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 Chicago Fire of 1871. Embodying the nineteenth century passion for self-improvement, founder Kate Newell Doggett gathered a group of like-minded friends to meet regularly and to research and present intellectually stimulating papers for each other’s edification.
The Club evolved to attract members as different as Jane Addams, a founder of Hull House and the first Juvenile Court in the nation, and Bertha (Mrs. Potter) Palmer, society figure and head of the Board of Lady Managers at the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893. Indeed, at the thirtieth anniversary celebration in 1903, member Amelia Gere Mason observed that “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….” Such observations about the Fortnightly membership are no less apt today.
Although the Club first gathered in members’ homes, as its numbers grew it met in other venues, including the foyer of Orchestra Hall. In 1922, the Fortnightly purchased the notable Helen and Bryan Lathrop House from Mrs. Lathrop, a long-time member. Built in 1892, the House continues to provide a warmly handsome setting for many varied functions.
Individual members still present programs several times each year, but guests more regularly speak at the Fortnightly. Over the years, the Club has hosted prominent speakers including Mark Twain, Henry James, Robert Frost, Isaac Stern, and William Butler Yeats. More recently, guest speakers included Daniel Barenboim, Frank McCourt, Gwendolyn Brooks, Ed Pashke, Patrick Fitzgerald, Mayor Richard M. Daley, Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Yo-Yo Ma, Mary Zimmerman, and Jeanne Gang.
In addition to luncheon programs each fortnight, afternoon teas and evening dinners feature guest speakers or performances by actors and musicians. Special activities of the Fortnightly include seminars, unique tours, and visits to artists’ studios and local museums. Particular interest groups include book discussion, bridge, film discussion, investment club, and opera lectures.