Second in a series of profiles of notable local suffragists, honoring the centennial of women’s right to vote:
Anyone who watched the numerous programs last month on the struggle for women’s suffrage learned that the battle was long and hard. In fact, even after enactment of the Nineteenth Amendment, many women, regardless of race, were denied or discouraged from exercising their rights to vote, run for office, or serve on juries.
Today, we take for granted that both men and women will serve on juries for both criminal and civil cases. But in 1920 — and for nearly two decades after — women on juries in Illinois was a moot point. It was an Oak Park woman — Hannah Beye Fyfe — who first brought the issue to a tipping point.
The daughter of William Beye (for whom Beye School is named), Hannah Christabel Beye attended the Art Institute of Chicago after her graduation from Oak Park and River Forest High School. She specialized in design and was not only a “sketcher” but also a jewelry designer who owned her own shop in Chicago until her marriage to architect James L. Fyfe. She was a member of the Nineteenth Century Woman’s Club, which sparked an active interest in civic affairs that continued throughout her life. The club also was where she developed a friendship with May Estelle Cook, who years later asked her to illustrate the classic book Little Old Oak Park. Her husband was selected to design the 1928 club building, now an Oak Park Landmark.
In April 1925, she received an envelope addressed to “H.B. Fyfe.” She later recalled thinking, “I have a summons to jury duty. I certainly would like to answer it and see what happens. It would give the authorities a start to learn that H.B. Fyfe, the citizen, is also a female.” The election judges were indeed surprised, and disqualified her on account of her sex.
As a charter member of the recently formed Oak Park League of Women Voters, Hannah Beye wasn’t about to sidelined. She hired a woman attorney (Elizabeth Perry) and brought a lawsuit against the commissioners, the first volley in what became a decades-long battle between the legislature and the courts. Initially her complaint was upheld because the 1871 jury statute referenced “electors” without mentioning sex. The state Supreme Court overturned that decision, saying the framers of the law could not imagine women as voters and therefore meant men only.
It wasn’t until 1937 that the General Assembly passed a new law allowing women to serve on juries. During all the legal battles, Hannah remained engaged and active. When asked about the connection between her art and her activism, she replied, “True art does not necessarily mean a pretty picture or a well-designed gown. Rather it should mean beauty in everything, well-laid-out streets, properly conducted governments, and happy contented people.”
Her case is still studied in law school, as Randy Kadlec noted last week [Viewpoints, Aug. 26].
Mary Ann Porucznik currently serves as the board secretary for both the League of Women Voters and the Nineteenth Century Charitable Association. She also volunteers at the Oak Park River Forest Museum, where she researched this article.