McHistory goes back in time to explore big moments and small stories from McLean County history. McHistory episodes can be heard periodically on WGLT's Sound Ideas.
Women political candidates are the norm today. But it hasn’t been so very long that a woman running for office was rare, or even unheard of. The first woman to serve in the Illinois Senate was Florence Fifer Bohrer of Bloomington in 1924. But leading the way for Bohrer some years before was Helen Clark McCurdy, the first woman to run for office in Bloomington, in 1915. She ran for one of the five citywide commissioners’ seats.
McCurdy was born in 1866 in Bloomington, just a year after the Civil War ended. Her father was a successful merchant, and she grew up a comfortably upper middle class child, though not without tragedy. McCurdy’s mother died of tuberculosis when Helen was 7 years old.
“Helen worked for the Wilcox brothers. That's a downtown Bloomington dressmaking shop and millenary where they make hats. This is a period right in the latter half of the 19th and end of the 20th century when hats really defined American fashion to a considerable degree, especially for women,” said Bill Kemp, archivist and librarian at the McLean County Museum of History.
Part of her job was traveling to New York City to pick up the latest styles and fabrics and take them back to Bloomington.
“She married Guy McCurdy in 1905. After marriage, a career such as the one she held was really no longer possible, sadly, given the kind of the patriarchal barriers women faced at the turn of the last century," said Kemp.
Denied a career, McCurdy refocused her energy as many women of the era did and became a leader in the Women's Club of Bloomington. She chaired the club’s civic department in 1912. It was an important nongovernmental organization in the city at the turn of the last century.
It was organized to make it “easier for the sentiments and the convictions of women to find expression in the city of Bloomington,” according to organizing documents in 1897. It also increased the political influence of women in the city.
“It was serious business. Women were trying to flex their muscle on the local stage, politically speaking, but she also did interesting and fun but important things. She had organized a children's cleanup day. This was a period when trash pick-up was irregular, unprofessional, and makeshift,” said Kemp.
Garbage was an issue in many cities in that era. Beautifying communities and garbage cleanup days were common.
To earn a Beautify Bloomington button, children had to pick up one bushel full of rubbish in order to “make Bloomington shine.”
By 1913, McCurdy organized a community-wide Civic League, comprised of other civic-minded organizations such as the Normal Improvement League, the History and Art club, The Trades Assembly — an umbrella labor organization — and the Commercial Club, a businessman’s group.
“And Helen is playing a major leadership role to look towards municipal betterment, city beautification, sanitation, public safety and the like,” said Kemp.
They took their mission statement from Mary McDowell, a social activist in Chicago.
“Our City does not ask us to die for her welfare. She asks us to live for her good,” said McDowell.
First woman to run for elected office in Bloomington
In 1914, Bloomington voters had approved by referendum a new form of city government — a commission government with five commissioners who dealt with separate areas of the municipal government. Before that, they had a ward and alderman system with a mayor. Reformers and progressives wanted to clean up government and make it more efficient and more scientific.
“At-large elected commissioners would not necessarily be tied to local political parties and would perhaps be able to run local government without any corruption or patronage,” said Kemp. “That was the idea at least.”
The five commissioners were: Mayor, Commissioner of Public Health, Commissioner of Public Streets, Commissioner of Finance, and Commissioner of Public Property. The commission form of government lasted eight years in Bloomington before voters wanted to go back to the aldermanic system.
In 1915, McCurdy ran for one of the five citywide seats and became the first woman to run for elected office in Bloomington history. She wanted the public health and safety job. McCurdy was endorsed by prominent men in the community such as architect Arthur Pillsbury, former Illinois Gov. Joseph Fifer, the father of Florence Fifer Bohrer, and labor leader John Brown Lennon.
In the primary, McCurdy was one of the top 10 vote getters and advanced to the general election. In the primary she received twice as many votes from women as from men.
Women in Illinois could vote before the 19th Amendment passed in 1920. In 1891, women in Illinois could vote for school board offices. In 1913, they gained the vote in federal and municipal elections not otherwise restricted in the state constitution, including presidential electors.
In the general city election, McCurdy finished seventh of the eight finalists for commission seats. It was another 28 years until a woman ran for Bloomington City Council. Helen Rohrabach ran in 1943. Not until 1969 was a woman, Margaret Chasson, elected to the Bloomington City Counci.
“There's no doubt that Helen Clark McCurdy was a pioneer and in some ways well ahead of her time,” said Kemp.
The 1915 election was McCurdy's only foray into local elective politics, but she was a major player in the establishment of the McLean County tuberculosis sanitarium. She headed the United Welfare Foundation, known today as United Way. The foundation raised money for the girls industrial home that cared for indigent or orphan girls in Bloomington, and supported the McLean County Home for Colored Children. At the time, at-risk and orphan children were separated by race in Bloomington. The United Welfare Foundation also supported the Withers home for elderly women who had no family to support them.
McCurdy passed away at the age of 96 in 1962.