Jane Byrne and Harold Washington: Two ‘Firsts’ for Chicago

Lori Lightfoot’s election as Chicago’s mayor marks the first time that a black woman, and openly gay person, has held the position in Chicago’s history. In honor of this historic event, look back at two of the city’s mayoral firsts: Jane Byrne, Chicago’s first female mayor, and Harold Washington, Chicago’s first black mayor.

Jane Byrne

Not only was Byrne the first female mayor of Chicago, but she was also the first female mayor of a major city. Before becoming mayor, she served as Chicago’s commissioner of consumer sales and was the only woman who served in Richard J. Daley’s cabinet. While in office, Byrne declared the first Gay Pride Parade Day in 1981. Byrne served as Chicago’s mayor from 1979 until she was defeated by Harold Washington in 1983. Until today, she was Chicago’s only female mayor.

This clip produced by WLS highlights Jane Byrne’s first year in office, such as her inaugural address, CTA shutdown, school shutdown, and the fire strike. During her time in office, she was called “fightin’ Jane” due to the way “confrontation has been her constant companion.” You can watch the whole clip here

Harold Washington

In 1983, reluctant outsider candidate Harold Washington achieved the impossible when he defeated incumbent mayor Jane Byrne in the Democratic primary, a victory that relied on record numbers of new African American voters and a two-way split of the white vote between Byrne and then State’s Attorney Richard M. Daley. In a city that hadn’t elected a Republican mayor since 1927, Washington narrowly beat white candidate Bernard Epton 51-48, becoming the first African American mayor of Chicago.

Washington’s time as mayor was one of the most contentious in Chicago history, as he faced continual opposition from “the Eddies” (Burke and Vyrdolyak) and their contingent of 29 aldermen in the City Council that held the city in gridlock by opposing anything the mayor wanted. Sadly, Washington’s time as mayor was cut short with his untimely death in November 1987.

This clip is from Bill Stamets’ documentary, “Chicago Politics: A Theatre of Power,” and shows the influence of Washington’s campaign.

Mayoral Election of 1983

To better understand the contentious 1983 mayoral election, check out this compilation of campaign ads for Byrne, Daley, Epton, and Washington compiled on Image Union by Lynn Sweet.

Learn more about Chicago politics on Media Burn.



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