The Club History

 A dynamic group of women with a wide variety of interests

The Fortnightly of Chicago, the city’s oldest women’s organization, was founded in 1873 during the frenzy of rebuilding and renewal that swept the ravaged city after the Great Fire of 1871. Embodying the 19th century passion for self-improvement, founder Kate Newell Doggett gathered a group of like-minded friends to meet regularly to research and present intellectually stimulating papers for each other’s edification.

As the Club evolved, it attracted women with a wide variety of backgrounds and interests.  A quote from a member in 1903 says it all:

“Some of the members were scholarly, some were literary, some were strong in administration, some in executive ability; others represented life mainly in its social and appreciative side, and a few combined several of these qualities….”

Notable early members include:

  • Jane Addams, a founder of Hull House and the first Juvenile Court in the nation
  • Bertha (Mrs. Potter) Palmer, society figure, art collector and head of the Board of Lady Managers at the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893
  • Dr. Sarah Hackett Stevenson, first female member of the American Medical Association
  • Harriet Monroe, founder of Poetry magazine

Beyond the Fortnightly’s doors, many members had—and have—a deep commitment to social causes and engage in related activities and world events. However, members always have left their zeal for politics and religion—and their professional affiliations as well—outside the doors, in deference to learning nourished by collegial discussion inside the oasis of the House.

The Club first gathered in members’ homes.  In 1922, the Fortnightly purchased its own home— the Helen and Bryan Lathrop House from Mrs. Lathrop, a long-time member. Built in 1892, the House continues to provide a warm and elegant setting for the Club’s many functions.

In 1976 Iowa artist Polly Kemp was so struck when she attended a luncheon program that she produced this charming painting from memory—Fortnightly members and guests enjoying coffee and conversation after the program.

The Drawing Room, Polly Kemp, 1976

Individual members continue to present programs several times each year and guest authorities are invited to speak at luncheon programs each fortnight or at co-ed evening dinners. The Club has expanded to offer seminars and unique tours of artists’ studios, collections and museums, and members meet regularly for focused interests including book discussion, film study, bridge, chorus, opera, investments, and technology.

Over the years, the Fortnightly has hosted such prominent speakers as Mark Twain, Henry James, Robert Frost, Isaac Stern, Rabindranath Tagore, and William Butler Yeats. More recently, guest speakers and performers have included Daniel Barenboim, Frank McCourt, Gwendolyn Brooks, Ed Paschke, Patrick Fitzgerald, Mayor Richard M. Daley, Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Yo-Yo Ma, Mary Zimmerman, and Jeanne Gang.

Photography credits. Jane Addams: Encyclopedia Britannica | Bertha Palmer: Courtesy of Pauline Wood Egan | Sarah Hackett Stevenson: Northwestern University Archives | Harriet Monroe: Chicago Tribune | Polly Kemp Image: Courtesy of Thomas Chehak.