The First Woman to Cast a Vote in Chicago Did So With Her Feet

Kittie Smith

Kittie Smith: “How I sharpen my lead pencil. How I use shears in cutting paper and cloth. The Position I occupy when I write.”

Today I found out the first woman to cast a vote in Chicago did so with her feet.

The woman was Kittie Smith.  Smith lost her arms as a child, after having both her arms and hands burned badly on a kitchen stove.  It is unclear exactly how her arms came to be burned so badly so that they needed amputated.  It is thought by many that her father did it intentionally, given his history of alcoholism and abuse of his children, as well as the manner and severity in which she was burned.  However, later in life, Kittie denied this and said it was an accident.  In Kittie’s own words:

My father was a drinking man and was in the habit of sending his children to a neighboring saloon for liquor, though I was sent more often than any of the others.  I remember tasting of the liquor I carried, and think it was always beer.  In November, 1891, and on the afternoon of Thanksgiving Day, my father and I were alone in the house, my brothers being at play out of doors, and in going about the house, I found a bottle filled with what I afterwards knew must have been whiskey.  Being but a child, I picked up the bottle and drank freely from it; its effect was almost immediate, and I grew weak and stupefied.  My father was in an adjoining room and called to me to go and put some wood on the kitchen fire and I called back that I was sick and could not go, but he insisted and I obeyed.  I had taken the lids from the stove, when, from the combined effect of the heat and the liquor, my whole being gave way and I sank on to the open stove, unconscious.  I must have lain there some time, for the physicians and surgeons said that the bones of my hands and arms were amputated three inches from the shoulders.  I was burned on the neck and on the chest but those burns were not serious.
We lived at this time at 548 Park Avenue, and neighbors claimed that my father was also intoxicated, and that he held me on the stove until my arms were burned, and that they heard me screaming.  The Humane Society of Illinois took the matter and had my father placed under arrest.  After a trial in a Justice Court, he was held to the grand jury, and, on the final trial in the spring of 1892, he was acquitted for lack of evidence.
Kittie Smith

Kittie Smith: “My picture is the one standing at the right. It is not very good of me for I moved. But it is the only picture I have showing my arms, so I value it very highly.”

Her father shortly after waived all rights to her and her care was given to the Children’s Home Society of Illinois (her mother already having died when Kittie was 9 years old).  During the next several years, she was taken in to a variety of homes, often for only a few weeks at a time, and was supported by donations through the “Kittie Smith fund”.  She learned to write, sew, and do other tasks at the Home for Destitute and Crippled Children.

Upon reaching adulthood, Kittie was on her own as far as supporting herself and earned money by selling drawings, embroidery, and writing cards, all made with her feet.

Kittie eventually became the first woman to vote in Chicago Illinois in 1913.  “Hold on there!”  You say? “The 19th Amendment wasn’t passed until 1920.  How was she able to vote in 1913?”  She was able to vote largely by the tenacious and persistent efforts of Gracie Wilbur Trout and her cohorts, in 1912 through 1913.  By their efforts, in Illinois, on June 26, 1913, women began being allowed to vote on presidential elections as well as many other elections, with the bill being signed by the Governor of Illinois in front of Trout.  In 1913, an estimated 250,000 women, with Kittie Smith leading the way, voted in Chicago Illinois when the first Illinois election took place after that bill passed.

For those who are curious, here is an example of her penmanship:

Foot Letter by Kittie Smith

Bonus Facts:

  • Along with writing and doing embroidery, Kittie was also able to dress herself; brush her teeth; comb her hair; and do other such common tasks, despite her lack of arms.  She could also do common household tasks such as sweeping, mopping, cleaning stoves, etc.  More amazingly, she could play the piano, and type, as well as do semi-skilled wood-work, having made book cases, desks, and other furniture completely by herself.  Beyond all this, Kittie’s story moved many people due to her extreme optimist and positive thinking, generally known to consider herself extremely lucky in life.
  • By 1906, largely due to her endearing qualities and heart wrenching story, she had collected over $35,000 worth of quarters, sent to her as a response to her distributed pamphlets which included a slot for a quarter if people felt so moved to give.  She then used this money to start her own company which was dedicated to helping disabled children overcome their handicaps.
  • After the U.S. Revolution, women were actually allowed to vote in a few places in the United States, with the restriction typically just being on relative wealth (both for men and women).  For instance, in New Jersey, whether male or female, you needed to have at least £50 to vote, which is equivalent to about $7,800 today.  The laws were later revised though and, by the early 1800s, women were no longer allowed to vote in most all places in the United States.
  • Ellen Martin, in 1891, was the first woman able to vote in Lombard, Illinois.  She noticed that the Lombard charter on who could vote didn’t mention gender.  This charter superseded Illinois law and, thus, she was legally allowed to vote.  She and 14 other women voted in the 1891 elections, before the charter was amended.
  • President Woodrow Wilson pushed hard for the suffrage bill that would allow women across the nation to vote to pass.  Despite this, the bill failed in 1915, 1918 (although in this case, it made it passed the House and into the Senate), and 1919.  Wilson then called a special session of congress in May of 1919, with the purpose of finally passing the suffrage bill.   It passed with 42 more votes than  necessary in the House.  It then passed 56 to 25 in the Senate.  The states themselves then ratified it with Illinois, Wisconsin, and Michigan being the first.  Tennessee was the last of the needed 36 states to ratify the bill.  Thus, in the summer of 1920, the 19th Amendment to the Constitution was put in place, allowing women in all states to vote.
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