Catherine Waugh McCulloch, 1862 – 1945
Catherine Waugh was born June 4, 1862 in Ransomville, New York, the only daughter of Susan Gougher and Abraham Waugh. When she was five years old her family moved to New Milford, Illinois. Catherine was fortunate – her parents believed in educating both girls and boys. She graduated from the Rockford Female Seminary in 1882, and in 1885 enrolled in The Union College of Law in Chicago. Upon graduation she was admitted to the Illinois Bar, a very unusual triumph for a young woman at that time. She continued her education at Rockford Seminary, and in 1888 was awarded both a B.A. and an M.A.
Catherine was also fortunate in her marriage. In 1890 she married Frank H. McCulloch, a fellow law student, and the two founded the law firm of McCulloch and McCulloch, another unusual arrangement for the time. The couple had four children.
Using her unique position as a female attorney Catherine was able to fight for women’s rights through the legal system, defending women in cases of abuse, wage discrimination and divorce. In 1901 one of her first legislative triumphs was passage of legislation that granted women guardianship of their own children. She also was responsible for a law raising the legal age of consent for women from fourteen to sixteen. But her strongest and most fervent devotion was reserved for the woman suffrage movement. In 1913 she was instrumental in passing legislation that allowed women in Illinois to vote in presidential and local elections not constitutionally limited to male voters. She served as both legal advisor and first vice president of the National American Woman Suffrage Association in Illinois, and worked closely with other suffragists, including Jane Addams, who founded Hull House settlement house in Chicago.
Catherine also offered a supportive voice to African-American suffragists, including Ida Wells-Barnett who had been discouraged from marching in the 1913 suffrage parade in Washington DC because of the prejudice of southern women. As a woman lawyer Catherine was no stranger to prejudice, and her unqualified support forged a strong friendship between the two suffragists. “It (success) only requires,” she wrote to Wells-Barnett, “that our women should be as firm in standing up for their principles as the Southern women are for their prejudices.”
Her law career continued to flourish; she was the first woman to be elected Justice of the Peace in Evanston, Illinois, and in 1917 won an appointment as a master in chancery of the Cook County Superior Court in Chicago. She continued working for equal rights for women until her death in 1945.
Catherine McCulloch enjoyed the good fortune of supportive parents and husband. She could have led a life of leisure and ease, but she chose instead to study the law and use her legal expertise to better the lives of all women, including securing for them the right to exercise their voice through the vote.
Happy Birthday, Catherine Waugh McCulloch!