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MPC celebrates history of women leaders

In 2009, as MPC  began a year-long celebration of its 75th anniversary, we looked back at our history of outstanding leaders — and we couldn’t help but notice that so many of them were women.

Our very first executive director was Elizabeth Wood, who took the helm when the organization, then known as the Metropolitan Housing Council (MHC), incorporated as a nonprofit in 1934. Under Wood’s leadership, the organization focused on improving the city's housing stock, by collecting statistics, promoting neighborhood planning, and enforcing standards. In 1935, MHC's Women's Division surveyed Chicago’s slums for code violations, to pressure the city to hire more inspectors. Volunteers sat in on court proceedings to level the playing field between tenants and negligent landlords.

The fledgling organization’s efforts influenced passage of the Illinois Housing Act, which — along with the Public Works Administration and federal Housing Act of 1937 — led to Chicago's first public housing, a national model in those years. That same year, Wood stepped down as MHC’s executive leader – because she was tapped to head the newly formed Chicago Housing Authority (CHA).

Wood set the tone for a 76-year history of strong leadership, and many women would follow in her footsteps, including MPC President MarySue Barrett, who had the pleasure of serving with MPC's first female Board Chair, Priscilla (Pam) A. Walter from the law firm Dinker Biddle, from 1997-1999.

“Each of these women helped guide the organization and region through growth and transition,” said Barrett. “I am proud to walk in their footsteps and hope I’m continuing to break new paths for future women leaders at MPC.”

MPC’s timeline of women leaders:

  • Elizabeth Wood, Executive Director, 1934-37
  • Hilda Gitlin, Executive Director, 1942-43
  • Dorothy Rubel, Executive Director, 1943-46, 1947-74
  • Elizabeth Hollander, Executive Director, 1979-83
  • Mary Decker (Laraia), Executive Director, 1983-90
  • Deborah Stone, Executive Director, 1991-95
  • Jean Allard, President, 1991-96
  • MarySue Barrett, President, 1996-present

Elizabeth Hollander served the Council at a time when the city of Chicago was deemed “on the brink,” as residents fled the city for the suburbs. Under her leadership, the organization advised city leaders on revitalization and cautioned the region against poorly planned growth.

Mary Decker (now Mary Laraia) followed Hollander, continuing the organization’s work to weigh in on Chicago redevelopment and suburban growth. During Decker’s tenure, the organization changed its name from the Metropolitan Housing and Planning Council to the Metropolitan Planning Council, to reflect its comprehensive mission. The same year, the organization successfully urged the state to create a five-year capital plan and launched a new five-year CHA resident empowerment program.

Deborah Stone, who had joined MPC as an intern, succeeded Decker as executive director in the early ‘90s, at a time when Chicago was emerging from the doomsday predictions of the ‘80s. Jean Allard — an icon among Chicagoland's women leaders who achieved many "firsts" served concurrently with Stone, as MPC’s president. Together, these women cultivated a new sentiment, that a healthy city and suburbs could co-exist through regional coordination and planning. MPC launched the Regional Civic Initiative in 1992, to promote this new approach through public and private sector collaboration, and they kept the drumbeat going strong with the 1995 report, “Creating a Regional Community: The Case for Regional Coordination.”

Perhaps MPC’s most notable woman leader is Dorothy Rubel, who boldly led the organization for 32 years. In 1953, she widely publicized the squalid, dangerous conditions of Chicago’s slums by taking Chicago Daily News reporters with her on tours of some of the city’s most downtrodden areas. The horrifying stories that resulted — including that of a toddler whose nose was chewed off by a rat — secured a unanimous vote by the Illinois State Legislature for the Illinois Urban Community Conservation Act of 1953.

In the 1950s and ‘60s, Rubel led the organization in expanding its mission to encompass not only housing, but the full array of regional growth issues, including transportation and land use. MPC established its hallmark as a trusted liaison during this time, forming partnerships among new and existing stakeholders in an ever-growing and changing northeastern Illinois.

Today, the 106-year-old Rubel resides in Arizona. MPC Communication Director Kim Grimshaw Bolton was fortunate to have the opportunity to interview her for MPC’s 75th anniversary video, and it’s clear she remains passionate for MPC’s mission.

“More power to the Council,” said Rubel. “I’m just thrilled to be able to see that what I had hoped would happen when I left was that the Council would grow with the city. Things are getting better and better. I think the best is yet to come.”


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