Ahead of her time: Hazle Buck Ewing and the women’s suffrage movement
It has been 100 years since the United States ratified the 19th amendment, giving women the right to vote. It took grassroots efforts and personal sacrifice to see this basic human right pushed forward.
The Bloomington-Normal area was home to a champion of these efforts in Hazle Buck Ewing. The following is part of a conversation with Toni Tucker, director of the Ewing Cultural Center, about Ewing’s involvement in the women’s suffrage movement and how she would involve herself in current equality movements if she were alive today.
Can you first talk about the significance of the 19th amendment?
On August 26, 1920, women in the United States were given a voice in American politics. Up until this time, men had all the say in how the government was run. It took over a century of work by women to bring this change. The 19th amendment empowered women to have their voices heard. Women such as Susan B. Anthony, Alice Paul, and Carrie Chapman Catt fought for decades to bring equality to women. Women were ridiculed, looked down upon, and even imprisoned for their causes, but that did not stop them from continuing to fight and to get the right to vote for all women.
So then bringing that locally, who was Hazle Buck Ewing? Was she always someone who showed her passions, even at a young age?
She was really a woman ahead of her times. I know that sounds cliche, but it’s true in her case. She was a proponent of higher education for women, a conservationist, a philanthropist, a visionary, believing that world peace can be achieved. Upon her death, The Pantagraph said of her “Hazle Buck Ewing had a keen understanding of the responsibilities and opportunities wealth brings. Bloomington and Normal are better places for her being here. Mrs. Ewing dedicated much of her effort and money to that end.”
If Hazle saw a problem, she did not complain. She wrote a letter to the editor, which she did to not only The Pantagraph but also to the Chicago Tribune, Chicago Sun Times, and even the Los Angeles Times. She gave the solutions.
From a young age, Hazle spoke up about the less fortunate. When she was in school, her writing as a schoolgirl talked about her wish for world peace and thinking all men should make a decent living to support their families and to provide a proper education for their children.
Championing human rights and women’s rights seems like it was always a part of her. How did she first really become involved in some kind of concrete missions?
The earliest evidence we have of Hazle’s involvement is in 1915, when she joined the Illinois Equal Suffrage Association for $1. As I have learned, when Hazle took up a cause, she was all in. She first subscribed to newsletters, provided financial support, attended rallies, and wrote the movers and shakers of the movement, trying to gain support for the suffrage movement. And she wrote hundreds of letters, and we can document those.
You mention those letters. Part of her activism during the suffrage movement was writing letters to policy makers. How did her persistence embody the movement?
She’s really our first documented evidence in 1915 but by 1916 Hazel was attending national meetings. This particular one (pointing at a photo) of the National Advisory Council in Chicago supporting the movement. And we have Suffrage Magazine showing her picture at the event. After attending the meeting she wrote the Illinois representative William Elza Williams, to support the movement. He wrote back that he would be a supporter. After attending the Republican National Convention in 1916, she came back to Bloomington determined to push the cause forward in McLean County.
She was active on the local, state, and national level, and we have documents to show that. On the local level, she wrote the chair of the McLean County Democratic Party, E.E. Donnelly. In responding to a letter Hazle wrote him in 1916, Mr. Donnelly replied and said “(President Woodrow) Wilson’s attitude on the situation was right.” So President Wilson is not supporting the suffrage amendment. (Donnelly) went on comparing the women’s right to vote to what happened in the South when colored men received the right to vote. He stated it had disastrous results, and he goes on. He questioned the wisdom of giving Southern colored women the right to vote. He also wrote that women needed to be educated before they were fit to vote.
Hazle responded to Donnelly’s letter stating women are quite prepared to vote and earned that right on their 21st birthday. She then proceeded to ask if young men studied law before they had the right to vote. Several letters went between Hazle and Donnelly. Hazle tried to reason with him, but his attitude did not change. In one letter, she stated: “We have waited patiently for 60 years. Taxation without representation is not less tyranny today than it was when the U.S. revolted against England—and the spirit of this new and bloodless revolution is no less high principled and devoted.”
She wrote President Wilson letters and had many setbacks such as when she wrote Herbert Hoover, whose secretary wrote back, “Mr. Hoover has consistently refused to take part in any matters of public controversy.”
How were women with this type of passion and persistence for equality perceived during this time period?
Donnelly’s correspondence indicates how some men felt at the time. Women were uneducated and not capable of making decisions about government. Men formed anti-suffrage groups, but they never took hold. One group stated, “You have at the present moment certain statistics which show that both the birth and marriage rate are decreasing.” Women were supposed to be in the home raising children, keeping the house while men worked and made decisions about finances and politics. Men were quoted as saying women think with emotion, men base decisions on facts.
Women who picketed were considered traitors and were thrown in prison. A cousin of Hazle’s, Lucy Ewing, was one of the suffragettes imprisoned for picketing in Washington, and she wrote a series of articles about her experience that was published in the Chicago Examiner. I have copies of those.
They were abused emotionally. They separated them so they couldn’t see other women and have support of the other women. The matron, or the woman in charge of the prison, she was the worst. And so, when all of these documents and these diaries start coming out, President Wilson finally stepped in because, you know, imagine how that looked. They said we don’t treat prisoners or traitors from other countries as bad as we’re treating these women. And all they did was march peacefully. There wasn’t a riot. They weren’t throwing anything. They were peacefully marching in Washington, D.C. And this happened for a couple of years where these women were thrown in prison. We have letters from Lucy to Hazle when she actually comes to Bloomington and stays with Hazle and (Hazle’s husband at the time) Davis (Ewing) in their home. And she (Lucy) then speaks around the community about her experience, and politicians wanted to silence these women they didn’t want. So now here’s other women saying, “I didn’t support the suffrage movement but now I am.”
Based on everything you know of Hazle, how would she would view current equality movements around the country, and how would she involve herself?
She was a very quiet influencer. She was very strong, and never backed down and I think she would try to sway this to influencers today.
The Equal Rights Amendment still has not been passed. We need 38 states to ratify the amendment, and right now we have 35. It would become the 28th amendment. If Hazle were alive today, I think she would continue her pursuit of passing the ERA as she did the 19th amendment. She would try to sway the influencers, support the movement financially, and quietly one-by-one persuade those states to ratify the ERA.
The ERA was introduced to Congress every year from 1923 to 1972, when it was finally passed as the proposed 27th amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The next step was to receive ratification from 38 states. I think if she were alive today, I truly believe she’d be in the face of those states who haven’t ratified it. She was amazing.