Member Spotlight Suffragist Nellie Carlin

This was written by the WBAI’s second president, Nellie Carlin (1915-1916) in the June 22, 1913 issue of the Chicago Tribune. The same day the Tribune devoted a page to the question, “Would You rather have a Vote than a Husband?”  One woman answered, “I want a vote: it is more dependable than a husband.” Another replied, “I would prefer a husband to a vote providing he would vote for woman’s suffrage.”

The next day Governor Edward F. Dunne signed a limited voting law, the Presidential and Municipal Suffrage Act, enabling Illinois women for the first time to vote for president and local officials, but excluding state offices for which the Illinois Constitution required male voters only.  It would be more than seven years until the Nineteenth Amendment guaranteeing women’s right to vote became part of the U.S. Constitution.

Carlin wrote her support of woman suffrage in response to anti-suffrage sentiments, including that voting would cause women to lose their feminine charms, women’s training for homemaking renders them unfit to make political decisions, women can best improve society by being better mothers — not by voting, women’s interests in improving social conditions would raise taxes, women favoring better working conditions (like child labor laws) would reduce business profits.

The Memorial to Carlin printed in the March 1949 Chicago Bar Record notes, “She marched in the great Suffrage Parade.”  This generally refers to the huge March 3, 1913 parade on Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D. C. consisting of women from around the country.  Carlin was an active member of the Illinois Equal Suffrage Association which sent a large delegation to the parade.  The Woman’s Journal and Suffrage News estimated 10,000 participated and reported, “Women were spit upon, slapped in the face, tripped up, pelted with burning cigar stubs, and insulted by jeers and obscene language too vile to print or repeat.”  The police failed to protect the marchers, bystanders pushed in to disrupt the parade, participants were trampled, and 200 were taken to the hospital with injuries.  The U.S. Cavalry was called in to save the day. The Illinois contingent marched in time, led by a large band and a suffragist on a spirited horse. They were unharmed.

The following year, 15,000 marched in Chicago down Michigan Avenue from Randolph Street to 21st Street on National Suffrage Day, May 2, 1914, demanding  a suffrage amendment to the U.S. Constitution.  Another large suffrage parade down Michigan Avenue took place on June 7, 1916 and marched to the Republican National Convention  at the Coliseum, 1513 S. Wabash. The aim was to have a women’s suffrage plank included in the party platform.  In June 1919, Illinois ratified the Nineteenth Amendment, and on August 18, 1920, ratification by a sufficient number of states made it part of the  U.S. Constitution.  Since 1913, Carlin had been organizing campaigns for women to register to vote, limited though it had been for Illinois women. After ratification she exhorted women to vote, “Woman’s opportunity is here … it is not only her privilege — it is her duty.”  (Chicago Tribune, June 4, 1921).

The WBAI 20th Anniversary Journal and Directory (1934-1935) printed comments from Carlin, then retired in Florida. “The women lawyers of to-day who share the prestige of their brothers in civic and political affairs should not forget the early struggles    the antagonisms and ridicule heaped upon those who declared for equal suffrage and equal justice between men and women …

Of course the pioneer women lawyers had to overcome the prejudice of the Bench and Bar, and were often termed with an indulgent tho (sic) cynical smile: ‘The lady lawyers.’ … To my sisters in the law, I give the old standard to guide them: ‘ Equal justice to all — special privileges to none.’ “

Nellie Carlin attended Chicago College of Law, the predecessor of Chicago-Kent College of Law, and was admitted to the bar in 1896.  She entered private practice working for Clarence Darrow and practiced with Cora B. Hirtzel, who also later joined the WBAI.  Carlin filed wrongful death suits related to two of Chicago’s most famous fires: the 1903 fire killing over 600 at the Iroquois Theater (on Randolph where the Nederlander now stands), and the 1909 fire killing over 60 at the temporary wooden crib for the intake of Lake Michigan water 1.5 miles offshore at 71st Street.

In 1913, Carlin was appointed Public Guardian of Cook County where she fought vigorously for the rights of children some of whom, with no place to go, she took into her own home.  She never married but raised her nephew William L. Carlin; he started as an office boy in Clarence Darrow’s office and ultimately become one of Darrow’s law partners.  In June 1914, the WBAI was formed. One month later Carlin announced her candidacy for municipal judge. Newspaper announcements were printed in various parts of the country for this was a first: a “pioneer woman lawyer” running for municipal judge. Carlin ran again in 1916. Even with the WBAI support, she lost both times. It would not be until 1956, when Katherine Nohelty won, that Chicago would elect a woman municipal court judge. In the interim, two women had been elected to the Cook County circuit court: Mary Bartleme in 1923 and B. Fain Tucker in 1953. All three had the backing of the WBAI.

In 1915, during her WBAI presidency and while she was Public Guardian, Carlin spearheaded the WBAI’s creation of the Public Defenders’ League for Girls to defend women and girls unable to afford an attorney. It was supported by dues and contributions and by WBAI members who volunteered their services in court one day per month. “It is unjust and inhumane to send girls to the lockup and to jail for first offenses,” Carlin said. “Their cases should not be heard in a room crowded with cynical men. Their fault should not be exposed to drive away their self-respect.”

(Chicago Tribune, December 22, 1915).  She also started a “Big Sisters” organization in Morals Court to protect girls, raising funds to help those “on the road to reform” get employment, “and will see to it no first offender goes forth from the court hungry or unprotected from the machinations of court ‘ghouls’ that follow a girl after her release.” (Chicago Tribune, January 22, 1916).

In 1918, Carlin was appointed the first woman Cook County assistant state’s attorney; she prosecuted both non-support and contributing to the delinquency of minor cases. She also campaigned for the enactment of legislation requiring fathers of children born out of wedlock to pay child support.  At the end of 1919, she returned to private practice until her retirement in the late 1920s.  In 1936, the WBAI made Carlin an honorary member stating her work “over a period of years has been of such outstanding character that we should give it due recognition on our records that in the future it shall not be forgotten by those who come after us.” Carlin passed away in Florida in 1948.

About The Author

Elsie G. Holzwarth, now retired, was a sole practitioner in Chicago and has been a long-time member of the WBAI.