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McHistory: Multitalented suffrage leader promoted women’s health and the vote

Dr Ellen Ferguson was a strong voice for women's suffrage in Bloomington in the 1870s.
McLean County Museum of History
Dr. Ellen Ferguson was a strong voice for women's suffrage in Bloomington in the 1870s.

Ellen Ferguson was a champion of women and women's suffrage.

She made Bloomington-Normal her home in the 1870s. She was born in Cambridge, Cambridge, England. Her father was a successful attorney. And while in England, a young Ellen taught or led classes in French, Latin, German, drawing, elocution, drama, and music.

“This is an extremely well-rounded young woman," said McLean County Museum of History Librarian Bill Kemp.

In 1860, she and her husband William Ferguson emigrated to the United States, first to Ohio and then by the early 1870s, to Bloomington. Ellen Ferguson first made a name for herself as a lecturer to all-female audiences on women's health and reproductive health.

“These are very delicate subjects. This is during the Victorian era. You don't want to upset folks sensibilities. Yet, women are starved for forthright and accurate information when it comes to gynecological issues and other reproductive health issues. Her very serious lectures are welcomed in the community. They don't prove controversial. In fact, they prove extremely popular with middle class and upper middle-class women,” said Kemp.

Ferguson was also a vocal supporter for women's suffrage.

She spoke principally concerning the frivolity of fashionable life to which so many girls are brought up.

"They are educated too much in the direction of finery and feathers and not enough in the direction of useful information and the knowledge of how to take care of themselves,” said an observer of one of Ferguson’s speeches.

She also spoke at the annual meeting of the Illinois Women's Suffrage Association held Feb. 13-14, 1872, in downtown Bloomington, 150 years ago.

“She quoted copiously from Professor Huxley’s Science of Government and showed that in former times women had a great deal to do with government affairs. She inveighed against the practice of taxation without representation. This principle of tyranny should be expunged … She thought no woman should pay any more tax until she was granted the vote,” according to minutes of the association meeting.

Among the other speakers at that gathering was Susan B. Anthony, now nationally remembered as a woman’s rights advocate enshrined on a dollar coin by the U.S. government.

Ferguson lead a group of local upper-crust women in Bloomington on a grand tour of Europe, Germany, Italy, Switzerland and the like, in 1875.

Ferguson's husband had become increasingly enamored with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, or the Mormon church. They relocated to the St George in the Utah territory, not then a state.

Ferguson completed an education on the east coast studying gynecology, obstetrics, minor surgery, and then returned to the Utah territory and helped organize what is today, the LDS Hospital in Salt Lake City, said Kemp.

“Interestingly, the territorial legislature of Utah is the first to grant women the right for suffrage and that's as early as 1870. So, the state proves attractive to Ellen and her husband not only because of their Mormon faith, but also because this is a state that welcomes women at least when it comes to vote,” said Kemp.

1886, Ferguson helped lead a Mormon women's protests march to Washington, D.C., and the White House where they met with President Grover Cleveland.

“What’s happening there is that Congress was using the cudgel of polygamy attacking Mormons and their polygamous beliefs, and they're undermining other territorial rulings in the past. So, they're threatening to undo women's suffrage and indeed, that's what Congress will do in 1887 as they're kind of battling Mormons in their faith, right?” said Kemp.

A year later, Ferguson severed her ties to the LDS and relocated to New York City with her daughters Ethel and Claire. She died on March 15 1920.

“Sadly, her passing will be five months before the signing into law of the 19th amendment. What she fought for her whole life she never saw to complete fruition,” said Kemp.

“Mrs. Ferguson is an impressive and convincing speaker, practical and thoughtful in everything that relates to the cause and withal a woman of education and culture,” said an observer in the 1870s.

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WGLT Senior Reporter Charlie Schlenker has spent more than three award-winning decades in radio. He lives in Normal with his family.
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