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Woman power - part four: Chicago’s pioneers in the women’s movement

Chicago has known some mischievous – or worse – women, but they are a tiny minority. Chicago has also had the honor of hosting some very brilliant and generous women who helped benefit Chicago and the world.

Bertha Palmer was had it all, including a generous nature.
Wikimedia Commons
A young Chicago woman with aspirations, Jane Addams
Pfeiffer University

Bertha Palmer (1849-1918) – She was born in Louisville, died in Florida and was buried in Graceland Cemetery, but she spent most of her life in Chicago married to Potter Palmer, who became wildly successful: he developed State Street and redeveloped it again after the Chicago Fire. Bertha was an icon in her own rite: a popular socialite and also a musician, writer, linguist, and a philanthropic business woman who even dabbled in politics. They lived in the biggest mansion in Chicago during those times, the Palmer Mansion on Lake Shore Drive. Bertha wasn’t just some young beauty who nabbed a millionaire husband: she was well-mannered, capable and sure of herself and did lots of good with her money.

Frances Xavier Cabrini a.k.a. Mother Cabrini (1850-1917) – She was the first citizen of the U.S. to be canonized by the Roman Catholic Church. She was beautified in 1938 and canonized in 1946 after performing what were deemed to be some as healing miracles. Because of this, she is considered a Saint and has shrines named after her. She founded the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart in support of Italian immigrants and orphans. Cabrini Green was named after her; in its beginnings, it provided affordable housing mainly to Italian immigrants.

Ada Sawyer Garrett (1856-1938) – She was a popular debutante who blossomed into a benevolent socialite. She and her mother created Logan Square, a beautiful Chicago neighborhood. After her husband passed on, she dropped out of the social scene, stayed in and managed her finances. By the time she left this Earth, her fortune was over $2 million, which she left not only to her relatives but to several Chicago hospitals and organizations that helped orphans, the poor and the disabled as well as the Chicago History Museum, the Art Institute of Chicago, the University of Chicago, Chicago’s Ada Street and Ada Park are named after her.

Jane Addams (1860-1935) – Jane Addams lived and died in Chicago where she enjoyed a busy and full life as a social worker and activist. She founded the Hull House, a settlement house for recently arrived European immigrants, now a museum. She was part of the first generation of the "New Women," the beginning of the women’s movement that strove to develop new roles for women. Jane became the first woman to receive the Nobel Peace Prize in 1931.

Dr. Fannie Emanuel (1871-?) – Fannie became a medical doctor after becoming a grandmother. She was also a civic leader in Chicago. She founded the Emanuel Settlement House to provide housing and a better lifestyle to the poor; even though it was located in what was known as the Black Belt of Chicago, she took in people of all races and creeds. In the modern world, a housing complex, the Fannie Emanuel Senior Apartments, is named after her and carries on her mission: “to inspire higher ideals of manhood and womanhood, to purify the social condition, and to encourage thrift and neighborhood pride, and good citizenship.”

Marion Mahony Griffin (1871-1961) – Marion's family moved from Chicago to the suburb Winnetka after the Chicago Fire. She had artistic leanings and was inspired to get an education. She decided to be an architect like her male cousin, Dwight Perkins. She went on to become one of the first licensed female architects in the world. She was hired by her cousin and worked in an office with a handful of architects, several who became famous, including Frank Lloyd Wright. When Wright broke away to start his own firm, she was the first architect he hired. She designed everything from buildings to furniture and even stained glass windows and decorative wall panels. However, being a woman was a hindrance in this occupation, and it wasn’t until later that her contribution to the field was finally recognized – after all, she was part of The Prairie School, which revolutionized architecture. She got married to fellow architect Walter Burley Griffin, and they traveled extensively and designed buildings all over the world, including Australia and India. And back in the Chicago area, many of her creations dot the landscape she loved while growing up.

Katharine McCormick (1875-1967) – Katharine grew up in Chicago where her father, Wirt Dexter, was a bigwig lawyer. She got a degree in biology and was planning to go on to medical school, but instead married Stanley Robert McCormick, an heir to the International Harvester fortune. Shortly after they married, he started to succumb to schizophrenia and they ended up living apart most of their marriage. In the meantime, she became a women’s rights activist and advocated women’s right to vote and birth control. She smuggled diaphragms from Europe for clinical research. After the passing of her mother (who left her over $10 million) and husband (who left her $35 million), she funded research into oral contraception; and in 1957, the FDA approved the Pill. For the rest of her life, she donated to medical research and for women to get educations in science and engineering.

This journey will continue with women of the 20th century and beyond, next.

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