From the skyscrapers of Chicago to the open plains of the Prairie State, Illinois is famous for its rich diversity and Midwestern values.
So it should come as no surprise that the state’s most influential and inspiring women represent that same diversity, cultural richness and spirit of America’s heartland.
As the country commemorates the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, which granted women the legal right to vote, the USA TODAY Network is identifying 10 women from each of the 50 states, plus the District of Columbia, as Women of the Century.
The rules were simple: They had to have lived in the past 100 years and shown outstanding achievement in the areas of arts and literature, business, civil rights, education, entertainment, law, media, nonprofits and philanthropy, politics, science and medicine, or sports.
In Illinois, this was no small task. Illinois’ women are authors, politicians, megastars and starchitects. They are trailblazers, activists and leaders.
The woman earning the most nominations was Chicago’s very own first lady, Michelle Obama.
And while Illinois would claim a second first lady for its top 10, Hillary Rodham Clinton -- who was born and raised in the Chicago suburbs -- is listed instead in Arkansas, where she served as that state's first lady for nearly 10 years before taking on the national role.
Likewise, a woman who was born and raised in other parts of the country – such as Mississippi, Tennessee and Wisconsin – became so famous filming a talk show in Chicago that she would become a household name.
That would be none other than Oprah Winfrey.
But with a limit of only 10 women per state, many notable, well-known and deserving women did not make the list.
They run the gamut from Mary G. Harris Jones, also known as union organizer “Mother Jones;” Violette Neatley Anderson, the first Black woman to practice law before the U.S. Supreme Court; and Marca Bristo, a lifelong leader in the disability rights movement who helped write the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Those listed below truly represent the great women of Illinois. They are women of purpose, influence, strength and change.
Who is your Woman of the Century? Did we miss a woman you think should be on our list? We’d like to hear from you.
First American woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize
Born in the small farming town of Cedarville, two hours west of Chicago, Jane Addams graduated at the top of her class at Rockford Female Seminary, now Rockford University, and in 1931 became the first American woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize.
In 1889, she and her good friend Ellen Gates Starr visited Toynbee Hall, a settlement house in London that served poor industrial workers. That trip inspired the pair to open Hull House in Chicago, where Addams, Starr and other progressive women lived and worked to help serve the neighborhood and its residents, providing everything from child care to job training to art classes.
As Hull House grew, serving as many as 2,000 people a week, so did Addams’ involvement in civic life. She served on the Chicago Board of Education, helped found the Chicago School of Civics and Philanthropy and was named the first female president of the National Conference of Charities and Corrections.
Addams was active in the women’s suffrage movement and was a well-known pacifist. She gave lectures on peace and eventually rose to chair the Women’s Peace Party and serve as president of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom.
Feminist leader, co-founder of the National Organization for Women
Born in Peoria, Betty Friedan graduated summa cum laude from Smith College in 1942. She left the graduate program at University of California Berkeley to pursue a career as a journalist in New York City. It was here that Friedan became involved in labor and women’s issues.
Friedan married in 1947 and had three children. The family moved to the suburbs in 1956 where Friedan became a housewife and freelance writer for women’s magazines. She also began her research for what would become “The Feminine Mystique,” widely credited as the book that launched the feminist movement. Published in 1963, “The Feminine Mystique” was an instant best-seller, and is deemed by historians as one of the 100 most important books ever written.
Friedan was one of the early leaders of the women’s rights movement and a co-founder of the National Organization for Women, National Women’s Political Caucus and the National Abortion Rights Action League.
As she helped found NOW, she wrote the organization’s mission statement: “… to bring women into full participation in the mainstream of American society now, exercising all the privileges and responsibilities thereof in truly equal partnership with men.”
Oprah Winfrey is one of the most famous, influential and wealthiest women in the world.
She is a billionaire media executive. She runs her own TV network, magazine and production company. She was host of the highest-rated talk show in TV history. She is an Academy Award-nominated actress and philanthropist, and in 2007, she opened a school for underprivileged girls in South Africa.
