Why one woman is called Effingham’s ‘best-kept secret’

EFFINGHAM, Ill. (WCIA) — Courtrooms are filled with a lot of very important people. Over 100 years ago, though, women were not allowed to be lawyers in Illinois. Ada Kepley in Our Town Effingham wanted to change that, breaking barriers and carving paths for women today.

“Ada Kepley is the best-kept secret that Effingham has,” said Delaine Donaldson, President of the Effingham County Museum.

Kepley was the definition of “girl power” in the late 1800s.

“She was the very first woman in the world to graduate from law school,” Donaldson said.

She set a foundation for how we know Our Town Effingham today. While promoting Effingham, Donaldson said Kepley and her husband came up a phrase called, “The Heart of the USA.” Cue the high school mascot: The Flaming Hearts.

“That came from Ada Kepley,” Donaldson said.

Kepley had made quite the name for herself — while building up an impressive resume.

“She was a writer, she was a poet, she wrote sheet music,” Donaldson said. “You name it, she was involved with it.”

But it wasn’t without a heavy set of challenges. Donaldson said people “either loved her or hated her.”

“In 1870, when she decided to go to law school, it was against the law for women to be lawyers in Illinois.”

That didn’t stop Kepley from getting her degree in Chicago, but the state warned her there would be hefty fees if she wasn’t quiet about the rate she charged.

“But she was not a quiet woman,” Donaldson said.

Instead, Kepley was a pioneer for social change.

“Especially with reference to the temperance movement,” Donaldson clarified. “Very, very powerful voice within the temperance movement.”

Donaldson said there was a lot of alcohol in the area.

“And so, for anybody to take a stand against the problems that resulted from that, her concern was domestic violence.”

Kepley’s solution? The Band of Hope.

“Ada and Henry purchased that church building, and they used that as a place where they could have the youth meet on a regular basis and they had a lot of activities for them,” Donaldson explained.

Outside of all those accomplishments, she also worked to get women the right to vote, spent hot days outside on her farm, and was a committed wife to her husband, Henry. All reasons Our Town Effingham is proud to call her one of their “Hearts.”

“We’re trying to keep her story alive, because it’s a wonderful story,” Donaldson said.

You can see her exhibit and more at the Effingham County Museum near downtown.

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