Stories of Four Badass Ladies of Chicago for Women’s History Month

Women’s History Month is a natural time to reflect on all the women who’ve made Chicago a world-class city. We’ve got some heavy hitters, of course. Nobel Prize-winner Jane Addams, Pulitzer Prize-winner Gwendolyn Brooks, and the force of nature that is Oprah. On Friday, March 22, we’re hosting our second annual “Badass Women of Chicago History,” a live storytelling event that will shine a light on some of the other awesome women from Chicago’s past, women whose names you may not know. Talented storytellers will share the challenges, triumphs and inspirational stories of a huge range of Chicago women from history. 

Badass women are everywhere in Chicago’s history, of course, so to kick off Chicago Women’s History Month we’re spotlighting a few more you may not know.

1. TILLIE ANDERSON, CHAMPION OF THE WORLD

chicago womens history tillie on her bike
Get out of her way, she will not hesitate to mow down a pedestrian in her way. Photo via Wikimedia.

Tillie Anderson was a badass woman who smashed cycling records during the height of Chicago’s late-nineteenth century bicycle craze. A Swedish immigrant, Tillie arrived in the city in 1889 and saved her meager seamstress’ earnings for two years to buy her first bicycle. She relished the freedom it gave her, and above all else she liked to go fast. In 1895 she entered her first bicycle race. By 1896, she was the undisputed champion of women’s cycling in the world.

Tillie was known to be, ahem, “strong-willed” and devoted to athleticism at a time when women were expected to be dainty and prim. She proudly showed off her muscles to a reporter in 1897, noting, “Three years ago I was very fat in the legs, almost as much so as Miss Peterson, one of my competitors in the St. Louis race, is today.” Oh the shade of it all.

She memorably completed a 100-mile course from Chicago through Elgin and Aurora and back. Incredibly, she completed the route in just under 7 hours. The Tribune noted in 1965 that “no girl ever broke Tillie’s record… and very probably no girl ever will.” Our resident cycling master (and Lead Tour Guide) Elizabeth confirmed for me that this trip would probably take her about 8 hours. Considering the advancements in bicycle technology that have been made in the last 120 years, I think it’s safe to say Tillie deserves a nod during Chicago Women’s History Month.

2. HAZEL M. JOHNSON, ENVIRONMENTAL WARRIOR

Chicago womens history month Hazel Johnson
Hazel Johnson often went door to door to raise awareness of the issues her neighbors were facing. Photo via Wikimedia.

Hazel M. Johnson is often called “the mother of the environmental justice movement.” As a resident of the Altgeld Gardens housing project on the South Side, she noticed the extremely high rates of cancer, respiratory issues, and other health concerns in her own family and in the community around her. Her husband died of cancer in 1969 at the age of 41, which motivated her to act. She began investigating.

She discovered that Altgeld Gardens is built on a former landfill. Industry nearby polluted the land and air, and dangerous chemicals poisoned the drinking water. Digging further, she learned that a 140-square-mile ring of pollution stretched from the South Side of Chicago to northern Indiana, which she called “The Toxic Doughnut.” She galvanized her neighbors to form the organization People for Community Recovery to fight back.

Hazel was a badass woman of Chicago history who was unafraid to stand up for her community. “Every day, I complain, protest and object, but it takes such vigilance and activism to keep legislators on their toes and government accountable to the people on environmental issues,” she said in 1995. “I’ve been thrown in jail twice for getting in the way of big business, but I don’t regret anything I’ve ever done, and I don’t think I’ll ever stop as long as I’m breathing.”

Hazel revealed the environmental hazards which endanger many less-privileged communities. Her legacy is carried on today in the work of activists in Chicago neighborhoods who fight to ensure that their communities have access to healthy environments.

3. VALERIE TAYLOR, REVOLUTIONARY WRITER

chicago womens history valerie
Valerie Taylor, self-identified Lesbian Grandmother of America. Photo via Wikimedia

Born Valerie Nacella Young in rural Illinois, this badass woman of Chicago history married in her 20s and soon had three sons. Unfortunately, her husband was unstable and abusive. She sold her first novel in 1953 for $500, and used that money to hire a divorce attorney. Valerie packed up her sons and moved into a tin-walled house in Chicago.

She soon found success writing lesbian pulp novels, which were exploding in popularity in the 1950s. However, men wrote most of these books. Valerie wanted to add some realism to the genre. “I wanted to make some money, of course, but I also thought that we should have some stories about real people,” she later said. Under the pen name Valerie Taylor she published her first novel in this genre, The Girls in 3-B. It sold 2 million copies, a smash success.

She told her biographer that she was an “inevitable revolutionary” because society deemed her an “eight-time loser: I am a woman, a lesbian, a creative spirit, a laborer, a handicapped person, a peace worker, an Indian (Potawatomi), and over sixty.” She was a founding member of Mattachine Midwest in 1965 and devoted her life to numerous causes including tenants’ rights, peace activism, and in her later years was an active member of the Gray Panthers. For all those reasons, she deserves a place of honor during Chicago Women’s History Month.

