It was nearly 50 years ago that Chicago elected its first African-American female alderman.
Anna Langford, a lawyer, civil rights activist and community organizer with a fierce Afro, ran as an independent in 1967 and lost by 15 votes. She tried again in 1971 and won the 16th ward seat, becoming one of two women elected to a legislative body that had been all-male since 1837.
The other pioneer, Marilou von Ferstel (Hedlund), a white woman, was a journalist, civic leader and corporate executive with so many connections that she was known as the “insider’s insider.”
She ran in the 48th ward as a Democrat and shocked everyone by winning the election in what was considered a solidly Republican ward.
Goes to show you that politics has always been full of surprises.
March is Women’s History Month, a good time to remember that it’s because of women like Langford and von Ferstel that two black women are now poised to make history again, when one of them becomes the first black woman to be mayor of Chicago.
Larry Langford, Anna Langford’s son, took a special delight in the outcome of Tuesday’s mayoral election, which saw Lori Lightfoot and Toni Preckwinkle top the crowded field of candidates.
“I can only imagine that my mom is smiling from above being the first black woman to be elected to the city council,” says Langford, longtime spokesman for the Chicago Fire Department. “She also ran as an independent and beat the machine. I see a lot of her in Lori Lightfoot.”
When Anna Langford died in 2008 at 90, the Rev. Jesse Jackson said she “used sheer integrity to beat back a well-financed oppressive political machine … We owe a great debt to Anna Langford.”
Her son says that, if she were alive today, she would be wondering: “What took so long?”
“She pushed Harold [Washington] to run,” he says. “She and a bunch of people met with Harold, and Harold wanted this, and he wanted that. At one of those meetings, she told Harold: ‘If you don’t run, I will.’ ”
Anna Langford’s climb to the Chicago City Council chambers was steep. She graduated from Hyde Park High School in 1935 and attended trade school to learn office skills. From 1938 to 1956, she worked as a typist while studying to become a lawyer.
“She went to night school at John Marshall Law School and graduated in 1956, when I was 4,” her son says. “She worked during the day while still taking care of her child.”
When she was ready to set up a law practice, Chicago was still a city where a black person could not rent office space downtown.
“She ended up renting space at 7101 S. Parkway,” Langford says — that’s now Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Drive.
Anna Langford was among the Chicago lawyers who went to Mississippi in 1964 to work for the “Freedom Summer” voter-registration campaign.
“She was working out of the office when James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Mickey Schwerner were killed,” Langford says.
Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner were young civil rights workers who were abducted and shot to death by members of the Ku Klux Klan and the local police department. Their bodies were buried in a ditch.
Von Ferstel was a different kind of trailblazer. She worked at the Chicago Tribune as a feature reporter at a time when only a few women were in newsrooms. During her career, she was a public relations executive, corporate director, and Democratic Party leader.
Von Ferstel died in 2016 at 78.
“She was probably the most courageous young woman I had ever met and quite a visionary,” former Ald. Marion Volini (48th), said when von Ferstel dued.
Von Ferstel served one term. Langford lost her bid for re-election but ran again and served two terms before retiring in 1991.
Langford and Von Ferstel came from different backgrounds, but their starts in life were similar. Von Ferstel was adopted by a Chicago couple after she was left at Cook County Hospital. Langford lost both parents at an early age and was raised by a grandmother until she was 16, when she came to Chicago to live with an aunt and uncle.
They are just two of the remarkable Chicago women on whose shoulders Lightfoot and Preckwinkle now stand.