Winfrey was born in Kosciusko, Mississippi, a rural farming town, and raised in inner-city Milwaukee. She was still a teenager living in Tennessee with her father when her radio and TV career began. She was a news anchor in Nashville and Baltimore before taking a job as a morning talk show host in Chicago.
She was host of "The Oprah Winfrey Show" in Chicago from 1985 to 2011. The show won 16 Daytime Emmy Awards for outstanding talk show host and outstanding talk show.
She was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 1994, awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2013 and was presented with the Golden Globes’ Cecil B. DeMille Award in 2018.
Former first lady
Michelle LaVaughn Robinson Obama was born and raised on Chicago’s south side.
She attended Whitney Young High School – a magnet school for gifted children –Princeton University and Harvard Law School.
In 1988, she joined Chicago law firm Sidley & Austin, where she would meet her husband, Barack Obama.
The couple married in 1992 and have two children, Malia, born in 1998, and Sasha, born in 2001.
As her husband taught law school and served as a state senator and then a U.S. senator, Michelle Obama worked for the city of Chicago, the non-profit Public Allies, the University of Chicago and University of Chicago Hospitals.
As first lady from 2009 to 2017, Obama served as a role model for women and worked as an advocate for education, physical activity and healthy eating.
Her memoir, "Becoming," was released in November 2018, and by March 2019 had sold more than 10 million copies.
In 2020, “American Factory,” the first film by Barack and Michelle Obama’s Higher Ground production company, won an Oscar for best documentary.
Ida B. Wells
Journalist, civil rights activist
Ida B. Wells was an educator, investigative reporter and leader in the civil rights movement.
Wells was born into slavery in Holly Springs, Mississippi.
At 16, she lost her parents and a brother to yellow fever in 1878. As the oldest survivor among her siblings, Wells took a teaching job in Memphis to provide for the family and raise her brothers and sisters.
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Wells became an outspoken advocate against violence, racism and sexism. She helped found the National Association of Colored Women’s Club. She also worked as a journalist, writing articles to raise awareness of lynchings and other violence against Black men.
In 1892, she had to move to Chicago after an angry mob burned her newspaper building. In Illinois, she continued her anti-lynching work and also began working with national civil rights leaders and the woman’s suffrage movement.
She was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 1988. In 2018, the Chicago City Council officially renamed Congress Parkway to Ida B. Wells Drive. It is the first downtown Chicago street named for a woman of color.
“We Real Cool” by poet Gwendolyn Brooks is only 24 words long, but in those 24 words, Brooks is able to convey multiple themes of the Black urban experience, of youthful rebellion and of masculinity.
Brooks is one of the most highly regarded poets of the 20th century, serving as poet laureate of Illinois from 1968 until her death from cancer in 2000.
Brooks was born in Topeka, Kansas, and moved to Chicago when she was just 6 weeks old. She identified strongly as a Chicagoan and used the city as the setting for most of her writings.
Her work often focused on the personal celebrations and struggles of ordinary people that she had interactions with and observed every day.
Brooks won the 1950 Pulitzer Prize for poetry for "Annie Allen," a collection of poems that tell the story of a young Black girl and her journey to adulthood. She was the first Black person to win the Pulitzer Prize for poetry.
In 1976, Brooks was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters. In 1985, she was named poet laureate consultant in poetry to the Library of Congress.
In the best-selling coming of age novel “The House on Mango Street,” author Sandra Cisneros writes of Esperanza, a young Mexican girl growing up in a poor neighborhood in Chicago.
The book was first published in 1984. It has since sold more than 6 million copies, been translated into more than 20 languages and is required reading in schools across the country.
The story addresses racism, feminism and the duality of Esperanza’s home, a place of great beauty and unjust realities.
Like the character Esperanza, Cisneros was born in Chicago. She attended Loyola University and the University of Iowa.
