“Women in the 1950s and 1960s thought they were the first–the first woman lawyers, the first woman doctors, and the first woman journalists,” says historian Rima Lunin Schultz, coeditor of a new biographical dictionary, Women Building Chicago, 1790-1990. But the precedent was set generations earlier. “They had been completely disconnected from early-19th-century history.”

“Once you get past Jane Addams and Bertha Honore Palmer and Hannah Greenebaum Solomon, there are very few women represented in history books about Chicago,” says Adele Hast, the book’s other editor.

That’s why the pair, along with six associate editors and more than 350 writers, spent the past decade assembling and writing the 1,088-page tome, which includes over 400 women who made important contributions in the fields of religion, science, art, music, theater, broadcasting, education, labor, law, literature, medicine, food safety, philanthropy, and social reform. The usual suspects–gospel singer Mahalia Jackson, anarchist labor reformer Lucy Parsons, journalist and civil rights activist Ida B. Wells-Barnett–share the pages with lesser-known figures like brothel owners Ada and Minna Everleigh, activist Chauncina Yellow Robe White Horse, and journalist and social worker Thyra J. Edwards.

The book’s title is “a play on the idea that this was a kind of masculine, hands-on, concrete city of builders who were all men,” says Schultz. “We’re looking at the construction of society in more invisible-to-the-eye ways that were just as important. We’re looking at the ways in which people are socialized and integrated into the institutions and the structure of urban life.

“Women played a very strong reform role in society. They wanted to humanize capitalism. They wanted to protect children and women. They wanted the vote. Even privileged women were fighting for an expansion of democracy.”

Until recent decades, she adds, history was mostly “a narrative of politics and leadership and about war and events of national significance. In this context women didn’t appear to have much of a role.”

The idea for the book, published by Indiana University Press and cosponsored by UIC’s Center for Research on Women and Gender, was launched by the Chicago Area Women’s History Conference. The CAWHC was founded in 1971 as a research and support group for scholars “who were doing this kind of historical research but didn’t get a lot of support as students in graduate schools or as teachers,” says Schultz.

She and Hast, a scholar in residence at the Newberry Library, decided to focus the project on women who had died before 1991, so that their stories would be complete. Using nonsexist language and including the women’s (and their mothers’) maiden names was a no-brainer, but beyond that they had few guidelines–there are no similar books on other cities–and it took nearly six years just to winnow the list of candidates down from the original 3,000. Many subjects were rejected because there simply wasn’t enough information about them. “This was an unusual reference book project because we were not pulling together already known material,” says Schultz. “It was like doing a puzzle but you don’t know the boundaries or edges because it’s constantly expanding as you do your work.”

Reference guides such as Andrea Hinding’s Women’s History Sources: A Guide to Archives and Manuscript Collections in the United States helped point the way. “There were a lot of manuscripts in the Chicago section, but they weren’t necessarily listed under women’s names but under organizations,” says Hast. “We had to go to the papers and look at the archives and really put together the story like a jigsaw puzzle. The information was in different places–maybe a woman had left some letters or diaries. The writer had to find them and take the manuscript information and put it together in a finished entry. It’s different than having printed articles on someone and synthesizing them, which is usually how you do a reference book. We started with papers that hadn’t been used before.”

Sometimes, as with the Chinese, Mexican, and Greek communities, the history was too recent to have been written down, so they sent researchers who spoke the language into the community to record oral histories. Schultz says a Mexican-American UIC undergrad was dismayed by the lack of Latina representation on the original list and offered to canvass the Mexican and Puerto Rican communities, where she uncovered new subjects like 1970s-era Chicana activist Maria del Jesus Saucedo, social worker Maria Diaz Martinez, and singer and cultural activist Angelina Moreno Rico.

“You cannot do women’s history without thinking about issues of race and issues of class analysis and issues of ethnicity,” says Schultz, whose extensive introduction to the book helps put the biographies into historical context. “Because middle-class white women’s history is not the narrative for working-class women or immigrant women or black women.”

