March 6, 2013
Dawn Clark Netsch seemed to have been around forever, and so it seemed as if she always would be.
She must have been young once, but from the time she came into my consciousness, 20 or so years ago, she seemed old.
I mean old in a good way, the kind of old that equates to steady, wise, durable, rooted. When she died Tuesday, at 86, she was remembered for all those qualities, along with her fondness for cigarettes, sherry, beer and baseball.
She was also widely hailed as historic.
"Dawn Clark Netsch is without a doubt one of the most important women in Illinois political history," Toni Preckwinkle, president of the Cook County Board, said in a statement. "Her fighting spirit and unending pursuit for equality among the disenfranchised will remain a guiding principle for all who follow in her footsteps."
And yet the young people who follow in Netsch's footsteps are unlikely to see her footprints. That's how time works. It erases the footprints, except those of giants.
Netsch belonged to the vanguard of women who broke through the midlevel barriers, whose accomplishments opened the way for women to go further. She helped clear the path for giants still to come.
The word "first" seemed like a part of her name.
She graduated first in her class — the only woman in it — at Northwestern University's law school. It was 1952, an era when women who worked outside the home were typically fenced into the schoolroom or the secretarial pool.
She was the first woman to teach law at Northwestern.
She was the first woman to be elected to statewide office in Illinois.
She was the first woman to run for governor on a major ticket, which she did with a female running mate. She was 68 then, ancient for a woman in politics, and she ran against a sitting governor who was 20 years younger and far more telegenic.
She responded to attacks on her appearance with the slogan "Not just another pretty face."
After she lost to Jim Edgar, big-time, she said: "Please, no tears or sympathy. I did it my way."
Her way was always a mix of crisp intelligence, humor and principle. She was against the death penalty even when it risked being a death sentence for her political career. She was among the first public officials to back gay rights, riding in Chicago's Gay Pride Parade before that was a smart campaign tactic.
The worst thing you could call her was "limousine liberal," which some people did because she lived in Chicago's wealthy Old Town neighborhood, with her husband, Walter, an architect.
But her vistas extended far beyond her own privilege. A civil rights advocate, she once sent me a note about columns I'd written on Cabrini-Green, noting that Cabrini was her "neighbor" and had been in her legislative district when she was a state senator.
"Yes," she wrote, "it was real people and real lives, not just a Project."
Whenever I saw Netsch — except for once, that was only on TV or in a crowd — I had an image of her as an old-fashioned pioneer woman, her sharp face and bright eyes under a big bonnet as she rocked across some bumpy, roadless land in a covered wagon, going where no woman had gone before.
She was a pioneer, one who wore trim skirt suits and neck scarves, and her passing is a good moment for adults to tell the young people in their lives about her.
Show them her footprints while they're still visible.
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