4. CHIYE TOMIHIRO, FEARLESS WITNESS

When Chiye Tomihiro was 16 years old, she and her family were forced to leave their Portland, Oregon home and report to an “evacuation center” ringed by barbed wire fence. It was May 1942, one month before Chiye was going to graduate from high school. She was among the over 100,000 people of Japanese descent (mostly American citizens) who were relocated into internment camps during World War II.

Over 20,000 displaced Japanese Americans resettled in Chicago after the war, including Chiye and her family. She recalled facing discrimination in housing and struggling to find a job. Suspicion, and outright racism, against Japanese-Americans was omnipresent right after the war.

After the war Chiye and most of the relocated Japanese-American community focused on recovery. By the 1960s, she began to vocally advocate for civil rights and official recognition of the injustices endured during the war. She testified before Congress at the 1981 Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment on Civilians. She spoke boldly about her own experiences and arranged for others to testify, which many were reluctant to do.

“I think for the first time they faced up to what had actually had happened to them,” she later recalled.  “Everybody had suppressed all these feelings. …to this day there are many people that can’t talk about it.”

The testimony of Chiye and her fellow internees led to the passage of the Civil Liberties Act of 1988. The law granted reparation payments to surviving internees and an official apology from the US government.

You can hear this all-star of Chicago Women’s History Month tell her own story in this video:

BADASS WOMEN OF CHICAGO HISTORY ON MARCH 22!

It’s an honor highlighting these ladies during Chicago Women’s History Month. They fought to make the city what it is today. So we hope to see you at “Badass Women of Chicago History” on March 22 to hear even more of their stories! Buy your tickets now to learn about a whole host of cool women. Our storytellers are introducing everyone from the mother of forensic science Frances Glessner Lee to the first African-American female pilot Bessie Coleman.

– Marie Rowley, Marketing Coordinator

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Ellen

Private Tour Coordinator and Tour Guide

There is no shortage of things to discover in Chicago—I love being an urban explorer and uncovering its hidden places. I have an MA in Public History from Loyola University Chicago, and I have worked as a museum educator and kindergarten teacher. My desire to learn new things fuels my passion for educating others, which I get to experience every day as a Chicago tour guide. I live in the northern neighborhood of Rogers Park.

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Jen

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Whether you are a first-time visitor or a lifelong resident, the vibrant history and modern majesty of Chicago never ceases to amaze. I’m a graduate of Columbia College with an M.A. in Interdisciplinary Art. I’ve worked for many years as an educator at City Colleges of Chicago. As tour guide at Chicago Detours, I integrate my enthusiasm for culture and architecture with my passion as an educator. West Town/Noble Square area is home for me.

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Elyse

Tour Guide

With our Chicago neighborhoods, vibrant cultural institutions and nearly two centuries of larger-than-life stories, there’s never a dull moment here! I’m a fifth generation Chicagoan and a graduate of Washington University in St. Louis. In addition to guiding tours, I’m a creative writer and amateur genealogist. I also enjoy the city’s dynamic theater scene. You can also read overlooked stories from 19th-century newspapers on my “Second Glance History” blog. I live in River North.

Anthony

Tour Guide

Chicago is unique as it always evolves into the future while holding on to the past. I’m fascinated by how people latch on to old architecture but happily pave over others. My background is in theater and performance and I’ve been a tour guide here for more than 10 years. Currently I’m finishing my Master’s in Public History at Loyola University because I love to teach the history of this scrappy city. I’m in the Edgewater neighborhood.

Marie

Operations Coordinator and Tour Guide

Chicago’s history is so fascinating, you could spend a lifetime uncovering its secrets…I’m willing to give it a try! I have an M.A. in US History from the University of Nevada-Las Vegas and then pursued doctoral studies in Urban History at the University of Illinois at Chicago. I love to learn new aspects of Chicago’s rich history and then share my knowledge as a tour guide with Chicago Detours. I live in Ravenswood.

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Sonny

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As a fourth generation Chicagoan, I have been living and loving Chicago by bike, on foot, public transit or automobile. I am a graduate of UIC where through the College of Urban Planning and Public Affairs, began my eagerness to understand the nature, history and impacts of urban planning and development. It is incredibly rewarding to give back to this wonderful city by helping out in the office of Chicago Detours. I live in the incredibly diverse neighborhood of Albany Park.
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Alex

Content Manager and Tour Guide

Chicago has so many neighborhoods, buildings, and by-ways that it’s hard to go long without seeing something new, or something familiar from a new angle. I studied Cinema History for my M.A. from the University of Chicago. I’ve worked as a culture writer for various publications and as an educator of the humanities at the City Colleges of Chicago. I’m thrilled to share my love of this city’s busy past and unique architectural spaces with Chicago Detours. I live in the Chicago neighborhood of Lincoln Park.

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Amanda Scotese

Executive Director and Tour Guide

I’m an interpreter of personal stories from the past and the city’s landscape. I love to imagine what originally happened inside old unmarked buildings, and what forces have shaped their design. I studied Chicago history, architectural history, and anything Chicago-related through my M.A. in the Humanities at the University of Chicago. My love for stories was enriched by my B.A. in Literature from the University of Michigan. I’ve written travel articles for publications like Rick Steves’ Italy best-selling travel guides, the San Francisco Bay Guardian, and The Chicago Food Encyclopedia. I live in the Chicago neighborhood of West Avondale.
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