Thursday, February 28, 2019

The Biography of Jane Byrne, Chicago's First Female Mayor.

Jane Margaret Byrne served as the 40th Mayor of Chicago from April 16, 1979, until April 29, 1983, becoming the first female Mayor of Chicago. She was also the first woman to be elected Mayor of a major city in the United States. Before her tenure as Mayor, Byrne served as Chicago's commissioner of consumer sales from 1969 until 1977, the only woman in Mayor Richard J. Daley's cabinet.
Jane Byrne, Chicago's 40th Mayor.
Byrne was born Jane Margaret Burke on May 24, 1933, at John B. Murphy Hospital in the Lake View neighborhood on the north side of Chicago, Illinois. Raised on the city's north side, Byrne graduated from Saint Scholastica High School and attended St. Mary of the Woods College in Indiana for her freshman year of college. Byrne later transferred to Barat College of the Sacred Heart in Lake Forest, Illinois, where she graduated with a bachelor's degree in chemistry and biology in 1965.

Byrne entered politics to volunteer in John F. Kennedy's presidential campaign in 1960. During that campaign, she first met then-Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley. After meeting Daley, he appointed her to several positions beginning in 1964 in a city anti-poverty program.

In June 1965, she was promoted and worked with the Chicago Committee of Urban Opportunity. In 1968, Byrne was appointed head of the City of Chicago's consumer affairs department. In 1972, Byrne was a delegate to the 1968 Democratic National Convention (DNC) and the DNC resolutions committee chairperson in 1973. Byrne was appointed co-chairperson of the Cook County Democratic Central Committee by Daley, despite her rejection by the majority of Democratic leaders, in 1975. The committee ousted Byrne shortly after Daley died in late 1976. Soon after, Byrne accused the newly appointed Mayor, Michael Bilandic, of being unfair to city citizens by placing a 12% increase on cab fare, which Byrne felt resulted from a "backroom deal." Byrne was fired from her post as head of consumer affairs by Bilandic shortly after being made aware of her charges against him in April 1977.

Months after her firing as head of the consumer affairs department, Byrne challenged Bilandic in the 1979 Democratic mayoral primary, the real contest in this heavily Democratic city. Officially announcing her mayoral campaign in August 1977, Byrne partnered with Chicago journalist and political consultant Don Rose, who served as her campaign manager. At first, political observers believed her to have little chance of winning. A memorandum inside the Bilandic campaign said it should portray her as "a shrill, charging, vindictive person—and nothing makes a woman look worse."

However, in January, the Chicago Blizzard of 1979 paralyzed the city and caused Bilandic to be seen as an ineffective leader. Jesse Jackson endorsed Byrne. Many Republican voters voted in the Democratic primary to beat Bilandic. Infuriated voters in the North Side and Northwest Side retaliated against Bilandic for the Democratic Party's slating of only South Side candidates for the Mayor, clerk, and treasurer (the outgoing city clerk, John C. Marcin, was from the Northwest Side).
Mayoral candidate Jane Byrne gives a "V" for victory as she emerges after voting in the February 27, 1979, primary election.
These four factors combined gave Byrne a 51% to 49% victory over Bilandic in the primary. Positioning herself as a reformer, Byrne won the main election with 82% of the vote, still the largest margin in a Chicago mayoral election.
Jane Byrne savors her victory over Mayor Michael Bilandic in 1979. She was Chicago's first and only female Mayor.
Byrne made inclusive moves as Mayor, such as hiring the first African-American and female school superintendent Ruth B. Love. She was the first mayor to recognize the gay community. In her first three months in office, she faced strikes by labor unions as the city's transit workers, public school teachers, and firefighters all went on strike. She effectively banned handgun possession for guns unregistered or purchased after enacting an ordinance instituting a two-year re-registration program.
From left to right: Mayor Jane Byrne, John Belushi, Dan Aykroyd, and Kathy Byrne strike a "Blues Brothers" pose at ChicagoFest in August 1979.
Byrne used special events like ChicagoFest to revitalize Navy Pier and the downtown Chicago Theatre. Byrne and the Cook County Democratic Party endorsed Senator Edward Kennedy for president in 1980. Still, incumbent President Jimmy Carter won the Illinois Democratic Primary and even carried Cook County and the city of Chicago. Simultaneously, Byrne and the Cook County Democratic Party's candidate for Cook County States' Attorney (chief local prosecutor), 14th Ward Alderman Edward M. Burke, lost in the Democratic Primary to Richard M. Daley, the son of her late mentor, Daley, then unseated GOP incumbent Bernard Carey in the general election. Other events in her mayoralty include Pope John Paul II's debut papal visit that October and, the finding of Soviet Ukrainian escapee Walter Polovchak the following year-1980-and, his announcement of his desire to stay in America permanently and not go back to the USSR with his parents.

