DuPage County in the State of Illinois, and to be known as the Forest Preserve District of DuPage County.”2 The referendum was set for June 7, 1915, and campaigning for and against the measure began shortly after.

Women in Illinois enjoyed limited voting privileges for certain elections since 1891. But as election day neared, women ramped up efforts to support the establishment of a DuPage forest preserve district. Several women signed the petition, and even more campaigned before and during election day.

Local newspapers published occasional accounts on this issue. The Wheaton Illinoisan, for example, ran frequent editorials in favor of establishing the DuPage forest preserve district claiming that preserves would not only protect natural areas from encroachment but also prove to be economically valuable to the development of the county. Three days prior to the vote the paper urged, “No issue of more vital importance has ever been put before the voters of DuPage County.”3

The Naperville Clarion also published columns favoring passage. “While every lover of nature is deploring the ruthless deforestation of the country and the wasting and destruction of natural resources, let DuPage County take advantage of this opportunity to enhance her own wealth as well as her attractiveness.” The paper also noted, “Women can vote on this question and they have an oportunity [sic] to show their interest in the public welfare, their good taste and forward-looking spirit by voting ‘yes’… .”4

Other news stories noted that area women’s clubs were active in supporting the referendum, with the Downers Grove Club even publishing a pro-preserve pamphlet. Opposition to the forest preserve district was strongest in rural county precincts. Farmers worried about increased taxes for parks they felt would primarily serve town dwellers and impact the availability of farmland. In spite of rural opposition the Illinois Extension Service’s farm advisor for DuPage County, E.B. Heaton, campaigned in favor of the measure.

Various business groups also took a stand; the Downers Grove Business Men’s Association took out a large ad in the Downers Grove Reporter extolling the benefits the preserves would create, including increased property values, tourism, shelter for birds that would benefit farmers, and educational opportunities for children.

But, as Heaton himself later wrote, “The greatest amount of credit goes to the women of the county.” The election results bear out his assertion. Because suffrage was limited, women voted on separate ballots, listing only those offices and issues for which they were permitted to vote. Thus, we can see how each gender voted as a group.5

Had men been the only citizens permitted to vote on the referendum, DuPage County would have rejected the forest preserve district by a vote of 1,096 against to 1,057 in favor. So, it seems men in the county were closely divided on the value of creating forest preserves. Women, on the other hand, were overwhelmingly supportive of forest preserves, with 593 ballots cast in favor and only 79 against.6

As the Wheaton Illinoian printed on June 25, 1915, “Who says that the women of DuPage County are not alive to their opportunities and neglect their duties at the polls?”7 

Take a look through the petition to note the signatures of early DuPage County residents and their support for the preserves.

  1. University of Illinois Chicago Library. Special Collections Department. To Protect and Preserve: An Early History of the Forest Preserve District of Cook County, Illinois. http://www.uic.edu/depts/lib/specialcoll/exhibits/fpdcc/ (accessed December 30, 2014). 
  2. Circuit Court of DuPage County. Petition: “In the Matter Of 500 Or More Legal Voters for the Creation of a Forest Preserve District. January 11, 1915. Case File 7129.
  3. “To Settle Forest Preserve Monday.” Wheaton Illinoian, June 4, 1915 p. 1. 
  4. “County As Forest Preserve District.” The Naperville Clarion. May 19, 1915 p.1. 
  5. Heaton, E.B. Addendum to Manuscript “Short History of the DuPage County Forest Preserve District Established June 7, 1915.” Collections of the DuPage County Historical Museum, Wheaton, Illinois.
  6. Circuit Court of DuPage County. Election Returns “Upon the Question of a Forest Preserve District. Case File 7129.
  7. “Women’s Vote Deciding Factor in Recent Elections.” Wheaton Illinoian. June 25, 1915 p.1.
Women join a group hike through a natural area in Cook County. In the early 1900s, women and men alike gathered in large groups for a Saturday Afternoon Walking Club to support natural areas in an ever-growing county. © Special Collections Department, Richard J. Daley Library, University of Illinois at Chicago. FPDCC_00_01_0002_030
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