She is a well-known poet, novelist and artist, and has been heralded as a leader of the Chicana literary movement. Other titles include a book of poetry published in 1987, "My Wicked Ways"; "Woman Hollering Creek and Other Stories," released in 1991; the 1994 children's book "Hairs/Pelitos;" and the 2002 novel "Caramelo."
In 1995, Cisneros founded the Macondo Writers Workshop to inspire and challenge fellow writers. Like many of the women on this list, Cisneros has received numerous honors, including the National Medal of the Arts, presented to her by President Barack Obama in 2016.
Olympic gold medalist
Three-time Olympic medalist Jackie Joyner-Kersee was born in East St. Louis, which is where she set the first of many records in her track and field career, including the Illinois high school long jump record for women during her junior year.
Joyner-Kersee was the first American women to win an Olympic medal in the long jump. She was the first to earn more than 7,000 points in the heptathlon.
In addition to her three gold medals, Joyner-Kersee won one silver and two bronze medals over the course of four Olympics.
Joyner-Kersee also won four gold medals at the World Championships, eight national heptathlon championships and nine national long jump titles.
In 2000, Joyner-Kersee opened the Joyner-Kersee Youth Center Foundation in her hometown of East St. Louis to serve underprivileged children.
In 2007, she helped establish Athletes for Hope with other big-name athletes such as Muhammad Ali, Jeff Gordon, Mia Hamm and Tony Hawk. The organization’s mission is to bring athletes together to make a difference in the world.
Joyner-Kersee joined the board of USA Track & Field in 2012.
She still holds the World Heptathlon Record she set over 20 years ago at the 1988 Olympic Games in Seoul, South Korea.
U.S. senator, Iraq War veteran
Tammy Duckworth is a Purple Heart recipient; the first Thai-American U.S. congresswoman; and the mother of two girls, Abigail and Maile.
Duckworth, a Blackhawk helicopter pilot for the Illinois Army National Guard, was among the first women in the U.S. Army to fly combat missions during Operation Iraqi Freedom. It was during this time, on Nov. 12, 2004, that Duckworth lost her legs and partial use of one arm when her helicopter was struck by a grenade.
In 2009, she was appointed an assistant secretary of Veteran Affairs. She worked with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to help end veteran homelessness and address changes faced by women and Native American veterans.
She was elected to the U.S. Senate in 2016 after representing Illinois’s 8th Congressional District in the U.S. House of Representatives for two terms.
Duckworth had a multicultural upbringing that spanned several countries, from Thailand and Indonesia to Singapore, Cambodia and the United States.
She attended the University of Hawaii for her undergraduate studies and earned a master’s degree from George Washington University in Washington. Duckworth relocated to Illinois to pursue a Ph.D. in political science at Northern Illinois University.
When you walk through O’Hare's $2.2 billion global terminal in 2028, you will be able to bask in the design genius of Jeanne Gang, founder and leader of Studio Gang, a Chicago architecture firm.
And if you want to see more of what this starchitect can do, it’s only a short trip to Chicago’s famous 82-story Aqua Tower, designed by Gang and opened in 2009, or the Vista Tower, a 101-story skyscraper that Gang is still working on.
When completed, Vista will be the city’s third-tallest building, and the tallest building in the world designed by a woman.
Gang is a native of Belvidere. She earned a bachelor's degree in architecture from the University of Illinois and a master’s degree in architecture from the Harvard Graduate School of Design.
Gang was named the 2016 Architect of the Year by Architectural Review. In 2019, Time magazine named her one of its 100 most influential people in the world.
Recognized as one of the most prominent architects of her generation, Gang is known for an interdisciplinary design process, which elevates and puts at the forefront relationships between people, communities and environments.
Sources used in the Women of the Century list project include newspaper articles, state archives, historical websites, encyclopedias and other resources.
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Who is your Woman of the Century?: Let us know
Recognizing women past and present: See all of our coverage
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Michelle Obama, Oprah among Illinois Women of the Century