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Jane Byrne's daughter hates park statue. I have a better idea!

Updated: Aug 13, 2023

AOC, in bronze, 10 feet high on a granite pedestal. I'd like to see a modern-day social justice warrior, not some washed-up Irish lady who's long since past her prime (actually she's dead).

City Hall wants to put a statue of labor activist Mother Jones in Jane Byrne Park. Jane Byrne’s daughter is not happy about it.

By Gregory Royal Pratt

Chicago Tribune, Tribune

Published: Aug 13, 2023 at 5:00 am

After a bloody clash over the Christopher Columbus statue in Chicago’s Grant Park, then-Mayor Lori Lightfoot tasked a special commission with reviewing the city’s public monuments in what she said was “a racial healing and historical reckoning project.”

As part of its findings last year, the Chicago Monuments Project recommended support for a statue honoring Mary Harris “Mother” Jones, an Irish American labor leader who spent part of her life in Chicago in the 1800s.

Now Mayor Brandon Johnson’s administration is moving forward with a plan to install a Mother Jones statue at Water Tower Place, inside Jane Byrne Park, which is named in honor of Chicago’s first female mayor.

But that plan is facing criticism from the late mayor’s daughter, Kathy Byrne, who argues that the plaza is too small for a statue and that it’s inappropriate to honor a woman who opposed giving other women the right to vote at a park named after the city’s first woman mayor.

The ongoing conflict highlights the challenges public officials face across the country as they wrestle with public monuments and the historical figures they represent. Chicago has more public artwork celebrating mythical women than real women, which the city hopes to address by honoring Jones. But the choice of location, Kathy Byrne said, is tone-deaf.

“Not only is the decision deeply insulting, it’s really dumb that in an era where we are removing statues because of past oppression we are erecting a statue celebrating someone who strongly opposed voting rights for half the population,” Kathy Byrne said.

Mother Jones was born in Ireland, moved to North America, became a teacher and married an ironworker. Her husband and four children died amid a wave of yellow fever and she moved to Chicago as a dressmaker. She then became a labor leader, working with organizations to demand economic justice and at one point was called “the most dangerous woman in America” by a prosecutor for her fierce advocacy.

She was also controversial in her time for other stances. Jones made her views on women’s suffrage known in a New York Times interview where she said, “I am not a suffragist. In no sense of the word am I in sympathy with women’s suffrage. In a long life of study of these questions, I have learned that women are out of place in political work.”

Rosemary Feurer, a Northern Illinois University professor who has been working with a broad coalition for years to get the statue, acknowledged the anti-suffrage comments but said Mother Jones’ record was more nuanced.

“She came to believe that economic power, especially power at the point of production, was the main way to get better conditions and more equality for women,” Feurer said. “She said many, many times she believed women were equal so she had every right, should attain every right. Not every woman, including working-class women, doubted that suffrage was the way to get advancement.”

Feurer believes Mother Jones deserves a monument for her labor leadership.

“There are very few representations of working-class women anywhere in the United States. When we have statues to women, it’s few and far between. She was a powerhouse,” Feurer said. “Chicago is a union city, and the labor movement now and then thought of her as iconic.”

Elliott Gorn, a Loyola University history professor and author of “Mother Jones: The Most Dangerous Woman in America,” is affiliated with the DeKalb-based Mother Jones Heritage Project, which mounts exhibits on Jones and is raising funds for the statue.

Gorn said the group “did not pick the Water Tower location, but we were very pleased when the city offered it to us. We thought of it as positive that the site had been named for Chicago’s first woman mayor; it seemed to be a place where women could be honored, a space of solidarity. The idea that there was some kind of conflict never crossed our minds.”

Jane Byrne was a trailblazer for women in politics. She toppled Chicago’s formidable Democratic machine and “the cabal of evil men” that she said ran City Hall in 1979. She lost her reelection bid to Harold Washington four years later.

Over her single term in office, Jane Byrne launched Taste of Chicago and crowd-pleasing celebrations like Blues Fest, inspired the redevelopment of Navy Pier and the Museum Campus and encouraged moviemaking here in a big way by luring production of box office hits like “The Blues Brothers.”

