An image from the upcoming project “Documenting Women’s Activism and Leadership in the Chicago Area, 1945-2000”
An image from the upcoming project “Documenting Women’s Activism and Leadership in the Chicago Area, 1945-2000” Credit: courtesy CWHC

From the outside, 2109 N. Humbolt looks like a typical Logan Square home, with a handsome red brick exterior and a small patch of greenery to the side. While the address may seem ordinary, inside is a wealth of information—like manuscripts and serials—pertaining to women’s history. It is home to the Chicago Women’s History Center (CWHC), a nonprofit volunteer organization committed to educating the city on the women who came before them.

First known as the Chicago Area Women’s History Conference Center, CWHC was founded in 1971—amid the second wave of the feminist movement—by a group of women historians lead by Jean Hunt, who later went on to be the center’s first president. It was designed to promote women’s history, as well as provide opportunities to female historians.

“The entire field of women’s history which now has blossomed in so many ways, was really just beginning at that time,” says Mary Ann Johnson, current president of the center. “[Hunt] was very concerned about women who were professional historians and the fact that they weren’t being promoted and recognized in the same way that men were and, certainly, they weren’t getting the same kinds of salaries. So there was that kind of element of discrimination against women historians, but also she was very interested in the burgeoning field of women’s history, and trying to support this and trying to support scholarship and publishing in this area.”

She continues, “As we went on, we became more and more focused not just on women’s history generally because people were beginning to do this nationally, but we focused more on Chicago women and we realized, ‘Oh my gosh there’s just this incredible history here in Chicago, of women who’ve been active in so many different areas.'”

CWHC’s research on women’s history in Chicago eventually led to the Telling Women’s Lives Project, a research effort that eventually produced the book Women Building Chicago 1790-1990, A Biographical Dictionary, published in 2001.

“It took us over ten years [to] do the research and writing. We ended up writing the biographies of 423 women from Chicago history,” Johnson says. “We were trying to get women from various races and cultural groups and classes and ethnic groups and so on. And in many instances, it was a real struggle because there wasn’t that much available during the time that we were writing. Now there is much more.”

While CWHC has steadily maintained its commitment to research and education regarding women’s history, it has had to adapt amid the COVID-19 pandemic. While traditionally home to in-person events, the center has adopted a virtual model, hosting educational seminars on subjects like women’s health and the suffrage movement via Zoom.

Beth Loch is an archival specialist at Vivian G. Harsh Research Collection at the Carter G. Woodson Regional Library, who also serves as a member of CWHC’s Board of Directors. Loch, who recently hosted an event for the center focused on inequalities in women’s health, says that the virtual model allows access to a wider audience than in-person.

“Because of Zoom doing online programming, you can really have anybody globally attend, it doesn’t have to be somebody who’s in the room with you,” she says. “Because often, things like, you know, the weather, travel time, busy schedules get in the way of having somebody at an in-person program. Parking in Chicago—like all those little things play a part.”

Loch says that “Zoom fatigue” and technical difficulties sometimes pose a challenge for participants who are more comfortable using an in-person format. She says that those who are unfamiliar with Zoom or newer technology might find the prospect intimidating.

While CWHC serves as an educational voice for women’s history, vice president Maureen Hellwig says that the issues taught by the center need better implementation in schools.

“I believe that we don’t understand things nearly as well if we don’t understand the background,” she says. “It took years before [schools] included African American History and Latino history and women’s [history]. There’s just a lot of those pieces that aren’t taught in early enough age [groups] as far as I’m concerned.”

Hellwig says that this lack of a robust education on the history of oppressed groups worsens the public’s understanding of discrimination and prejudice against said groups, referencing the recent killings of Asian women in Atlanta as an example of historical prejudices in practice.

CWHC will celebrate its 50th anniversary in September, with plans for a revamped website in the coming months. Currently, the center is embarking on “Documenting Women’s Activism and Leadership in the Chicago Area, 1945-2000,” a research initiative focused on “women’s participation in the labor movement, community organizing, neighborhood initiatives, the peace movement and religious groups agitating for change,” among other topics.

According to Johnson, CWHC is setting their sights on highlighting the work done by Black activists.

“We feel like a lot of the work that Black women have done in their local communities hasn’t been recognized,” she says.

Whether connecting in-person or across separate computer screens, CWHC is maintaining their commitment to education and preservation of women’s history—and hopefully a deeper understanding of women’s experiences.

“When you look back and see what was sacrificed and what women had to go through to be, you know, in the boardrooms, talking up front to really get to their position, maybe as vice president, that really took a long time and that was a struggle,” Loch says, “and people won’t realize that unless they learned women’s history.”   v