Biographical Database of NAWSA Suffragists, 1890-1920
Biography of Esther Elmira Skiff Springer, 1831—1912
By Erin Harrington, MA ‘17, Eastern Illinois University, Charleston, Illinois
This biography refers to her by the name Elmira, the most frequent first name used by her. She is also called Elmina, Esther, and Ester.
Esther Elmira Skiff Springer was born in Portage County, Ohio on November 8, 1831. We know from census records that she spent her earliest years in the family's brick farmhouse on 100 acres in Nelson Township. By 1860, she had moved to Illinois, married Theodore Springer, and given birth to her daughter Sylvia, her only child to live to adulthood.
Little is known about Elmira's life, or her potential connections with the suffrage movement, until she reached her sixties. By the 1890s, Elmira was a wealthy and well-connected Chicago woman: her husband was an inventor with several successful patents to his name, and the couple owned some real estate. She was active in a variety of civic organizations, including the Woman's Christian Temperance Union and the Women's Relief Corps, the auxiliary to the Grand Army of the Republic.
In March of 1895, Elmira was elected president of the newly-formed Cook County Woman's Republican committee. This new group was a direct challenge to the already-established Illinois Woman's Republican committee, which supported women's suffrage but was willing to take a slow and cautious route to the ballot box. The Cook County organization, as the Chicago Daily Tribune put it, would not "complacently quiescent," and quickly began to mobilize for a statewide municipal suffrage bill.
From the snippets of Elmira's life that appear in Chicago papers during the spring of 1895 emerges a picture of a politically savvy and pragmatic woman. At a meeting in late March to organize a new ward branch of the Cook County Woman's Republican Committee, she was "on hand to explain away knotty points and put motions." She encouraged the women to "insidiously ingraft into the minds of all Republican men the value and importance to their cause," emphasizing that self-interest "was the only thing which would ever make men see suffrage in the right light." During an April trip to Springfield, she was one of the party elders instructing political newcomers in the "subtle art of lobbying."
Though both groups were "Republican" in name, only the Cook County committee was willing to embrace partisanship. Elmira and her like-minded compatriots wanted not merely to vote. They wanted to vote Republican. And they were not afraid to make demands on their party in exchange for women's support. At the Cook County Republican convention in 1896, Elmira advocated a quid pro quo: women's support for a straight Republican ticket in exchange for the party's nomination to the ballot of a woman for University of Illinois trustee. Though two women, one a Republican, had been elected to the board of trustees the previous year, Elmira, along with her fellow Republican Marion Foster Washburne, was advocating for an explicitly partisan role for women in electoral politics and education governance. Each was a radical departure from the status quo.
Elmira herself ran an unsuccessful campaign for university trustee in 1904. In the intervening eight years, she was the chair on Legislative Work and Petition for the Cook County Equal Suffrage Association; the Woman's Republican State Central Committee chair for the Sixth Congressional District; a delegate to the 1900 convention of the National American Woman Suffrage Association; and a member of the Board of Woman Managers for the 1902 Pan-American exposition in Buffalo, New York.
In addition to her public service, she was an important donor to woman suffrage and other causes. She financed the majority of NAWSA's Statehood Protest, which advocated for Congress to admit Oklahoma and Arizona into the Union without language permitting sex discrimination in voting rights.
Elmira died in Chicago on December 13, 1912. Her obituary in the Chicago Daily Tribune honored her as an elder in the movement, writing that she "wrote and addressed meetings in Chicago and other cities when the suffrage leaders of today were in short dresses and did not know what votes for women meant."
"Republican Women Out For Work," Chicago Daily Tribune, March 24, 1895
"Republican Women's Organization," Chicago Daily Tribune, March 30, 1895
"In Line For Battle: Woman Suffragists Gathering At The State Capital," Chicago Daily Tribune, April 10, 1895
"Early Day Suffragist Dies," Chicago Daily Tribune, December 14, 1912
"To Go To Springfield," Chicago Daily Tribune, April 24, 1896
Ann Gordon, ed., The Selected Papers of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, volume 6, An Awful Hush, 1895-1906, p. 517.
Ida Husted Harper, ed., "Chapter V: The National American Convention of 1905" in History of Woman Suffrage, volume 5, p. 160. [LINK]