Julia Holmes Smith

Third in a series of profiles of local suffragists, celebrating the centennial of women’s suffrage in the U.S.

She was a Southern belle who came North, ending up in Oak Park. A wife, mother, and widow. A playwright, journalist, educator, physician, clubwoman, and political activist. She was the most interesting suffragist I’d never heard of. Her name? Dr. Julia Holmes Smith.

Born in Savannah, Georgia, in 1839, Dr. Smith marked many “firsts,” and lived to see passage of the Suffrage Amendment. She grew up in New Orleans but attended college in New York State, where she met and married historian John Abbot. Widowed just four years later, she returned to New Orleans and became a theater critic for the local paper to support herself and her son. She wed again in 1872 to Sabin Smith of Boston, had a daughter with him, and moved the family to Chicago. After her daughter married and moved to Oak Park, she followed and lived here for 15 years, till her death. 

She was introduced to the suffrage movement in 1862, when she met Anna Dickinson — the first woman to address both houses of Congress. From then on, Smith dedicated her life to the advancement of women’s rights. 

“I determined that with the [Civil] War ended, I would work to free the only slaves left in the country — the women, both black and white,” she told the Chicago Examiner in a 1914 interview. 

Inspired by a woman physician who treated her, she entered Boston Medical School. “When I decided to study medicine,” she recalled, “I said nothing to my husband; I might have been going out shopping every morning as far as he knew.” (She only told him after receiving her degree!)

In 1880, she attended the first woman suffrage convention held in Chicago. By then she was a member of the Chicago Political Equality League, the Chicago Equal Suffrage Association, and the Illinois Equal Suffrage Association. Twice president of the Chicago Woman’s Club, she was a friend of Susan B. Anthony as well as journalist and reformer Mary A. Livermore. According to suffrage leader Catherine Waugh McCullough, “She was admired by all the men and beloved by all the women.”

An integral part of the 1893 Columbian Exposition, Smith was a member of the World’s Congress of Representative Women and established the woman’s day hospital at the fair, where more than 3,000 patients were treated. In 1895, she was appointed to fill an unexpired term as a University of Illinois trustee, the first woman to serve in that capacity. She was dean of the National Medical College and director of the Illinois Training School for Nurses. At the “Victory Celebration” of the National Woman’s Suffrage Association, held in Chicago in 1920, she was a keynote speaker. 

She was a founder of the Illinois Women’s Press Association, the nation’s oldest organization of women writers, and her children’s play, “Butterflies’ Ball,” was performed at Ravinia in 1921. Her work to better living conditions and family life among the poor was compared with Jane Addams. She retired from medicine in 1917, at age 78, but remained active until her death at age 92. 

Mary Ann Porucznik is a volunteer at the Oak Park River Forest Museum, where she researched this article.

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