Fanny Butcher image circa 1910 courtesy Fanny Butcher Papers, The Newberry Library, Chicago
Fanny Butcher turned to the “News of the Women’s Clubs” page of the Chicago Tribune. There she found listings for a wealth of meeting and event announcements. The year was 1912 and the Chicago woman’s club movement was thriving and in full swing.
Notes from the Illinois Woman’s Press Association archives highlight just such an event billed as a special “Social and Entertainment” meeting held at the Hotel La Salle on a Saturday evening in 1912. The festivities included five minute addresses on topics ranging from woman’s suffrage to the Balkan situation and from grand opera to moving picture shows. The president, Miss Mary Eleanor O’Donnell, woman’s editor for the Chicago Tribune presided. With membership nearing 200 women, for the remainder of the year, the Association held its regular meetings in the large banquet room of the Chicago Press Club. It only took one conversation between Mary and Fanny during the end of a meeting to rearrange Fanny’s life forever.
The Illinois Woman’s Press Association traces its roots to May 1885 when journalist Frances A. Conant enlisted the cooperation of Dr. Julia Holmes Smith in assembling the leading women writers of Chicago to Smith’s home. Forty seven women were present including Frances E. Willard, author, publisher, editor, writer and president of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union; Myra H. Bradwell, publisher, Illinois’ first female lawyer and editor-in-chief of a prestigious legal newspaper and Dr. Alice Stockham, publisher and authority on sexuality and women’s health. The IWPA constitution states the objective as a “ways to provide a means of communication between women writers and to secure all the benefits resulting from such an organized effort.” The structure of the Association has always included a number of committees reflecting the issues of the era, offered professional development and promoted a voice for social reform. The word “press” is taken in its broadest context. Not only exclusive to newspaper writers, it includes authors, editors, scientists, playwrights, poets, illustrators, and those in communications.
Throughout the history of IWPA members, these women demonstrated their capabilities to support themselves, their families, and shape social reform. While attending the University of Chicago, it would be her English teacher, prominent Chicago writer James Weber Linn who introduced Fanny to his aunt, Jane Addams, a social worker, public philosopher, and leader in women’s suffrage who co-founded one of the first settlements in the United States, the Hull House in Chicago, Illinois, in 1889, and would go on to be named a co-winner of the 1931 Nobel Peace Prize (Addams coincidentally happened to be a member of IWPA).
Fanny was a shining example of a young woman who benefitted from IWPA’s intent to nurture and mentor new members. During those first years after graduating from the university, Fanny did all that she could to contribute to and support her family. She took on a job reading aloud to Mrs. French, a blind woman, who had an extensive library on serious subjects such as history and philosophy. Fanny credited French for instilling her with a love for books.
In that initial conversation between Mary & Fanny, O’Donnell questioned Butcher about her work. Fanny had moved to LaPorte County, Indiana, where she had served as the Rolling Prairie High School principal, but after five months returned to Chicago to take on the responsibility of secretary and publicity writer for the Chicago Little Theater. Located in the Fine Arts Building, the theater was known for introducing its audience to serious works with literary merit. Fanny also wrote feature articles for Morrison’s Chicago Weekly and wrote book reviews which appeared in the Chicago Saturday Evening Post’s literary supplement.
Contrary to Fanny’s belief that her qualifications for membership were being challenged, O’Donnell offered her a job at the Tribune to write its “How to Earn Money at Home” column. Fanny accepted the job which eventually led her to full-time work at the paper writing for every area assigned to women reporters in 1913.
A murder trial consumed all Chicagoans in 1915. The death of a young North Shore woman, Marion Lambert and the resulting arrest of Will Orpet, her college boyfriend were covered by multiple Tribune reporters. Fanny’s writing reported not only her depth of sincerity towards all parties involved as well as her transparency and her unparalleled capability to understand another person.
Fanny is noted for being responsible for the changes made to girls appearing before Morals Court in 1916. Several radical reforms resulted from Butcher’s expose of the circumstances under which girls had been tried. Greater privacy to prevent the humiliation of first offenders in Morals Court was urged by The Tribune after a series of articles penned by Fanny appeared in the newspaper.
The doors were opened to lead Fanny to her remarkable 50-year career at the Chicago Tribune. Butcher wrote everything from music to fashion and theater to society and politics. She accepted every assignment thrown her way whether it interested her or not, when all she really wanted to do was write about books. Not until 1922 did Fanny’s dream come true when she was finally named the newspaper’s literary editor. It would be during this era that Fanny became a thriving force of Chicago’s literary renaissance. In her 1971 autobiography, Many Lives, One Love she wrote, “I was literally in love with Chicago and with my work on the Tribune…” She was eager to introduce her readers to “what a really good book section could do for the Midwest” and has been credited with introducing the Saturday literary tabloid that included features, profiles, reviews, travel guides, cookbooks and children’s classics. Between 1919 until 1927, Fanny was also the owner of a popular Chicago Loop bookstore, “Fanny Butcher Books” located on the corner of Michigan Avenue and Adams Street.
Throughout her life, Fanny had been held in high esteem by not only her readers but by the Chicago literary community as well. They made her a household name to book lovers earning her the reputation as dean of Chicago’s literary critics. In 1953, Fanny was given the distinction of the first woman honored by the Friends of the Chicago Public Library. In 1981, she earned inclusion to the Chicago Press Club’s Hall of Fame.
Butcher’s distinguished presence within Chicago’s literary scene has lived long since her death in 1987. On May 11, 2017, Fanny was inducted into the Chicago Literary Hall of Fame.