For a large part of the 19th century, first- and second-generation immigrants made up close to three-quarters of the city’s population, Schultz says, and the activities of women in each group fit a similar pattern. “Women have always seemed to develop ethnic organizations that reach out to the more needy of their own group initially, and then they’ve found out about American politics and labor conditions and very often become reformers or part of the labor movement.”

In addition, she says, “Public schools were expanding very quickly and could almost not handle the growth. Women were really crucial to the development, not just filling in for what was needed but being innovative.

“This is very significant because society has always said that women should be home taking care of the family and not working. The real truth of the matter is that from the very beginning, more and more women each decade have been out of the home working. And they have been needed.”

The Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), cofounded by Evanston resident Frances Willard in 1874, was another powerful turn-of-the-century force. In addition to agitating against drink, the nationwide group also supported prison reform, women’s suffrage, and the abolition of prostitution. Willard, a socialist, tended to be more radical than millions of her followers, supporting labor and legal reform. “Women were married to men in these hopeless conditions,” says Schultz. “Drinking was part of a despair that you could not simply root out by having people take a religious pledge not to drink. You really had to attack the large social problems people found themselves in.”

Even the well-to-do members of the Chicago Women’s Club, founded in 1876, were not just ladies who lunched. Initially they presented research papers to each other on topics such as history and philosophy. Then they turned their attention to the workings of the local government and to health and education issues. “They began to act like a combination of a think tank and lobby group even before they had the vote,” says Schultz. “But they also wanted the vote, so they become vocally engaged in suffrage politics. They were also interested in child welfare, tenement improvement, and women’s trade unions.”

The group was instrumental in the fight for the first juvenile court system in the U.S., which was established here in 1899; by 1900 there was a national federation of women’s clubs with hundreds of thousands of members promoting such things as women’s rights, better education, and pensions for widows.

“They said they wanted to improve the condition of society and women for the good of the whole family,” Schultz says. “But they also were elite. They didn’t have open membership. The Chicago Women’s Club had only one black member for the very longest time.”

The club deliberated for over a year before admitting Fannie Barrier Williams, who had helped establish Provident Hospital and its training school for black nurses four years earlier, in 1895. She also helped establish the National League of Colored Women (now the National Association of Colored Women) and in 1924 became the first African-American and the first woman to serve on the Chicago Public Library Board.

Williams’s case typifies one of the book’s recurring themes: women creating their own institutions after being barred from those that already exist. Physician Mary Harris Thompson, for example, founded Woman’s Hospital Medical College as a partner to her Chicago Hospital for Women and Children in 1895 because Chicago Medical College (later Northwestern Medical School) wouldn’t admit women. Lawyer Myra Colby Bradwell was denied admission to the Illinois Bar Association in 1869 because she was a woman. She challenged the law, taking her case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. After she lost, she started the Chicago Legal News, where she covered legal issues and wrote editorials about women’s suffrage. “Even though she couldn’t practice, she used those skills and training to do something else,” says Hast. (Bradwell was finally admitted to the Illinois bar in 1890.)

One of the hardest groups to hunt down was artists–or at least their artwork. “It’s torture to write about artists and not be able to see their art,” says Schultz. “We have no visual memory of most of the artists in the book. There are people who have been very significant in Chicago for long periods of time who don’t have their work hanging anyplace. It’s kind of a metaphor for this ‘disappearing woman act’ I kept finding.”

Neither editor has any plans to update the book. Schultz, who has been clipping obituaries of prominent women for years, says she hopes someone else will take them off her hands. In the meantime, the pair, along with the associate editors, have been spending time promoting the volume. They’ll give a slide show at 12:15 on Thursday, September 13, at the Chicago Cultural Center (78 E. Washington) and discuss the making of the book on Sunday, September 16, at 5 at Women & Children First (5233 N. Clark), where they’ll be joined by associate editors Mary Ann Johnson and Carolyn De Swarte Gifford.

They both say they’re glad to be finished–finally–and they’re optimistic that other scholars will use the reference work as a tool for research and as a model for other regional undertakings. “We would hope that people in New York or Los Angeles or Boston would do similar projects,” says Schultz. “Until that happens, we really won’t have enough material to advance the writing of in-depth women’s history in this country.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Nathan Mandell.