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Woman power - part five: Chicago women who transformed our world

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In the Bible’s Old Testament, long passages of lineage about who begat whom did not bother to mention the females born – nor the mothers who bore all those babies – only the males. Even in the New Testament, Apostle Paul said some things to which modern women might take exception: like women shouldn't speak in church.

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Women have been under men’s thumbs for at least thousands of years: used to bear offspring, keep house and raise children. During the 20th century, women began to emerge from these traditional stay-at-home roles to carve out bigger lives for themselves, and consequently made enormous contributions to the world.

Helen Flanders Dunbar (1902-1959) was the first born in a well-off Chicago family, yet suffered from failure to thrive, a form of malnutrition. She only grew to 4’11” and wore platform shoes, which were popular at the time, to compensate. But clothes horse was not her claim to fame. She earned multiple degrees from highly respected universities in mathematics, psychology, philosophy, theology, and got her M.D. She wanted to see physicians and the clergy work together to heal the sick and became the first medical director of the Council for the Clinical Training of Theological Students. She was also an early pioneer in the field of psychosomatic medicine and founded the American Psychosomatic Society. She made such important strides in her field, to this day, scholars still study and discuss her contributions.

Myrtle Bachelder (1908-1997) – So significant were her scientific contributions made while living in Chicago that the world was forever changed. A chemist and officer of the Women’s Army Corps, she was part of the top secret Manhattan Project. Her role was to purify uranium to create the atomic bomb. One wonders how those original scientists felt after the bombs were dropped and killed so many innocents. Afterwards, she helped successfully stop a bill that would have allowed government to have sole control over the continuance of related scientific experiments. Yet later in life, she declared she felt the use of the bomb in WWII was necessary to end the war and prevent continued loss of life to war. She also helped analyze materials from ancient sunken ships, and NASA commissioned her to analyze Moon rocks.

Catherine T. MacArthur (1908-1981) was born on the south side of Chicago to Irish immigrants. She eventually married John D. MacArthur, a businessman who became known for his wealth and his philanthropy equally. One of the largest philanthropical organizations in the world, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, is still carrying on the work they started. John became one of the wealthiest men in America when he got into banking and used mass marketing to sell insurance and real estate. Catherine also had a good business head and contributed to the success of his businesses. Despite their fortune, they lived frugally in a simple apartment with a view of a parking lot.

Betty Ford (1918-2011) – Born of humble beginnings in Chicago, her father a travelling salesman, she went on to become a First Lady, wife of President Gerald Ford. She was one of the premiere First Ladies to be politically active and create several social precedents. She became known for her candor as a leader of the Women’s Movement and supporter of the ERA, Equal Pay, and Pro-Choice. She was also one of the most open First Ladies and publicly acknowledged her alcoholism and fight with breast cancer. She founded the Betty Ford Center to help addicts of substance abuse and was awarded high honors. Though he left this life before her, both she and her husband lived till the age of 93.

Janet Jagan (1920-2009) – What Jewish woman born in Chicago in the 1920’s would ever expect to end up becoming the President and Prime Minister of another country? Yet this is exactly what happened. After marrying Cheddi Jagan and moving to Guyana, her life changed radically. She and her husband became labor activists, and she founded the Women's Political and Economic Organization and co-founded the Political Affairs Committee while opposing the British colonial rule of Guyana. Both were co-founders of the People's Progressive Party. They were jailed for five months after which they were kept under house arrest for two years. But afterward, her husband became the President of Guyana. When he passed away, she was sworn in as Prime Minister and later became President.

Grace Rohrer (1924-2011) was born in Chicago and led a modest life singing in church choirs. She got married, but her husband died, and she found herself raising three children on her own. Her gumption, which she attributed to her mother, spurned her on toward getting a degree. Eventually, with the help of her father, she became one of the first females to rise to a state-level cabinet position in North Carolina. She championed women’s rights and strove to ratify the ERA in the slow-to-change South. She helped form the Women's Forum of North Carolina and led North Carolina's delegation to the first National Women's Conference, an event which was unprecedented.

Maggie Daley (1943-2011) – There are First Ladies, and there is “Chicago’s First Lady,” former wife of Mayor Richard M. Daley, Maggie Daley. Always gracious in spite of her health battles and ever thinking more about helping others, her legacy to Chicago continues. It was obvious her smile brightened any event, and her beautifying touch coupled with a love of nature transformed Chicago from a dull gray town to a city bursting with parks and flowers. She also helped spare many of Chicago’s old building from demolition and declared historical landmarks. She co-founded Gallery 37 and After School Matters, programs designed to encourage young people to stay out of trouble by becoming involved in the arts, later emulated by other cities. While her personal life was devoted to her husband and children, in her life outside the home, she strove to make Chicago the gorgeous city it is today, where the arts abound and even underprivileged youth have a chance to make it.

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