Byrne, Jane (1934—)

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Byrne, Jane (1934—)

American politician and first woman mayor of Chicago, Illinois. Born Jane Margaret Burke in Chicago, Illinois, on May 24, 1934; daughter and second oldest of six children of William (an executive with Inland Steel and co-founder of Gordon-Burke Steel) and Katherine (Nolan) Burke; attended Queen of All Saints grammar school; Saint Scholastica High School; B.A., Barat College of the Sacred Heart, 1955; attended University of Illinois and Chicago Teachers College (now Chicago State University); married William P. Byrne (a Marine Corps pilot), December 31, 1956 (died, May 1959); married Jan McMullen (a reporter), March 17, 1978; children: (first marriage) daughter Katherine.

Born in Chicago, Illinois, in 1934, Jane Byrne was the daughter of a wealthy steel executive. In 1956, she abandoned her dream of becoming a doctor to marry William Byrne, a marine pilot; he was killed in 1959, two years after the birth of the couple's daughter. As an antidote for the depression that followed, Byrne became involved in the 1960 campaign of John F. Kennedy, which would eventually bring her to the attention of politicians, including Chicago's controversial mayor, Richard Daley. Between 1963 and 1965, Jane Byrne worked as a substitute teacher in the Chicago public schools and continued to devote time to precinct and ward-level politics. She met Daley in November 1963 when she was invited to sit in President Kennedy's box during the Army-Air Force football game in Chicago; a year later, after the assassination of Kennedy, Daley recruited Byrne for his organization.

After serving in a relatively minor position with the Chicago operation of the federal antipoverty program in 1965, Byrne secured a position on the administrative staff of the Chicago Commission of Urban Opportunity and, in 1968, was appointed to the Daley Cabinet, as commissioner of consumer sales, weights, and measures. Her efforts to weed out corruption in her department won her public approval and the further admiration of Daley, who took her under his wing and began to carefully groom her for leadership. She became co-chair of the Cook County Democratic Committee and was appointed to the party's National Committee.

Upon Daley's death in 1976, Byrne immediately locked horns with his successor Mayor Michael Bilandic, charging him with collusion with officials to secure a rate increase for taxicab operations. After Bilandic was acquitted of any illegal activities, he fired Byrne from her commissioner's post in November 1977. Castigating him and what she called his "cabal of evil men," Byrne organized a challenge to him and his powerful Democratic organization. She aligned herself with the still-revered Daley and was aided by a record two-month snowfall that tied the city in knots and demonstrated the inefficiency of the Bilandic administration. Byrne mustered a huge voter turnout (800,000 Chicagoans went to the polls) and surprised all observers by defeating Bilandic in the Democratic primary election in February 1979. Party leaders were stunned when she went on to win election as mayor, with 82% of the vote, a greater margin than even Daley had accomplished. Inaugurated on April 19, 1979, she became the first woman to head the nation's second largest city.

Byrne's four-year tenure was tumultuous at best, beginning with shakeups in the city's police and sanitation operations, as well as the replacement of several commissioners and top government officials. Her years in office are recounted in her book My Chicago (1992). Byrne failed in her reelection bid in 1983, losing to Harold Washington who became the first black mayor of the city.


Granger, Bill and Lori. Fighting Jane: Mayor Jane Byrne and the Chicago Machine. NY: Dial, 1980.

McHenry, Robert. Famous American Women. NY: Dover, 1980.

Moritz, Charles. ed. Current Biography Yearbook 1980. NY: H.W. Wilson, 1980.

suggested reading:

Byrne, Jane. My Chicago. NY: W.W. Norton, 1992.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts

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Byrne, Jane (1934—)

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