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  • Writer's pictureRochelle Gridley

Women Jurors

In August of 1940 the world was turned upside when the Illinois legislature lost its collective mind and decided that women could be jurors in the courts of Illinois. The McLean County Court complied with the law and women were assigned to both grand and petit juries. The first female juror was seated in October 1940, three months after the law went into effect. The event was noticed in the Pantagraph, and the first women on a trial jury were photographed and named in the Pantagraph. However, it was the grand jury that indicted Orbie Burton for the murder of John Beyer in February of 1940 that brought the service of women on grand juries into question. He argued that having women on the jury nullified his indictment. This was actually a "Hail Mary" motion by Burton's attorneys because women had been serving for months without protest or objection in McLean County. (Burton went to prison for this murder.) Such motions were however, somewhat common in many jurisdictions after women were accorded this small measure of human rights. The last state to "give" women this right was Mississippi, in 1968.

Probably one reason it took so long for women to gain the right to judge their fellow human beings and to be judged by their peers was because many women apparently were not opposed to being second class citizens when it came to jury duty. The Pantagraph interviewed a handful of women around Bloomington and could find only one who felt that women could and should be on juries. Mrs. Harrison Smith (above, behind the counter of her restaurant, courtesy of Pantagraph Negatives Collection!), a woman who was engaged in the restaurant business with her husband gave the opinion that women were not "emotionally and temperamentally equipped for jury service." One unidentified housewife said that business women could be trusted to be jurors, but that she would not trust "sheltered housewives" to be jurors. A high school girl who was interviewed, Lucille Ventura, (below, sipping on a refreshing Coke, courtesy of Pantagraph Negatives Collection), felt that jury duty should be left to the men. I wonder if Lucille's later experiences as a war worker in a national defense plant in El Segundo, California changed her mind about the issue of female equality??

Kathryn Maissoneuve, a local recreation leader and trained teacher, emphatically stated that women should be allowed on juries: "They have just as good brains and just as good reasoning powers and are just as well informed. Probably the ignorant and incompetent women would be offset by the same type of men." Kathryn's opinion was interesting to me because I was aware of her future work. At the time she was interviewed, Kathryn (below) was working as a recreation worker (WPA employment) and later she would be a physical education teacher at Washington School. But when she joined the army during World War II, Kathryn became an officer and taught gunnery practice and gunnery theory to men in Oklahoma. She was a crack shot and could consistently defeat men in competitions, besides having the brains to teach a highly technical field. Thank you, Kathryn, for your service!!!

Sheriff Nierstheimer had positive views of women on juries: "They don't let emotion run away with them. They look at all sides. They consider the evidence before them and sincerely try to be fair to both the state and the defendant. I believe women on juries are an asset to the county and if I thought otherwise I would say so." Thank goodness for another voice of reason!

Search: "Interviews" for photos of the first women jurors -- "jury and women"

"interviews" will result in many headshots of people in their places of business and some in plain surroundings. The identities of all have not been determined.

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