Suburban women in politics on Jane Byrne as an inspiration
Reaction to Jane Byrne's death from some suburban women in politics.
Former Arlington Heights Mayor Arlene Mulder was just getting her start in local politics when Jane Byrne broke Chicago's mayoral glass ceiling. The year was 1979, when Mulder, a high school biology teacher and coach, was appointed to fill a vacancy on the Arlington Heights park board. In 1993 she would be elected Arlington Heights' first female mayor. Mulder said she decided to run for mayor of Arlington Heights because of the encouragement of others, and she believes Byrne's story in Chicago is similar. "When you throw your hat in the ring, you never think I'll be the first woman or be breaking ceilings. You're doing it because you have people who believe in you," Mulder said. "There were people behind Jane Byrne as well who thought she had the ability to do something."
Jan Schakowsky first met Jane Byrne in the 1970s, when the future mayor was working in a Chicago agency that dealt with consumer affairs. "Her name will live on in the history of Chicago, and I think that's right," said the congresswoman from Evanston, talking about the recent naming of the Circle Interchange and a plaza after Byrne. She said one of Byrne's lasting legacies beyond being an inspiration for women in politics was drawing attention to the politics of the weather. "She gave kind of a new political meaning to snow storms," Schakowsky said.
Former longtime Palatine Mayor Rita Mullins met Jane Byrne once, at a fundraiser in Chicago during the years Mullins was Palatine village clerk. "She was an inspiration for me," Mullins said Friday. "(Her election) gave any woman the idea that it was possible that a woman could be mayor. The mere fact that she was deemed capable enough by the electorate to hold office, showed they were ready for a change." Byrne, she points out, didn't spring from nowhere. She was active in Democratic Party politics and close to Richard J. Daley. "I am saddened to hear of her death. But I am happy they named the interchange after her while she was still alive. That made my heart swell, to realize she was recognized for her contributions to our everyday life and our political life and the cause for women."
"She set the table for a lot of us," said former St. Charles mayor Sue Klinkhamer. Klinkhamer, 60, was St. Charles' first and so far only female mayor. She still speaks to some school groups and tells students that when she was growing up, not many women were in politics. "Truthfully, it is not something you really did," she said. In 1989, the lack of women on the city council prompted Klinkhamer to run, successfully, for alderman. Klinkhamer noted Byrne dropped out of the public limelight pretty quickly after losing re-election in 1983. And she is glad that in recent years, efforts have been made to memorialize Byrne, such as renaming the Circle Interchange after her. "She really was almost erased from the memory (of Chicago)," Klinkhamer said.
The former mayor of North Barrington met Byrne when, as a high school senior, she was awarded a Chicago organization's scholarship and "Youth of the Year" award. "At the time, I never had thoughts of a political life," said Starkey, now a Wauconda trustee, "but after being elected mayor of a small town in 1999, I had a newfound appreciation of how difficult it must have been for her to have broken barriers and become the mayor of a major global city back then."
Tina Thornrose, the former Lake in the Hills village president, said she was too young when Jane Byrne was elected in 1979 to be aware of its significance at the time. However, Thornrose said, she's glad Byrne lived long enough to witness the renaming of the Circle Interchange after her. "That was excellent timing on their part. I think they were aware she was very sick," she said. Thornrose said she hopes more women will follow Byrne's example and run for local office. "(Local government) should be more representative of the public. It should be 50/50," she said.
DuPage County Treasurer Gwen Henry, who served as mayor of Wheaton from 1990 to 1992, said Jane Byrne set the groundwork for women. "She was a good role model for all women to get involved in government," Henry said. "She served, and she did a good job. And she had to stand up to some of the other leadership in the city to make it work."
Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle called Byrne "truly a pioneer and an inspiration to all women in public service." "I'm a history teacher by profession," Preckwinkle said, "and I know that Jane will have a significant place in the history of our great City."
State Rep. Deb Conroy, of Villa Park, was "a quiet Democrat in DuPage County" when Byrne was in office. She said she hopes her grandchildren won't see a woman with political power as something new or different. Conroy said Byrne's ability to triumph over Chicago machine politics was inspiring. "Surviving that alone makes you a leader," Conroy said.
Former Mount Prospect Mayor and state Rep. Carolyn Krause called Byrne an "innovator for women in government" who didn't shy away from a political opponent. "She had a lot of battles that she was facing with a contentious city council, and I think she showed that she could move forward and get in there and handle issues in that era," Krause said. "It made it very clear that women without a doubt were and are competent at any level -- local, state, national."
State Rep. Carol Sente, a Vernon Hills Democrat, noted that, with the death of Dawn Clark Netsch in 2013, Byrne is the second female icon of Illinois politics lost in the past two years. "I admired former Chicago Mayor Byrne as a true reformer," Sente said. "She served Chicago during impactful years for me while studying business at Indiana University from 1979 to 1983. We have too few female role models in positions of significance, and therefore to see a female serving the position of mayor of an extremely large metropolitan city is inspirational to me as a public servant."
• Daily Herald staff writers Mike Riopell, Elena Ferrarin, Christopher Placek, Katlyn Smith, Robert Sanchez, Susan Sarkauskas and Renee Trappe contributed to this report.