These trailblazers set the stage for decades of women who have served in elected offices in both Illinois state government and the federal United States government.
Earlier this month, we began The Women Who Shaped Illinois series. Last week, we highlighted the incredible female architects who built our state in The Women Who Constructed Illinois.
In this week’s installment of the series, we are highlighting four incredible women who made history in politics and government. These trailblazers set the stage for decades of women who have served in elected offices in both Illinois state government and the federal United States government.
Jessie Sumner (1898-1994)
Jessie Sumner was a Republican U.S. Representative and the first female county judge in Illinois. She was born in Milford, Illinois on July 17th, 1898. Jessie graduated from Girton School in Winnetka, Illinois, in 1916, and went on to obtain a degree in economics from Smith College in Massachusetts in 1920. She studied law at the University of Chicago, Oxford University in England, and Columbia University, passing the bar in 1923 when she began working as a private lawyer.
In 1932, Jessie moved back to her hometown of Milford, Illinois, and began working as a lawyer and as the director of Sumner National Bank, which was founded by her father. She began her political career following the passing of her uncle John H. Gillan, who served as the Iroquois County judge. In 1932, Jessie successfully ran a campaign to succeed him and became the first woman to hold a county judgeship in Illinois.
In 1938, Jessie defeated Democratic incumbent James Andrew Meeks for her district’s seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. She joined the 76th Congress in January of 1939. In Washington, Jessie was loved by the press, often quipping controversial opinions and remarks, which she coined as “Sumnerisms”. These often irritated her opponents, as she held strong with her anti-interventionist and anti-New Deal views.
As America entered World War II, Jessie focused her attention on being a champion for women as she introduced a bill that helped women enter the wartime workforce. She also advocated for the passage of a bill aimed to open childcare facilities in war industry factories, as it would give more women the opportunity to fill these necessary roles.
After eight years of serving in Congress, Jessie retired. She worked at Sumner National Bank until her passing in August 1994.
Lottie Holman O’Neil (1878-1967)
Lottie Holman O’Neil was the first female representative in the Illinois General Assembly. She was born
on November 7th, 1878 in Barry, Illinois. Lottie went on to obtain a degree in business. In 1904, she married William O’Neil, with whom she had two sons. The family moved to Downer’s Grove in 1908.
Inspired by the success of Jeannette Rankin from Montana, who was the first woman elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, Lottie ran for office in 1922. Only two years after women gained the right to vote, Lottie ran as a Republican for the Illinois House of Representatives.
Lottie was a champion for women. She spent her career fighting for equal rights, allowing women to serve on juries, introducing the eight-hour workday, and improving state aid for children with disabilities. Lottie also opposed federal income tax and fought hard to reduce the growing state budgets.
In 1950, Lottie defeated Democratic candidate Joseph Sam Perry for a seat in the state senate. She held this position until 1963, when at the age of 84, Lottie retired from politics. Upon her retirement, she declined a statue in the Illinois Statehouse rotunda, stating she did not want to face the “scoundrel” who defeated her in the 1930 primary “for all of eternity across the rotunda.” Following her death in 1967, Lottie was honored with a statue, but one to the right of her rival, with Mayor Richard J. Daley in between.
Corinne Wood (1954-2021)
Corinne Wood is known for being the first woman to hold the office of Lieutenant Governor in the state of Illinois. She was born on May 28th, 1954, and was raised in Barrington, Illinois. Corinne attended the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and went on to receive her law degree from Loyola University Law School in 1979. For over twenty years following her graduation, Corinne worked as a lawyer specializing in legislative law.
In 1996, Corinne was elected to the Illinois House of Representatives at the age of 42. In her term, she sponsored more bills signed into law than any other freshman representative. After serving only one term as a representative, Corinne was chosen to run as Lieutenant Governor with George Ryan in the 1998 election. On January 11, 1999, Corinne Wood was inaugurated as the first female Lieutenant Governor of Illinois.
Corrine often spoke across the state about rural affairs, women’s health, and economic opportunity. She was the head of the Illinois Main Street Program, which promoted the economic development of small communities statewide. Two of her most notable accomplishments as Lieutenant Governor was introducing Scott’s Law, or the Move Over Law, which requires drivers to switch lanes when passing emergency vehicles with their lights on, as well as A Check for a Cure, a tax return campaign for breast cancer research.
Corinne’s work went far past her role as Lieutenant Governor. She was the chairman of the Rivers of Illinois Coordinating Council, a member of NPR Illinois, and a member of the Illinois Issues Community Advisory Board. She was also on the board of directors at CHANGE Illinois, which advocates for increased ethical standards in government, as well as the vice president at the Cancer Treatment Research Foundation. Her dedication to cancer research stemmed from her diagnosis of breast cancer in the late 1990s. On May 18th, 2021, Corinne Wood tragically lost her battle with breast cancer and died at the age of 66.
Ruth Hanna McCormick (1880-1944)
Ruth Hanna McCormick was known for numerous achievements as a trailblazing woman in politics, including being seated in the U.S. House of Representatives. She was born on March 27, 1880, in Cleveland, Ohio. Her father, known as “The President Maker”, introduced Ruth to politics, which led to her meeting her future husband Joseph McCormick. The couple married on June 10, 1903, and soon after relocated to Chicago where Joseph briefly worked at the Chicago Tribune, which was founded by his father. Together, they raised three children.
Ruth was incredibly involved in politics and the suffragist movement as a member of the Women’s
Welfare Committee, the Women’s Club of Chicago, chairman of the Congressional Committee for the National American Woman Suffrage Association, and in 1918, as the chairman of the first woman’s executive committee of the RNC.
Her husband Joseph was elected to the United States House of Representatives for one term before his election to the United States Senate in 1918. Many credited Ruth’s hard work campaigning for her husband as an integral part of his initial political success. However, Joseph lost the Republican primary in 1924 to Charles S. Deneen and died one year later in what many believed was an apparent suicide.
Ruth believed her husband’s loss was due to the lack of Republican female voter engagement and began Republican Women’s Clubs in 90 of Illinois’s 102 counties in order to organize the female Republican vote.
In 1928, Ruth was elected for an at-large seat for the state of Illinois in the U.S. House of Representatives, where she was the first woman appointed to the House Committee on Naval Affairs. In 1930, Ruth ran for the U.S. Senate and won the primary against Charles S. Deneen, who had unseated her husband in the prior election cycle, but lost the general election to a Democrat. Following her exit from public office, she bought all three newspapers in Rockford, Illinois, forming the Rockford Consolidated Newspaper.
Ruth later moved to Colorado and remarried politician Albert G. Simms, who she met while they sat together in Congress. She continued her work with the Republican Party and served as the chairman of the New Mexico delegation at the 1936 Republican National Convention, making her the first woman to hold this position. In 1940, Ruth became the first woman to manage a Presidential campaign when she ran Thomas Dewey’s campaign. On December 31, 1944, Ruth died due to pancreatitis in Chicago, Illinois.