She was also a mercurial leader prone to publicity stunts like the month she spent living in the old Cabrini-Green public housing complex and she presided over teachers, CTA and firefighters’ strikes. Once in office, Byrne also cozied up to the insiders she had once reviled, alienating the coalition of voters who were instrumental in making her the city’s first female mayor and setting the stage for defeat.

But Byrne’s legacy was largely ignored for decades after she left office in 1983. It wasn’t until 2014, months before Byrne’s death, that aldermen renamed the Water Tower park and the Circle expressway interchange in her honor. The park — whose Water Tower famously survived the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 while most of the area burned down — meant a lot to Jane Byrne, Kathy Byrne told aldermen when they approved the renaming, because the former mayor lived nearby for decades and it helped inspire her through tough times.

“During the time that my mom was mayor, and for many years both before and after, she lived right across the street from that park, and she said that whatever the trouble was in the city, whatever the crisis that was brewing, she could look at and see that Water Tower and say, ‘You survived the fire, and there was no city left, and you made it,’” Kathy Byrne said.

But Mother Jones had a personal connection to the Great Chicago Fire: After her husband and all four of their young children died in a yellow fever epidemic in Memphis in 1867, she returned to Chicago, where she had previously lived briefly, and worked as a dressmaker. But her shop was destroyed in the fire, setting her on an itinerant path where her labor activism and advocacy for striking workers began.

Originally, advocates for a Mother Jones statue pushed a site at Michigan Avenue and Wacker Drive, near the Chicago Riverwalk. But the city has decided to place it at Jane Byrne Park instead. At roughly a third the size of a typical Chicago city block, the park is relatively tiny, but it’s located in one of the highest-profile spots in town, along the Magnificent Mile. Kathy Byrne said she doesn’t object to a statue of Jones going up somewhere else in the city.

Kathy Byrne has been involved with politics, co-chairing Illinois Comptroller Susana Mendoza’s 2019 mayoral campaign, raising money for President Joe Biden’s 2020 and 2024 presidential campaigns, and chairing the Illinois Trial Lawyers Association.

Kathy Byrne also said the city is denying her Freedom of Information Act requests for information about the site selection. “Their logical reasoning is shrouded,” she said.

Through a spokesman, Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events Commissioner Erin Harkey declined to be interviewed. Her office released a statement that did not address the substance of Kathy Byrne’s concerns.

“After several internal discussions, the Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events has selected Jane Byrne Park as the location for a monument to Mother Jones,” the city said in a statement. “DCASE will continue to work with the Mother Jones Heritage Committee and other stakeholders to develop this project. We will also make every effort to uplift the legacy of late Chicago Mayor Jane Byrne in the park named in her honor, including a new informational signage program and a possible exhibition at the City Gallery in the Historic Water Tower.”

Public monuments have been a subject of spirited debate across the country for years, including in Chicago. Amid a national discussion about race in America in 2020, Columbus came under renewed scrutiny as statues across the U.S. were pulled down and local governments stopped celebrating the holiday in his name. Though Chicago was one of the cities where the monuments were lifted, Lightfoot at first resisted their removal and insisted afterward that the Grant Park statue should eventually return.

Still, she named a monuments commission aimed at a broader discussion.

The city’s monuments project had four main goals: cataloging monuments and public art on city property and the property of related agencies such as the Chicago Park District; filling out the advisory committee that will “determine which pieces warrant attention or action”; recommending new monuments or public art; and creating a dialogue about Chicago’s past. Part of the issue is a lack of representation for women and people of color.

Women and people of color aren’t altogether absent from the city’s public art. Many appear among the large-scale, digital faces of sculptor Jaume Plensa’s Crown Fountain in Millennium Park. In addition, a statue of the prizewinning poet Gwendolyn Brooks was unveiled on the South Side in 2018. And the Harold Washington Library Center contains multiple artistic tributes to Chicago’s first Black mayor.

But the city has few tributes to women — including the park for Jane Byrne and, potentially, statue for Mother Jones. Kathy Byrne is worried that dividing up the location will lead to overcrowding and confusion.

“We have very few things named after women and you’re going to put a statue of a woman in one of the few places,” Kathy Byrne said. “People are going to be confused thinking it’s a statue of Jane Byrne (or) or they’re going to think it’s Mother Jones Park, not Jane Byrne Park.”

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