WOMEN’S HISTORY MONTH: THE PROGRESSIVE SPIRIT OF GERTRUDE BLACKWELDER
By Carol Flynn and Linda Lamberty
“When I entered the University, in January, 1869, such was my delight at the opportunity for higher education, then largely denied to girls, that no thought of our limitations disturbed the serenity of my youthful mind.”
These words were written by Gertrude Boughton Blackwelder in the 1908 Graduate Magazine of the University of Kansas, almost 40 years after she attended the college. Today, looking back at her many achievements, it’s obvious that “giving no thought to limitations” was a prevailing attitude throughout this remarkable woman’s life.
Five years later, Gertrude Blackwelder made history on Saturday, July 26, 1913, when she cast her ballot in Morgan Park’s special election on building a new high school.
A local paper, Town Talk, explained the significance of that vote: “As this was the first opportunity given women of Cook County by virtue of the recently enacted Women’s Suffrage law to vote upon questions other than candidates for school boards, nothing could have been more fitting than that Mrs. I. S. Blackwelder, former president of the Chicago Woman’s Club, and consistent worker for the betterment of women and children, as well as mankind as a whole, should cast the first woman’s vote in Morgan Park and Cook County.”
That 1913 Illinois law became a final push that led to the ratification of the U. S. Constitution’s Nineteenth Amendment in 1920, granting women the right to vote in all elections. Although this had taken another seven years, there was no turning back once women like Gertrude Blackwelder experienced the power of voting.
Gertrude lived during the Progressive Era, the period between 1890 and 1920 known for great reform and advancements, particularly in government and social areas. She embodied the spirit of the age, working for women’s suffrage, education opportunities for the disadvantaged, and many other causes. Her influence and accomplishments reached far beyond Morgan Park.
Alice Gertrude Boughton was born in 1853 in Sempronius, a small town in central New York. Her father was a Baptist minister who valued education and served as superintendent of schools in Cayuga County.
In 1869, Gertrude joined her sister in Lawrence, Kansas to attend the newly established university there. In later years, she wrote about her experiences, recounting her “pioneer days” when there were only mud paths at the school and remnants of the Civil War were all around the countryside. She studied subjects such as algebra, languages (German, French), music, and chemistry, but her professed favorite was natural history.
Following graduation from the University of Kansas in 1875, Gertrude was the first female graduate to be appointed to the faculty. In 1890, she became the first woman to give the alumni speech at commencement.
In 1877, Gertrude married I. S. (Isaac Simeon) Blackwelder. Born in Montgomery County in central Illinois, Blackwelder (1840-1926) had relocated to Chicago to become one of the original members of the board of adjusters settling losses from the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. He rose to top management in the insurance industry, retiring in 1908.
The Blackwelders settled in Morgan Park, where I. S. served as president of the Village Board. Sons Paul and Eliot were born. The family acquired the Ingersoll house at 10910 S. Prospect Ave., adding a Queen Anne-style front to the existing Italianate-style structure. The house still stands, one of the most recognized historic properties in the community.
At that time, the wives of wealthy men did not engage in paid employment outside the home. They applied their intelligence, education, skills and wealth to efforts through volunteer organizations. Denied membership in men’s groups, they formed their own clubs and became a mighty force for reform.
In Chicago, Gertrude became active in college and alumni organizations. She was President of the Chicago Association of Collegiate Alumnae for three years. She also served as president of the Kansas Society, the first woman to hold this position.
In 1892, Gertrude was elected to membership in the prestigious Chicago Woman’s Club (CWC).
Gertrude served on and chaired several CWC committees. Her major interests were education and public affairs. She was a strong advocate for vacation schools, summer programs offering nature, arts, music, domestic science classes and outdoor play activities for impoverished city children. In 1901-1902, she chaired the Vacation School Board, overseeing schools set up by the Chicago Permanent Vacation School and Playground Committee of Women’s Clubs. This coalition, with 212 delegates representing 50 clubs, worked closely with the Chicago Board of Education (CBOE), which incorporated vacation schools into its system in 1909.
Gertrude then chaired the Chicago Political Equality League for several years. Securing voting rights for women was a major priority for this CWC unit. Gertrude was a well-known and respected lobbyist who frequently visited lawmakers in Springfield.
