Bookwomen building Chicago — the Fanny Buctcher story

Part II of IV

Adele Hast


omen Building Chicago 1790-1990: A Biographical Dictionary, a new book from Indiana University Press, contains biographies of 423 women in the history of Chicago. The women, involved in a variety of professions and activities, came from the numerous ethnicities, races, and religions that characterized Chicago’s population, both native-born and immigrant, in the 19th and 20th Centuries. They pursued their professions when women were encountering prejudice and discrimination because of their gender. It is important to remember that women did not get the vote nationally until 1920, when the 19th Amendment was passed. An Illinois law in 1891 allowed women to vote on local and state school candidates, but women could not sit on juries in Illinois until 1939!

Women in science and medicine met great opposition from men in those fields in getting an education and then a job in the respective professions. Many of the women were involved with books in different ways: as novelists and poets, as librarians, journalists, publishers, literary critics, historians, and as writers in their own professions, such as scientists who wrote for general readers. Some of them, for example novelist Edna Ferber and playwright Lorraine Hansberry, are famous. Most of the book-women, however, are not well known despite their contributions to Chicago’s development. They found less prejudice than their scientist sisters because writing and librarianship were considered acceptable activities for women. Yet even among bookwomen, some met bias because they were women. We’ll tell the stories of a few of these overlooked women and of the role they played in Chicago history.

First, though, let me tell you a bit about the history of the book itself. As book lovers, we often find the process of putting a book together as interesting as the final contents. Why was the book written? It was done to correct the historical record. In books on Chicago history, men were well represented, but few women were included. The idea of doing such a book arose at the Chicago Area Women’s History Conference, a non-profit organization started about 30 years ago to provide a place to discuss women’s history. The conference sponsored the book and holds the copyright. Funding for the project to develop and produce this biographical volume came from grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities, which saw such a reference book as a valuable tool in the field of American history, especially in studies of immigration, urban development, and industrialization. The Spencer Foundation and the Chicago Foundation for Women also gave some financial support. The work on the book was done at the University of Illinois at Chicago, where a new research program, the Center for Research on Women and Gender, became the third sponsor.

How was a woman chosen to be in the book? First, she had to do something important in Chicago or leave a record of her life that told something about the history of Chicago. Second, she had to have died by December 31, 1990. In this way, we had each person’s complete life story.

My co-editor and I, with six associate editors, chose the women to be in the book and worked with 350 writers. The process of selecting the subjects for the book took several years. At the outset, we looked through biographical dictionaries written in the 19th and 20th Centuries to find the names of Chicago women. For example, I went through the thousands of names in Who Was Who in America, found the women’s names, and read the entries to see who were Chicagoans; the search yielded only 75 names!

An important source to us was a reference book by Andrea Hinding, Women’s History Sources: A Guide to Archives and Manuscript Collections in the United States, published in 1979. This book told us where manuscripts were — many at Chicago repositories — that had information we needed. Because many of the women in the book had not been written about before, we had to use manuscript materials to piece together their stories. Often the manuscripts were in collections of organizations or of other persons, not of the woman herself.

Assembling a biography was sometimes like doing a jigsaw puzzle; the pieces came from different places, and we had to fit them together. For example, the Library of Congress had recently received a collection of letters and other papers by and about Hannah Solomon, a leader at the World’s Columbian Exposition held in Chicago in 1893 and founder of the National Council of Jewish Women. These papers were donated by her granddaughter in West Virginia. They included letters that showed the relationship of Solomon and Sadie American, who is also in the book, and depicted the struggle over who was the true founder of the National Council. We were able to use these papers in our research soon after they were opened to public use.

After the editorial board determined a partial list of biographees, we then used a different technique to select the remaining names. Each of us specialized in specific fields: scientists, physicians, writers, lawyers, women religious leaders. Every editor took the names we had already found in a specialty, did research in the field, found more names, and then presented to the board her recommendations for inclusion in the book. The rest of us asked questions, made comments, and sometimes didn’t accept a recommendation. We had to agree by consensus, so you can imagine those many meeting of eight active editors in a long, narrow room — we didn’t yet have an office — debating and deciding. At the same time that we were selecting the names, we had to find writers to do the entries. Ultimately, we worked with about 350 writers spread as far afield as England and Australia. The project, with all of its steps of selecting, researching, writing, and editing, took 11 years!

