Biographical Database of NAWSA Suffragists, 1890-1920
Biography of Jennie Fowler Willing Johnson, 1876-1949
By Leslie Goddard, Darien, IL
Singer; Treasurer, Illinois Equal Suffrage Association
Jennie F. W. Johnson was born in Bloomington, IL to John Lawrence and Luema (Green) Johnson. She was the eldest of three children. Her mother had been a singer and public speaker before becoming a practicing osteopathic physician - and an active suffragist - in Tacoma, Washington. Johnson never married and died in 1949.
Johnson was active in suffrage circles as early as 1910. Most prominently, she served as treasurer of the Illinois Equal Suffrage Association from at least 1910 to 1914. She often sang at suffrage rallies and events, and she also served as president of the South Side Suffrage Association.
In 1910, she participated in one of the earliest suffrage automobile tours undertaken in Illinois. She and several other suffragists, including Catherine Waugh McCulloch, Rev. Katie Hughes and Helen Trout, set out from Rockford on June 23, 1910, for a tour of towns in northwestern Illinois. The tour included street corner meetings and evening rallies, at which Johnson's usual role was to contribute the rallying songs. In August 1910, she participated in another auto tour with Dr. Mary Blount and Albertine Hathaway, stopping in Lacon, Washburn, Metamora, Washington, and Peoria. When the Illinois Supreme Court upheld a law giving Illinois women some limited voting laws in 1914, she was among the prominent suffragists the Chicago Examiner asked to respond. She said, "I'm delighted. I hope every judge who helped us has a chance to run for some office so I can vote for him."
Johnson was also active in other progressive circles, including women's clubs, temperance, child labor and immigration protection. In later years she became a Socialist; a letter she wrote to Eugene V. Debs in 1920 is preserved in the Eugene V. Debs Correspondence Collection at Indiana State University. In it, she notes that she remembered hearing Debs while on a singing tour in South Dakota around 1902. Writing to Debs while he was running for U.S. President from prison, she wrote, "Take fresh courage and stay with us. We on the so-called outside are groping toward the light and you represent it to us."
Professionally, she was a contralto singer, educated at the American Conservatory in Chicago and the Royal Academy in London, England. She worked as a church singer, taught singing at the American Conservatory, and performed publicly. She frequently performed as a soloist at the Illinois Farmers Institute and the Illinois Federation of Women's Clubs' annual conventions. A July 1911 review mentions her "exquisite rendering of many beautiful songs, all of them by American poets and American musicians." A 1914 article described her as "one of Chicago's best-known vocalists." Her promotional brochure noted that she had given recitals in nearly every state and had sung with choral clubs throughout the Midwest. A reviewer from the Tacoma, Washington Daily News described her as having a "rich, deep-toned, admirably schooled contralto" voice, saying "its power, dignity and beauty of tone gave distinction to everything she sang."
Johnson continued performing as a singer in the 1920s, appearing, for example, in a musical program on Westinghouse Station KYW in April 1922, in a vesper organ recital in Urbana in 1924, and on the Chautauqua circuit around Illinois in 1924.
Johnson died in 1949 at age 62 in Tacoma, and her cremated remains were placed with her father at the Tacoma Cemetery. Her gravestone reads: "Singer - Crusader - Friend of All Mankind."
"Johnson, Jennie Fowler Willing," Woman's Who's Who of America: A Biographical Dictionary of Contemporary Women of the United States and Canada, 1914-1915, ed. John William Leonard (New York, NY: American Commonwealth Company, 1914), 435. LINK
History of Woman Suffrage, Vol 6: 1900-1920, ed. Ida Husted Harper (National Woman Suffrage Association, 1922), p 149. [LINK to IL state report]
"Jennie F. W. Johnson Contralto," brochure found in in the Eugene V. Debs Correspondence Collection, Special Collections Department, Indiana State University Library, Terre Haute, IN. In Wabash Valley Visions and Voices: A Digital Memory Project, http://visions.indstate.edu:8888/cdm/compoundobject/collection/evdc/id/4743/rec/1 (accessed 13 September 2017).
Autograph letter signed, Jennie F. W. Johnson to Eugene V. Debs, 25 October 1920, in the Eugene V. Debs Correspondence Collection, Special Collections Department, Indiana State University Library, Terre Haute, IN. In Wabash Valley Visions and Voices: A Digital Memory Project, http://visions.indstate.edu:8888/cdm/compoundobject/collection/evdc/id/4743/rec/1 (accessed 13 September 2017).
Illinois Digital Newspaper Collection, http://idnc.library.illinois.edu/ (accessed 17 September 2017):
"Illinois News by Telegraph," Urbana Courier-Herald, 23 June 1910, 1;
"Illinois Farmers Institute," The Farmers Voice, 15 July 1911, 27;
"Illinoisans Won by Suffragists," The Rock Island Argus, 25 July 1910, 8;
"Illinois Women Win Point When Federation Approves Votes for Women," Chicago Examiner, 14 June 1914, 3;
"Local and Personal Brevities," [Sycamore] The True Republican, 17 June 1914, 5;
"Suffragists to Hold Convention," Bureau County Tribune, 23 October 1914, 5;
"Suffragists to Hold Convention," The Franklin Reporter, 29 October 1914, 6;
"Westinghouse Station KYW," Radio Broadcasting News, 16 April 1922, 4;
"University Events," The Daily Illini, 4 May 1924, 3;
"News of the Chautauquas," Clipper, 1 May 1924, 8.