Due to her leadership abilities, Gertrude was chosen for higher office in the CWC. She served as Second and then First Vice President, and as President from 1906 to 1908. During those years, issues CWC addressed included children’s healthcare and daycare, the juvenile court system, crimes against children, working rights and conditions for women and children, sanitation and disease prevention and treatment in Chicago neighborhoods, pure food laws, and programs for the blind. CWC worked for the successful passage of state legislation raising the age of consent from 14 to 16. Of course, art, literature, music and other cultural topics were also addressed by the CWC.
At the Republican National Convention in Chicago in June 1908, Gertrude joined Jane Addams and other “eminent women” to present a suffrage resolution. They were met with polite disinterest but at least the topic was on the agenda.
Even as an executive officer, Gertrude made time to chair the Story Telling Committee, organizing and conducting story hours at schools, libraries and recreation centers. Now that vacation schools were part of the CBOE, the clubwomen turned their attention to other school extension programs.
After the CWC presidency, Gertrude was involved with the Illinois Federation of Women’s Clubs, where she chaired the Education Department from 1909-1911.
I.S. Blackwelder was also involved in clubs. He was a long-time member of the Union League Club, and a Knight Templar of the Masons. His grandfather fought in the War for Independence, and I.S. was a member of the Sons of the American Revolution.
Blackwelder was mostly active in insurance organizations, and Gertrude gave a presentation to the Fire Underwriters Association of the Northwest in 1906. Speaking on “The Insurance Business from a Woman’s Point of View,” she was the first woman to address the conference, after speaking at their social banquets. Her speech cleverly got across her own agenda for social reform. Gertrude was a polished speaker and writer on vacation schools, education reform, suffrage, women’s clubs and other topics.
At home, the Blackwelders were involved in “all things Morgan Park.” At the request of local women, in 1889, Gertrude co-founded the Ladies’ Club of Morgan Park. Later renamed the Morgan Park Woman’s Club, this is the oldest such club still existing in Chicago.
The Blackwelders were involved in the Morgan Park Improvement Society (MPIS), which began in the 1890s. “Improvement societies” were popping up all over the country to hurry along municipal reform and to promote communities. According to the Chicago Tribune, the MPIS proposed in 1901 to make Morgan Park the “most beautiful suburb of Chicago” by planting gardens and having “committees” of children pick up trash from the walks and streets. During these years, Labor Day became “Morgan Park Day,” with parades in the morning, and picnics and public meetings in the afternoon. Thousands of people attended the events.
In 1901, Gertrude, representing the MPIS, gave a presentation at the Conference of the Improvement Societies of Cook County, held at the Art Institute of Chicago. Her topic was “Local Improvement Societies.” Other topics included settlements, housing, municipal art and charities. In reporting on the conference, the Chicago Tribune lauded “a new impulse for public improvement” through agencies “devoted to social progress.” Gertrude Blackwelder “described the effective and typical efforts of the Morgan Park Improvement Society, and other germane topics were introduced.”
The Blackwelders supported the annexation of Morgan Park to Chicago. This highly contentious issue took 20 years of debates and ballots before it was approved in 1914. Women voted in that final election and were largely in favor of annexation to improve fire, police, water and other services in the community. Some people credited the women’s votes for finally making annexation a reality.
Building a new high school was a critical factor in the annexation battle. The 1913 ballot on this issue was clouded by uncertainly over what would happen to the school if taken over by the CBOE. Gertrude contacted Ella Flagg Young, Superintendent of Chicago Schools, who promised in a letter printed in a local paper, the Post: “I do not see how your High School building can be interfered with by Annexation.” The school was approved, as was annexation the following year.
Both Blackwelders sat on local school boards, and Gertrude headed the Public School Art League which obtained artwork to decorate the new high school. A proposal in 1923 to rename Morgan Park High School for the Blackwelders resulted in naming the auditorium Blackwelder Hall.
In the 1920s, the Blackwelders moved to Palo Alto, California, where son Eliot was a geology professor at Stanford University. Gertrude died there in 1938.
A colleague once referred to Gertrude as “a power for higher life in Chicago.” Another said she had “a mind naturally alive to the foremost interests of the day.”
Linda Lamberty, RHS Historian, summed up Gertrude’s legacy in a presentation to the MPWC in 2007: Alice Gertrude Boughton Blackwelder stood at the fore in the Village of Morgan Park and in the then-separate City of Chicago as a leader in both civic and society affairs, and particularly in the local battle for woman’s suffrage. She set a standard through her integrity, accomplishments and grace that carries through to today.
RHS salutes Gertrude Blackwelder for Women’s History Month.
For more information contact RHS at 773-881-1675, email@example.com.
Ridge Historical Society
10621 S. Seeley Ave., Chicago