Local Heroines: Pioneering Chicago Women

Women today enjoy universal suffrage, the right to hold public office, and equal opportunities in education and employment. From our 21st century perspective it's easy to forget that this wasn't always the case. You may not know the names of the local women at the forefront of these struggles, but they had a prominent role in fighting for and winning some of the rights we take for granted.

From the late 1860s to the passage of the 19th amendment in 1920, Chicago boasted a thriving women's suffrage movement. Most of us know the stories of local luminaries and suffragists Jane Addams and Ida B. Wells. What about Myra Bradwell? Florence Kelley? Mary Fitzbutler Waring? Although women still strive for equal pay, a balanced Congress, positive representation in the media and parity in executive roles, these reformers paved the way for the third wave. In celebration of Women's History Month, here are some of their contributions.

Active suffragist and founder of Chicago Legal News, Myra Bradwell is known as America's first woman lawyer. After repeatedly applying to the Illinois bar and being denied by the courts because of her gender and marital status, she was finally admitted in 1890 at age 59.

America's First Woman Lawyer

Living in Chicago from 1891 to 1899, social reformer Florence Kelley was at the forefront of the labor movement. Kelley fought against sweatshops and child labor, and for a minimum wage. As Chief Factory Inspector of Illinois, Kelley helped to pass the Illinois Factory Inspection Act of 1893, which banned labor for children under 14, limited work hours for women and children to eight hours a day and outlawed the creation of garments in tenements. Due to her efforts, a universal minimum wage law became part of the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938.

Florence Kelley and the Nation's Work

Mary Fitzbutler Waring was a physician, activist and suffragist who brought awareness of public health issues to Chicago's black community. Active in the National Association of Colored Women from the 1910s through the 1930s, in 1913 Waring became chair of the NACW's Department of Health and Hygiene. In this role, she worked to improve health conditions in a community challenged by racism and poverty. Read about Mary Fitzbutler Waring in Biography in Context.

You can read more about Bradwell, Kelley, Waring and many others in Women Building Chicago 1790-1990. Mary Ann Johnson, the book's associate editor and president of the Chicago Area Women's History Council, will give a talk on Women Building Chicago at 6 p.m. March 25 at Harold Washington Library Center.

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