On March 26, 1981, Byrne decided to move into the crime-ridden Cabrini-Green housing project on the near-north side of Chicago after 37 shootings resulting in 11 murders occurring during three months from January to March 1981.
Mayor Jane Byrne greeted President Ronald Reagan (born & raised in Illinois) at Meigs Field in 1981.
In her 2004 memoir, Byrne reflected on the decision to move into Cabrini-Green: "How could I put Cabrini on a bigger map? ... Suddenly I knew — I could move in there." Before her move to Cabrini, Byrne closed down several liquor stores in the area, citing the stores as hangouts for gangs and murderers. Byrne also ordered the Chicago Housing Authority to evict tenants suspected of harboring gang members in their apartments, which totaled approximately 800 tenants.

Byrne moved into a 4th-floor apartment in a Cabrini extension building on North Sedgwick Avenue with her husband on March 31 at around 8:30 pm after attending a dinner at the Conrad Hilton hotel. Hours after Byrne moved into the housing project, police raided the building. They arrested eleven street gang members who they learned through informants were planning to have a shootout in the Mayor's building later that evening. Byrne described her first night there as "lovely" and "very quiet." Byrne stayed at the housing project for three weeks to bring attention to the housing project's crime and infrastructure problems. Byrne's stay at Cabrini ended on April 18, 1981, following an Easter celebration at the project, which drew protests and demonstrators who claimed Byrne's move to the project was just a publicity stunt.

On November 11, 1981, Dan Goodwin (nicknamed "Spiderman"), who had successfully climbed the Sears Tower the previous spring, battled for his life on the side of the John Hancock Center.

William Blair, Chicago's fire commissioner, ordered the Chicago Fire Department to stop Goodwin by directing a full-power fire hose at him and using fire axes to break window glass in Goodwin's path. Mayor Byrne rushed to the scene and ordered the fire department to stand down.

Then, through a smashed-out 38th-floor window, she told Goodwin, who was hanging from the building's side a floor below, that though she disagreed with his climbing of the John Hancock Center, she opposed the fire department knocking him to the ground below. Byrne then allowed Goodwin to continue to the top.

In January 1982, Byrne proposed an ordinance banning new handgun registration, which was considered controversial. The ordinance was created to freeze the number of legally owned handguns in Chicago and require owners of handguns to re-register annually. The law was approved by a 6-1 vote in February 1982.

Also, in 1982, she supported the Cook County Democratic Party's replacement of its chairman, County Board President George Dunne, with her city-council ally, Alderman Edward Vrdolyak. The Chicago Sun-Times reported that her enemies publicly mocked her as "that crazy broad" and "that skinny bitch" and worse.

In August 1982, Byrne decided to seek a second term as Mayor. At the beginning of her re-election campaign, she was trailing behind Richard M. Daley, then Cook County State's Attorney, by 3% in a poll by the Chicago Tribune in July 1982.
Mayor Jane Byrne, Mayor-elect Harold Washington, and State's Attorney Richard M. Daley gather at a symbolic day-after-the-election "unity luncheon" in 1983 to ease political tensions that had divided Chicago.
Unlike the 1979 mayoral, where Byrne received 59.3% of the African-American vote, Byrne had lost half of that vote. Byrne was defeated in the 1983 Democratic primary for Mayor by Harold Washington; the younger Daley ran a close third. Washington won the Democratic primary with just 36% of the vote; Byrne had 33%. Washington went on to win the general election.
Jane Byrne, seated, disk jockey Jonathon Brandmeier, and Kathy Byrne sing while taping a rock video of "We're All Crazy in Chicago" in 1985. "It's good for everybody to poke fun at themselves once in a while," said the former Mayor.
Byrne ran against Washington again in the 1987 Democratic primary but was narrowly defeated. She endorsed Washington for the general election, in which he defeated two Democrats running under other parties' banners (Edward Vrdolyak and Thomas Hynes) and a Republican. Byrne next ran in the 1988 Democratic primary for Cook County Circuit Court Clerk. She faced the Democratic Party's slated candidate, Aurelia Pucinski (endorsed by Mayor Washington and is the daughter of then-Alderman Roman Pucinski). Pucinski defeated Byrne in the primary and Vrdolyak, by then a Republican, in the general election. Byrne's fourth run for Mayor involved a rematch against Daley in 1991, and Byrne received only 5.9 percent of the vote, a distant third behind Daley and Alderman Danny K. Davis.

Byrne had entered hospice care and died on November 14, 2014, in Chicago, aged 81, from complications of a stroke she suffered in January 2013. Her funeral was held at St. Vincent de Paul on Monday, November 17, 2014. She was buried at Calvary Catholic Cemetery in Evanston, Illinois.
Gov. Pat Quinn hands a sign to former Chicago Mayor Jane Byrne during a dedication ceremony to officially name the Circle Interchange in her honor, Friday, August 29, 2014.
In July 2014, the Chicago City Council voted to rename the plaza surrounding the historical Chicago Water Tower on North Michigan Avenue the Jane M. Byrne Plaza, in her honor.

Compiled by Dr. Neil Gale, Ph.D. 


  1. This was a lovely history of Jane Byrne. She is the first mayor I remember, I was too young for the first Daley.

  2. Great article! I was 8 when she was elected and remember so clearly my grandmother saying this was really something, a female mayor of Chicago.


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