Chicago Women’s Club

I started this back in April. The course of research is often a serious rabbit hole. It’s worse when working without a deadline for you have the leisure to make strands into ropes. Today, though I found the knot at the end of it. Or so I thought…

A few months ago, I pulled out a small Hollinger box of vintage paper I’d been saving. I hoped each would find a home on Ebay or Etsy. I listed some. They went nowhere. The slick, grey box looks chic and minimalist. It lives under my coffee table.

Today I took another look….

This postcard is from the Chicago Woman’s Club, circa fall, 1910. It’s an announcement for their December meeting.

The Fine Arts Building was originally called the Studebaker Building; it was built by a carriage manufacturer. The top floors where added in 1898. By the early 1900’s Studebaker had moved on to cars. The Beaux Arts beauty became The Fine Arts Building. The Chicago Woman’s Club moved in early in 1903. They met on the top floor.

Ceiling Medallion in Curtis Hall

Lorado Taft would have been a neighbor.  The group must have met in what’s called Curtis Hall. Today it’s the home of the Chicago Youth Orchestra.

The view today.

The view in the Club’s days would have been much different. The Chicago Plan was only about a year old. Grant Park was there, but nothing else.

That day’s talk was about the “situation in the Garment Trade.” The Chicago Woman’s Club focused on both the  plight of female factory workers AND women in retail shops. They united the industry. I’d like to see that wide net in the rag trade today; considering the global nightmare of fast fashion and the collapse of retail.

Taking a Look at Our Characters

I knew who Jane Addams was of course. Activist, reformer, pioneer in the field of social programs, suffragette, partner in a Boston marriage, Nobel Prize winner-the list goes on. Hull House is so famous it even has a “devil baby” ghost story.

Professor George H. Meade was a University of Chicago Sociologist. A pragmatist, he represents a leap in American social theory and the way we react with each other.  He’s a member of “The Chicago School” of Sociology. Highly regarded, he’s pretty much the father of pragmatism.

Reverend Jenkins Lloyd Jones has deep Chicago roots as well. He in the founder of the oldest Unitarian Church in Chicago. A great example of pragmatism and compassion joined, his work for people with disabilities still serves the community today. He started the Abraham Lincoln Centre. This social services agency provides respite services and support for families.

Club member, Dr. Rachelle S. Yarros was another University of Chicago graduate. She was a physician and the founder of the birth control clinic at Hull House. Yarros opened the first one earlier in 1923. She also lived at Hull House. She was on the forefront of sharing sex and birth control information.

This talk was given around the time she was lobbying the club to found a birth control committee. Successful in her efforts, that committee would evolve into the Illinois Birth Control League. It would eventually become Planned Parenthood.

She was the best qualified speaker that day, too. She’d worked as a seamstress in New York upon her arrival. Growing up near Kiev, she was such a radical that by 17, Czarist police had her in their sights. Her parents funded her fleeing to America.

When I look at the history of the Chicago Woman’s Club-it lasted for over 100 years-I am astounded the accomplishments. Many aspects of social reform are covered-animal rights, birth control, kindergarten, juvenile justice reform, labor rights, mental health, prison reform, sanitation, suffrage, women’s rights-the results of their work touch our lives today. Members worked together to benefit the poor and undervalued in our country.

Many of the members had important professional jobs. Dr. Yarros of course, also Myra Bradwell who was the first woman admitted to the Illinois Bar and the founder of the Legal News; still printing today. However most of the members were primarily “the ladies who lunch.”

So what happened?  I would truly like to know what happened to the idea among the well-off in our culture to help others. Sure, today that segment of our culture are big supporters of the arts. However, this is usually soft support in the form of a check!

The Chicago Woman’s Club lasted for over 100 years. They had about six locations; starting in Caroline Brown’s living room. Let’s also remember that for almost the first 50 years of the Club’s history, her members didn’t have the vote!

The Chicago Woman’s Club purchased their own building in 1929 designed by Holabird and Roche. Today, it houses the Getz Theater on the Columbia College campus.

Our card also reveals a few other things that shed some light on early 20th century women’s issues, too.

I could not learn much about Grace Dixon, Corresponding Secretary. Grace’s only remembered role seems to be her tenure at the Club. To me, she very much represents the woman of the era who worked behind the scenes to make a difference but barely get noticed for their work. That would be most of us!

Our addressee, Mrs. Harry Hart, seemed even more obscure. I find historical reference to her only in Club ephemera and literature. As is usually the case with women of the day, even finding a first name is a challenge.

Perhaps Mr. Harry Hart might have been THE Harry Hart. The “Hart” in Hart, Schaffner and Marx. Hart, Schaffner and Marx started in Chicago in 1887. They are men’s suit manufacturer. Barack Obama wore a HSM tuxedo for his 2009 inauguration. Mr. Harry Hart married Sarah Leibenstein in 1906. So I am assuming Sarah is our recipient. Her works compliment the mission of the club. Among her other accomplishments, she founded the Juvenile Court System in Chicago.

If she is in fact our addressee, and if she actually attended, I would have liked to hear her thoughts on that topic that day. The 1910 Chicago Garment Worker’s Strike, is also known as the Hart, Schaffner and Marx strike.  The strike had been dragging on for six months by then.

The strike was organized by a Russian woman named Bessie Abromovitz. Bessie had come to America when she was 15. She of course, worked in the garment trade. I would also love to hear the conversation between Bessie and and Dr. Yarros.

Mr. Harry Hart is buried at Rosehill Cemetery, along with his first wife, Addie Cline and his second wife, Sarah L. Liebenstein. I’ll be making a field trip soon to see if I can find anything. The office has gotten more responsive about inquiries; maybe I will even match Mrs. Hart’s address. That would be a special thrill! I’ll visit Myra Bradwell while I’m there, too.

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