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Women's rights

Socialite Ganna Walska was also an early pioneer of women’s rights.

Collection of John Schmidt

Feminism was in the news on November 30, 1923. Five hundred women came to Chicago for a conference of the National Women’s Rights Party. They met at 675 N. Rush Street, the mansion home of Ganna Walska.

Chicago socialite Ganna Walska. (Collection of John Schmidt)

Walska was one of those people who were famous for being famous. Born in Poland in 1887, she was currently married to her fourth husband, Chicago industrialist Harold McCormick. McCormick’s money was financing her dubious career as an opera singer--a scenario Orson Welles admitted copying in Citizen Kane.

At the meeting a number of NWRP speakers outlined the discrimination that women suffered in America. The laws of practically every state treated them as inferior to men.

Ohio was one example. Women in that state could not become taxi drivers or railway crossing guards. Nor could they find employment in bowling alleys, bars, or Turkish baths. They weren’t even allowed to shine shoes.

If anything, the problems became worse when a woman married. Under the tradition of English common law, a husband and wife became one person. That “one person” was the husband. He then had control of the wife’s earnings. He might even compel her to work or take in boarders, then keep the money for himself.

One speaker noted that women had first gathered to demand equality at the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848. Since then progress had been slow. “We have been fighting for seventy-five years for our rights,” she said. “It will probably take us another seventy-five to get them.”

The conference site, and the home of Ganna Walska. (Library of Congress/Chicago Daily News)

Genevieve Melody, a Chicago public school teacher, felt that the nation’s fundamental law had to provide the guarantee. “When we get a constitutional amendment providing for equal rights for men and women, that pronounced masculine squint will right itself,” Melody said.

Ganna Walska did not speak at the meeting. It was her first venture into public affairs. She smiled and nodded her head during the proceedings, and shook hands with the women as they left.

Two weeks after the Rush Street meeting, an Equal Rights Amendment drafted by the NWRP was introduced in Congress. It was never enacted.

Ganna Walska herself became a vocal feminist, but was never a leader of the movement. She later divorced Harold McCormick and had two more marriages. She died in 1984.

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