When she challenged Chicago politicians to put a woman’s name on the ballot, Joanne Alter never expected the name would be her own. Realizing how absent women were from the American political landscape, Alter started the Illinois Democratic Women's Caucus to encourage women to run for office. In the first televised coverage of the nominations process in Chicago, she pointed out that on a ballot of 32 candidates, there were no women’s names, spurring Mayor Daley to invite her to run. She became the first woman to win countywide election, winning a million votes as the Elected Commissioner of the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District and breaking the glass ceiling for women in Chicago politics. She served two terms on the Democratic National Committee. After her retirement from politics, she co-founded WITS (Working In The Schools), an innovative tutoring and mentoring program serving children in Chicago public schools.
Alter describes her upbringing in a predominantly Christian suburb of Chicago and the anti-Catholic sentiment she witnessed. Her activism started early, fostered by her involvement in Girl Scouts and her experiences of the Second World War, including rationing and living with relatives who escaped Europe. Her progressive educational background influenced her political ideas; she attended Mount Holyoke College and engaged in various political groups on campus, such as organizing students against the mandatory chapel requirement. Alter witnessed the destruction that still remained in Europe following the Second World War, which made a deep impression on her; after college, she gave speeches on the subject to help raise money for war-torn colleges through the World Student Service Fund. Many of her early political efforts involved foreign relations, and she worked with Senator Fulbright to start Operation Friendship, a program that placed foreign exchange students in American colleges. In 1968, President Johnson appointed her to serve as a United States representative at the United Nations Conference on the Status of Women held in Ghana. She met many female African leaders there, which inspired her to organize the Illinois Democratic Women’s Caucus, designed to help empower women to run for office. During her efforts to find other nominees, Chicago Mayor Richard Daley asked her to run for a seat in Metropolitan Sanitary District [now the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago]. Despite her hesitation, Alter ran and won. Alter chronicles her career and philanthropy; she ran for office nine times, including for the role of Lieutenant Governor, and served on the DNC for eight years. Her philanthropy work evolved from helping foreign visitors to the U.S. to founding and serving on the board of the Junior Museum at the Art Insitute of Chicago. This program made art accessible and engaging for children. After around 15 years with the museum, Alter devoted her time to public education, specifically with Working in the Schools [WITS], which focused on providing tutors for students in lower-income neighborhoods. Alter discusses her complex relationship with Israel and how her Jewish identity informed her activism.
How to cite this page
Oral History of Joanne Alter. Interviewed by Deborah Michaud. 22 February 2004. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on November 28, 2023) <https://jwa.org/oralhistories/alter-joanne>.
Oral History of Joanne Alter by the Jewish Women's Archive is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 United States License. Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at https://jwa.org/contact/OralHistory.