Every year in March, women and men celebrate Women’s History Month and highlight women’s historical contributions. We honor generations of women who’ve used their intelligence, imagination, tenacity and resourcefulness to create a better life for the women and girls of today.
In Chicago, women have influenced everything from politics to science to education and beyond. These women have also been social justice change agents. They’ve used their voices, personal networks and passions to build a new agenda for women and girls, providing a hopeful course for generations to come.
Women like Jane Addams, a renowned social worker and activist, First Lady Michelle Obama, a lawyer and advocate for young-adult leadership development, Sandra Cisneros, an author and social entrepreneur, and Lorraine Hansberry, a playwright and lesbian activist, have changed our city.
Because of these women and other female Chicago’s leaders, girls are empowered, confident, and strong. Simply put, Chicago women have made the future brighter for both women and girls all throughout the city and the nation.
But this wasn’t always the atmosphere in Chicago.
Chicago was once was a place where women and girls’ issues were often overlooked and underfunded. In 1984, approximately 3 percent of philanthropic dollars supported programs that specifically addressed the needs of women and girls. Yes, there were programs for domestic violence, reproductive health and economic equality, but little money went to the organizations doing that work. Unfortunately, there were people who did not see the value of funding nonprofits that were in the community, on the ground, providing direct service to women and girls in need.
Luckily for Chicago, there were four women who did see the value in funding women-focused solutions and knew it would take women pooling their resources to get it done. These four women understood the deeper issues of social justice and how they connected with the challenges that women and girls faced. These four women – Marjorie Craig Benton, Sunny Fischer, Iris J. Krieg and Lucia Woods Lindley – are the founders of Chicago Foundation for Women (CFW).
“When we started CFW, we came together and began to champion something simple: women supporting other women,” says Ms. Krieg.
From CFW’s long standing funding of domestic violence organizations to the consistent support of advocacy work, CFW has been funding work that looks at the full spectrum of a woman’s life and the key issues impacting her progress throughout her life span.
“In the 80s when we started CFW, funding women’s issues were not a priority. We made it respectable,” shares Ms. Fischer.
Since CFW’s founding nearly 30 years ago, women and girls have made substantial progress: Women comprise half of all U.S. workers, and well over half of all American women are in the labor force. Women’s educational attainment has rapidly progressed, with women representing about 57 percent of enrollments at American colleges since at least 2000. Indeed, families are increasingly dependent on working women’s incomes in order to make ends meet.
But there’s still work to do. The resounding gender inequality in our nation and even in our own backyard is disheartening. According to an Illinois State Police report, of the 226,881 crimes reported in 2009, 72,177 were domestic violence crimes. We need more public outcry about all the women living in a state of violence and insecurity.
Speaking of insecurity, the National Partnership for Women and Families reports that in Illinois, there are approximately 612,607 female-headed households in the state and 28.5 percent or 174,593 are living well below the poverty line. The solution to ending these and many of the other unique challenges women face is through fixing the systems and policies that govern our lives.
This month, join me in celebrating the generations of women who have contributed to making Chicago a better city. Chicago is well-known for a few monikers: ‘The City of Big Shoulders,’ ‘Second City,’ and of course, ‘The Windy City.’ This month, in honor of Women’s History Month, let’s all come together as women to support solutions to help other women, and in turn perhaps Chicago will acquire a new tagline: ‘The City Where Women and Girls Thrive.’