It’s fitting that I publish my review of Louise de Koven Bowen’s Growing up with a City on International Women’s Day. Bowen was a natural leader and shaped civic life in the late 19th and early 20th century in Chicago. In fact she after women got the vote in the 20’s Republicans wanted Bowen to run for mayor, but she declined. (Remember that our parties’ philosophies have shifted through the decades.) I was blown away that back then having a woman run for a major office was even considered.
Bowen’s memoir begins with her family history. Her grandparents were some of Chicago’s first white settlers. Her courageous, wise grandmother frequently acted as a negotiator or peacekeeper with the native Americans near Fort Dearborn.
As a girl Bowen frequently had delusions of grandeur or desires for high social status. She competed with a visiting cousin from New York, whose lifestyle seemed more aristocratic.and fashionable. To make her family, which was plenty stylish and “couth” look better off, she used her own money to buy a smart uniform for her coachman and insisted on calling him Bernard rather than Barney, which he went by. Barney complied with most of the girl’s requests for finery but drew the line when 12 year old Louise suggested he call her Louise rather than her nick name Lulu.
Bowen was educated at a seminary in town, but upon completion felt her education incomplete. Thus the girl made a decision to read the encyclopedia to round out her knowledge base. She was wise enough to know that while that gave her a broad understanding, it didn’t offer much depth.
As an adult, Bowen was tapped to preside over hospital boards and civic organizations. Her book describes her successes and challenges in hospital management and affecting policy in the juvenile justice system and other causes. Bowen worked at Hull House with Jane Addams and offers insight into Addams’ leadership and beliefs.
Bowen saw the need for poor children to have an experience in the country and opened a summer camp for them. She pioneered social work and public policy. She spoke to massive crowds and compelled powerful men to do the right thing. She’s one of many civic leaders who’s gone unsung.
Reading Growing Up with a City, I learned a lot about philanthropy and life in the Gilded Age. I was impressed by how much more connected a philanthropist would be back then compared to now. Bowen would regularly walk through the impoverished neighborhoods to get a real feel for the hardships. When a woman , who’s husband had deserted her, came to a relief organization for help, immediate aid was given for the most pressing needs and then a search for the husband would take place. If at all possible the man was brought back to the family to make him take responsibility. I realize that’s not a cure-all, but we don’t even try such action. (We do try to find “deadbeat dads” and make them pay up, but that’s it.)
As is usually the case, reading a memoir written during an era rid me of silly notions our society projects on to the past. For example, I thought that surely after decades of fighting for the vote at least 50% if not a big majority of women would vote. That wasn’t the case at all.
Growing Up with a City was a fascinating read that deepened my understanding not just of Chicago history but of the Gilded Age as a whole. I was amazed at all one woman could accomplish.
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