One woman on whom we all agreed to include was literary critic and editor Fanny Butcher (1888-1987), in whose bookstore Margery Hamill and Frances Barker had worked. She too has a tie to the Caxton Club, because Caxtonian Celia Hilliard wrote the entry on Butcher. =

From childhood, Butcher was driven by an overwhelming love of books. When she attended the University of Chicago, where she received an A.B. degree in 1910, she had a job reading aloud to a blind woman, Mrs. French, who wanted to hear Butcher read on serious subjects like history and philosophy, which she did not consider mediocre. Butcher recalled that Mrs. French, more than anyone, fostered her love of books.

It took Butcher several years of writing to work her way to the book page. She wrote feature articles for two briefly existing magazines, Morrison’s Weekly and Chicago. She convinced Floyd Dell of the Chicago Evening Post to publish a few of her book reviews in the literary supplement. These included a novel by Willa Cather, who would later become a close confidante. Through the Dell contacts, she began to meet some of Chicago’s outstanding young writers.

When Butcher became a member of the Illinois Woman’s Press Association, Mary O’Donnell, women’s editor at the Chicago Tribune, asked her to write a column, “How to Earn Money at Home.” Butcher happily took the job and began to work full-time at the newspaper in 1913. She eventually wrote for almost every department at the paper. She wrote in the areas generally assigned to women reporters — society, fashion, beauty, and etiquette, and also covered politics, Morals Court (which became Women’s Court), and several murder trials. She accepted most assignments, but what she really desired was to write about books.

The head literary critic of the Tribune’s Saturday book page was Elia Peattie (also in the book), who was followed by Burton Roscoe. Around 1915, Fanny Butcher suggested to the Sunday editor, Mary King, that the paper run a tabloid book review on Sunday. Unlike the highbrow Saturday coverage, the Sunday review would focus on lively discussions of writers and the publishing world, with some bestseller reviews. Butcher offered to write the section in her free time and King agreed. Butcher thus set up a base from which to analyze modern literature and become known to its prominent authors. She developed a large readership. In 1922, when Burton Roscoe was fired, Butcher became the Saturday literary critic — the job she had dreamt of having. She would remain at the Tribune for the rest of her career, spending almost 50 years there.

She knew major literary figures in Chicago and elsewhere. Edna Ferber called their friendship “a continuous live river.” Sinclair Lewis, with whom she had her most important literary tie, called her “little sister” and had a long and close correspondence with her.

Butcher’s reviews were intelligent, well written, and influential as well. She was an Oprah of her day regarding books. One of her colleagues at the public library reported, “When Fanny Butcher recommends a book, we get many inquiries for it from shop girls.” She was a favorite of the Tribune’s publisher, Colonel Robert R. McCormick, and he featured her in advertisements. Merchants credited increased book sales to her lively reviews. Carl Sandburg named her “Miss Chicago, Lady Midwest.”

In 1942, Tribune management decided to replace the Saturday page, which had become the Wednesday page, with a separate Sunday book section, an idea that Butcher had been promoting for many years. In a major setback in her career, she was passed over for the editorship, which went to a reporter from the travel section. Worse, she was assigned to write a column on society. She was 57 years old, and a new group of managers was making decisions. The book trade had become more commercial, and the main requirement for the new editor was the ability to sell advertising. In addition, she was not appointed because she was a woman. In announcing the change Tribune bosses asked publishers, “What would you think of a man?”

Nevertheless, she remained at the newspaper and kept her presence on the book pages, writing leading reviews. She wrote a weekly column, “The Literary Spotlight” — remembrances and book news that drew on her literary friendships. She also wrote the society column for 15 years under the ironic name, “Thalia,” the Greek muse of comedy and merry poetry.

With the years, Fanny Butcher acquired a reputation as the dean of Chicago’s literary critics. In 1953 she was the first woman to be honored by the Friends of the Chicago Public Library, and she was president of the group for ten years. In 1981, at the age of 93, she was inducted into the Chicago Press Club’s Hall of Fame.

Fanny Butcher achieved her ambition to live in the world of books. She was able to understand an author’s intention and convey it briefly to an audience she understood. She was trusted by two generations of writers here and overseas, who corresponded with her over a period of 75 years. (She lived to 99 years of age.) These letters are in the Newberry Library and are a rich source on the literary and cultural world in 20th Century Chicago.

The women we have been looking at — Butcher, Barker, and Hamill — were 20th Century professionals. What did the book world offer women in the previous generation, those born during or shortly after the Civil War, whose careers began in the 19th Century? We’ll examine the lives of several women in the next issue, who followed different paths in their contributions to literary and cultural life. Two of them came to the United States as immigrants and fashioned distinguished careers in journalism and literature.

Fanny Butcher

Photograph of Fanny Butcher, from the Fanny Butcher Collection in the Newberry Library, through whose courtesy it is used.

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