Chicago's Women Take
Charge of Change
Another female new dawn breaks in Chicago
The election of Carol Moseley Braun as an Illinois U.S. Senator in 1992 excited much optimism about the nation’s triumph over sexism. It proved premature, which would have surprised no one who knows about the efforts of more than a century by activist women to improve Illinois by improving their own lot. This piece appeared on CE’s Politics & Policy page.
Now is one of the rare moments in U.S. history when being a woman—any woman—is a campaign advantage. Not only are women born outsiders (what better way to make things different than to put different people in charge of things?) but improving things is what women are all about.
The euphoria that today swirls around the candidacy of Carol Moseley Braun hasn't been seen since the suffragist campaigns of the turn of the century. Voting women in those days were to be the agents of the ultimate reform, reordering the ends as well as the means of politics, away from war and greed and the rest of the traditional male agenda, including the repression of women.
Women as a voting class have largely failed to live up to that early promise. Nevertheless, the notion that social reform is women's work has become traditional. (Usually to the public's confusion; Jane Byrne, remember, was first seen as a "reform" candidate based in large part on her performance as a consumer advocate—a reminder that women still are typically responsible for the shopping, even in government.)
Voters consistently see females as "more caring" candidates, whether they deserve it or not, and usually turn to them in eras such as ours when the municipal house has become unmanageable as a result of long inattention to education, public health and the care of the sick, the insane, the poor. These chores are the province of the female in traditionally organized societies and it is assumed that her political opinions derive in substantial part from them. Language is a guide to attitudes; the common metaphors for municipal reform—"housecleaning" and "new broom sweeps clean"—depict the domestic at work.
Caring is thought to owe variously to women's consciousness of their own low social position, to a sympathy that some call innate, or to the extrapolations from their experience of home. Jane Addams recalled in her memoirs (I steal this anecdote from 100 Years at Hull-House, edited by Mary Lynn McCree Bryan and Allen F. Davis) an illiterate Irish woman. Her opinions on several do-gooder referendums at the turn of the century (bonds for county hospital expansion, subway construction, contagious disease hospital) coincided almost perfectly with the reform positions espoused by the City Club. The woman confided to Addams, "It galls the men some to have us voting, but from the questions put up to me, it seems pretty much a woman's job."
Chicago, having more to improve, has perhaps seen more of those activist women than most other cities. Women were out front in campaigns for child labor reform, city charter reform, and Prohibition and it was women who organized the Chicago Federation of Teachers. Beginning in the 1870s, the Chicago Women's Club pushed for the appointment of a woman to the Board of Education and of a female M.D. to the insane asylum staff. The club also backed the efforts of the Women's and Children's Protective League, pushed for kindergartens in the public schools and the establishment of a juvenile court. They club even dared involve itself in labor reform, exposing harsh working conditions among female department store clerks and lobbying in concert with the Women's Trade Union League and the Illinois Womens' Alliance.
That activist momentum slowed with the demise of progressivism and the rise of the welfare state but it was revived in the activist 1960s. Florence Scala led what she has described as a women's crusade to block construction of a new University of Illinois campus and it was women who chained themselves to the trees to stop the city's butchering of Jackson Park a few years after that. Today, on the city's prostrate West Side, much of the activism centers around Mary Nelson of Bethel New Life and Nancy Jefferson.
The earliest reformers in Chicago were efficiency-minded businessmen. The Civic Federation was unusual in that its founding membership also included social workers and what Maureen Flanagan ( in her book Charter Reform in Chicago) describes carefully as "socially prominent women." However, the last were disenchanted by their male colleagues' belief that providing worker relief during strikes was more revolution than reform.
The prototypical reformist organization was Hull House, housed on Halsted Street. Founded and run by women, the settlement house became a sort of frame-it-yourself social reform shop. Jane Addams or her colleagues served as garbage inspectors and ran as alder-manic candidates against 19th Ward chieftain Johnny Powers and sat on Mayor Edward Dunne's reform school board from 1905 to 1909. The 1903 campaign for municipal ownership of street railways was based in Hull 1 louse and its staff contributed to studies of race relations (after the 1917 riots), juvenile delinquency and the establishment of playgrounds.
The ghosts of Hull House still walk the streets of Chicago. The Junior League is trying to make itself helpful in such areas as preventing sex abuse and encouraging adoption. Virtually all of the area's recent reformist-minded lawmakers—Braun, Curry, Shiller, Netsch—are women. (I should toss in Penny Pullen and Judy Barr Topinka, rightist women who champion the reform of the liberal welfare state orthodoxies.)
Today, women staff a sort of alternate government, made of mainly nonprofit agencies devoted to education, child care, social welfare, and municipal improvements of a hundred kinds. They are the descendants, spiritual and political if not actual, of the clubwomen of a century ago, often formidably talented and usually underpaid. Some random examples: Six of the seven staff members of the Government Assistance Project of the Chicago Community Trust are female. The last two directors of the Metropolitan Planning Council have been female. The director of Friends of the Parks (which challenged the Park District hiring and budgeting practices) is female. When Voices for Illinois Children wanted to get more up front, they gave Nancy Stevenson a seat at the head of the table. This domination of the good-government sector may itself be evidence of the marginalization of women from power. Whatever its cause, their presence reinforces the public's traditional view of women as agents of change.
Neither then nor now were all Chicago women for reform, of course. (More accurately perhaps, they never agreed on what reforms were needed.) Nor have all reform movements been headed by, instigated by or funded by females. Women disagreed about the tactics as well as the ends of change. Before 1930, women often were active, even violent participants in labor reform efforts in Chicago. Lizabeth Cohen, in Making a New Deal, describes how later, family-oriented union programs ratified the feminine role in the movement but reduced its scope. Women were instructed that reform was one of the duties of the good union wife, like shopping for union-made goods or running soup kitchens during strikes.
It was a familiar trap. Women were to be the conscience of every clan but had no real power to change things for the good beyond their influence on men. Flanagan in her book recalls that having' the vote meant that women could have recourse to other than what she calls "marital game-playing and pleading for favors" from politicians, which represented their only access to power. To that extent, reform was an attack on men's domestic as well as their civic authority and thus was in no small part the reason why so many men resisted extending the franchise.
What began as a radical idea—that reform was a woman's business—became corrupted by dismissive men into the notion that reform was only a woman's business. Reform itself became effeminate. I do not need to annotate the libel, passed on by John Buenker, about Edward Dunne's "radical" administration in 1905–1907 being presided over by "long-haired men and short-haired women."
This association is a prejudice of long standing in Chicago, largely due to the conspicuousness of Hull House as a model. Its staff—idealistic, upper-class, college-educated women of the sort that a generation earlier would have been missionaries among the heathens—molded an image of reformer as do-gooder that still puts people off.
Even friendly critics used words like "prissy" and "punctilious" to describe the atmosphere there. When Beatrice and Sydney Webb—famous socialists and suffragists from England, prone to be sympathetic—visited in 1898, Beatrice noted the presence of "strong minded energetic women . . . interspersed with earnest-faced, self-subordinating and mild-mannered men who slide from room to room apologetically."
It is useful to ask whether, for an Irishman, the clubhouse and the tavern were two of the few places he could escape the improving influence of his women. (Nuns and school teachers were overwhelmingly Irish well into this century.) Indeed, the sniggering contempt for reformers that oozes from the experts gathered at WBEZ radio's "Inside Politics" sound a lot like little boys everywhere who have managed to put one over on the nuns, the teachers, the mothers of the world. They ain't ready for reform, but they are ready for a good spanking. ●