Biographical Database of NAWSA Suffragists, 1890-1920
Biography of Nellie B. Conger Stewart, 1861-1938
By Katherine Flugge and Kara Whiteley, MA students, Eastern Illinois University, Charleston, IL
Corresponding Secretary, Reporting Secretary, Representative of State Board, and Chairman for the state of Illinois, Illinois Equal Suffrage Association; Recording Secretary and Board of Directors, Chicago Legal Aid Society
Nellie B. Conger was born to John and Susan deClercq (listed as deClerg in some records) Conger on August 8, 1861 in New York state. She graduated from West Division High School, part of the Chicago Public School System, in 1880. Nellie Conger married Edward Lawrence Stewart on October 11, 1881, in Evanston, Illinois. Mr. Stewart worked as a lawyer, journalist, and real estate speculator. Following their marriage, the couple resided in Chicago for many years, after which they moved to southern California, where Nellie B. Conger Stewart died on January 16, 1938. The couple had no children.
Mrs. Edward L. Stewart, as she is referred to in publications of the time, was actively involved in Chicago Civic life through her work on various committees. Beginning in 1912, she served as recording secretary of the Chicago Legal Aid Society, an organization that developed as an offshoot of the Protective Agency for Women and Children. The Chicago Legal Aid Society offered legal assistance to those who could not otherwise obtain it, sought to improve and clarify existing laws, and proposed new and better laws in an effort to protect women, children, the indigent, and those in poverty. Stewart was the recording secretary from 1912-1916, after which she was elected to the board of directors for the 1917-1918 term.
Stewart was also an integral part of the Illinois Equal Suffrage Association (IESA), a civic organization which campaigned for full suffrage and worked to better local communities throughout the state. Nellie Stewart held various roles during her tenure with IESA, acting at different times as the corresponding secretary, the recording secretary, the representative of the state board, and the congressional chairman for the state of Illinois.
Stewart's work on behalf of the Illinois Equal Suffrage Association took many forms, including leading special initiatives, traveling, and giving speeches on behalf of the association. In 1914 Nellie Stewart was part of a successful effort to encourage Illinois congressmen to sign off on the Susan B. Anthony amendment; the initiative was a success, as 26 of 27 congressmen from Illinois signed their names in support. Mrs. Stewart also worked diligently to encourage Chicago women to become more politically active. History of Woman Suffrage recounts the importance of this work, noting that downstate politicians assumed city women would not have the same vested interest in municipal affairs as women in smaller communities did. Nellie Stewart was individually recognized for her central role in registering over 200,000 women in Chicago, plus thousands of other women downstate. Additionally, Mrs. Stewart helped host a banquet to celebrate two major accomplishments: success in securing adoption of a suffrage resolution and the Illinois Supreme Court's pronouncement of suffrage law as constitutional. Both the banquet -- which drew over 1000 people -- and the work of the IESA during that weekend were credited with helping significantly change public opinion on the question of suffrage.
On May 15, 1915, Nellie Stewart spoke as a representative of the IESA at a meeting of Civic leagues in Monmouth, Illinois, and she went on to organize the state suffrage convention in Peoria in October of that year. On April 15 of the following year the IESA began its campaign for full suffrage; Mrs. Stewart presented delegates from twelve newly-formed suffrage groups to politicians from the state, who were invited to the conference and given a chance to voice their opinions of the movement. In December of 1917, she attended the NAWSA national convention. Despite living in California, Nellie Stewart returned to Illinois in October of 1920 for the final meeting of the IESA, during which the group merged into the Illinois League of Women Voters. During the conference, she and several others spoke on the topic of "Suffrage Yesterday and Tomorrow."
"California, Death Index, 1905-1939." [database on-line]. Ancestry.com. June 29, 2018.
Marriage Licenses, Chicago Daily Tribune, October 12, 1881.
"News Chicago Women's Clubs..." Chicago Daily Tribune, Oct 3, 1920.
Papers in Illinois History and Transactions for the Year 1920. Illinois State Historical Society.
"Society and Entertainments," Chicago Daily Tribune, July 14, 1915.
Stanton, Elizabeth Cady, Susan Brownell Anthony, Matilda Joslyn Gage, and Ida Husted Harper. History of Woman Suffrage: 1900-1920. Fowler & Wells, 1922. [LINK]