Our mythological mother, Eve, plucked our heads from the clouds and planted our feet on the ground when she told Adam, “we need to eat that apple to get insight into human nature so we know what we’re up against.”
Some people dismiss, even deride women’s intuition. Perhaps this wrongheadedness is a subconscious backlash to colonial times when women were burned alive for their bewitching claims of divine truth-telling.
Three Chicago iconoclasts are standouts in demonstrating their feminine intuition and consequent leadership: Dorothy Day, Ida B. Wells and Emma Tai.
Sagacious Democratic strategist David Axelrod praised Paul Vallas for his “brilliant” single-issue strategy during the 2023 Chicago mayoral campaign. Vallas pounded out one violent crime message after another. But, fortunately for Chicago, that was not the winning strategy.
As the chief organizer for the progressive Working Families organization, Emma Tai honed her skills over the last ten years in grassroots campaigning, winning seats in Chicago’s city council. Conventional wisdom blinded moribund pundits into believing Vallas’ money and endorsements were a path to victory. They underestimated the tenacious Emma Tai—and never saw Brandon Johnson coming.
The losing Paul Vallas campaign outspent the winning Brandon Johnson campaign two to one.
“I knew if we won, it would only be because of organizing our ground game.” Tai said. “Our people were on the doors, and the Vallas people weren’t on the doors. We had a door-knocking program across all fifty of Chicago’s wards. On election day, I felt confident that we’d left it all on the field.”
Dorothy Day wrote about and advocated for the poor and oppressed all her life. In the 1930s, Day, a pacifist, established the Catholic Worker Movement, to aid the poor and homeless. She continually fought patriarchal systems in the workplace, politics, social structures, and the Catholic Church. She wrote uncompromising pacifist articles for the Catholic Worker, bucking the Catholic doctrine of just war theory. In 1951, the exasperated Archdiocese of New York ordered Day to cease publication or remove the word Catholic from her publication’s name. She did neither.
Then in1983, a pastoral letter issued by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, noted her role in establishing non-violence as a Catholic principle: “The nonviolent witness of such figures as Dorothy Day and Martin Luther King has had profound impact upon the life of the Church in the United States.”
In 1892, Ida Bell Wells, born into slavery during the Civil War, published an editorial in the Memphis Free Speech refuting what she called “that old threadbare lie that Negro men rape White women. If Southern men are not careful, a conclusion might be reached which will be very damaging to the moral reputation of their women.”
Violent white backlash drove her away from the south and eventually to Chicago. One of her lifelong pursuits was exposing lynchings of Black men. White suffragettes ridiculed and ostracized Ida because she openly confronted those who ignored lynching. Nevertheless, she continued advocating for women’s right to vote.
Her passions drove her to found The Chicago Conservator, the first Black newspaper in Chicago; establish Chicago’s first kindergarten for Black children; help found the NAACP; found the National Equal Rights League calling on President Woodrow Wilson to end discrimination in government jobs; organize The Women’s Era Club, a first-of-its-kind civic club for African-American women in Chicago; help organize the National Afro-American Council, serving as the organization’s first secretary; found the Negro Fellowship League, the first Black settlement house in Chicago; organize the Alpha Suffrage Club to further voting rights for all women.
The U.S. government placed Wells under surveillance, as a dangerous “race agitator”. She ignored this threat and wrote a series of investigative reports for the Chicago Defender on the East St. Louis Race Riots. She then founded the Third Ward Women’s Political Club to help Black people become involved in Chicago politics.
At Thalia Hall in Pilsen, reporter Laura Washington asked Mayor-Elect Brandon Johnson who his advisors would be when he sits in the mayor’s office.
He turned to the audience, looked around, paused, smiled, and answered.
“I’m going to listen to the women.”
Smart move, Mr. Mayor.