Open main menu

Jane Margaret Byrne (née Burke; May 24, 1933 – November 14, 2014)[1] was an American politician who was the first woman to be elected mayor of a major city in the United States.[2] She served as the 50th[3] Mayor of Chicago from April 16, 1979, until April 29, 1983.[4] Byrne won the Chicago mayoral election on April 3, 1979, becoming the first female mayor of the city,[5] the second largest city in the United States at the time. Prior to her tenure as mayor, Byrne served as Chicago's commissioner of consumer sales from 1969 until 1977,[6] the only woman to be a part of Mayor Richard J. Daley's cabinet.[5]

Jane Byrne
JaneByrne1985 (a).jpg
50th Mayor of Chicago
In office
April 16, 1979 – April 29, 1983
Preceded byMichael Bilandic
Succeeded byHarold Washington
Personal details
Jane Margaret Burke

(1933-05-24)May 24, 1933
Chicago, Illinois, U.S.
DiedNovember 14, 2014(2014-11-14) (aged 81)
Chicago, Illinois, U.S.
Political partyDemocratic
William Byrne
(m. 1956; died 1959)

Jay McMullen
(m. 1978; died 1992)
EducationSt. Mary of the Woods
Barat College (BS)


Early life and careerEdit

Byrne was born Jane Margaret Burke on May 24, 1933, at John B. Murphy Hospital[7] in the Lake View neighborhood on the north side of Chicago, Illinois, to Katherine Marie Burke (née Nolan), a housewife, and Edward Patrick Burke, vice president of Inland Steel.[8] Raised on the city's north side, Byrne graduated from Saint Scholastica High School and attended St. Mary of the Woods for her freshman year of college. Byrne later transferred to Barat College, where she graduated with a bachelor's degree in chemistry and biology in 1955. Byrne entered politics to volunteer in John F. Kennedy's campaign for president in 1960. During that campaign she first met then Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley. After meeting Daley, he appointed her to several positions beginning in 1964 with a job in a city anti-poverty program[9]

In June 1965, she was promoted and worked with the Chicago Committee of Urban Opportunity.[10] In 1968, Byrne was appointed head of the City of Chicago's consumer affairs department.[5][11] In 1972, Byrne served as a delegate to the 1972 Democratic National Convention (DNC) and chairperson of the DNC resolutions committee in 1973. Byrne was appointed co-chairperson of the Cook County Democratic Central Committee by Daley, despite her rejection by the majority of Democratic leaders, in 1975. The committee ousted Byrne shortly after Daley's death in late 1976.[10] Shortly thereafter, Byrne accused the newly appointed mayor Michael Bilandic of being unfair to citizens of the city by approving an increase in regulated taxi fares, which Byrne charged was the result of a "backroom deal".[12] Byrne was then fired from her post of head of consumer affairs by Bilandic[12]

Mayor of Chicago (1979–1983)Edit

Months after her firing as head of the consumer affairs department, Byrne challenged Bilandic in the 1979 Democratic mayoral primary; the real contest in this heavily Democratic city. Officially announcing her mayoral campaign in August 1977, Byrne partnered with Chicago journalist and political consultant Don Rose, who served as her campaign manager.[13] At first, political observers believed her to have little chance of winning. A memorandum inside the Bilandic campaign said it should portray her as, "a shrill, charging, vindictive person—and nothing makes a woman look worse."[14] However, the Chicago Blizzard of 1979 in January paralyzed the city and caused Bilandic to be seen as an ineffective leader. Jesse Jackson endorsed Byrne. Many Republican voters voted in the Democratic primary–the real contest in this overwhelmingly Democratic city–to beat Bilandic. Infuriated voters in the North Side and Northwest Side retaliated against Bilandic for the Democratic Party's slating of only South Side candidates for the mayor, clerk, and treasurer (the outgoing city clerk, John C. Marcin, was from the Northwest Side). These four factors combined to give Byrne a 51% to 49% victory over Bilandic in the primary.[15] Positioning herself as a reformer, Byrne then won the main election with 82% of the vote, still the largest margin in a Chicago mayoral election.[citation needed]

Byrne made inclusive moves as mayor, such as hiring the first African-American and female school superintendent Ruth B. Love, and she was the first mayor to recognize the gay community. In her first three months in office, she faced strikes by labor unions as the city’s transit workers, public school teachers and firefighters all went on strike. She effectively banned handgun possession for guns unregistered or purchased after the enactment of an ordinance instituting a two-year re-registration program. Byrne used special events, such as ChicagoFest, to revitalize Navy Pier and the downtown Chicago Theatre. Byrne and the Cook County Democratic Party endorsed Senator Edward Kennedy for president in 1980, but incumbent President Jimmy Carter won the Illinois Democratic Primary and even carried Cook County and the city of Chicago. Simultaneously, Byrne and the Cook County Democratic Party's candidate for Cook County States' Attorney (chief local prosecutor), 14th Ward Alderman Edward M. Burke, lost in the Democratic Primary to Richard M. Daley, the son of her late mentor; Daley then unseated GOP incumbent Bernard Carey in the general election.[citation needed] Other events in her mayoralty include Pope John Paul II's debut papal visit that October and the finding of Soviet Ukrainian escapee Walter Polovchak the following year-1980-and his announcement of his desire to stay in America permanently and not go back to the USSR with his parents.

On November 11, 1981, Dan Goodwin, who had successfully climbed the Sears Tower the previous spring, battled for his life on the side of the John Hancock Center. William Blair, Chicago's fire commissioner, had ordered the Chicago Fire Department to stop Goodwin by directing a full-power fire hose at him and by using fire axes to break window glass in Goodwin's path. Mayor Byrne rushed to the scene and ordered the fire department to stand down. Then, through a smashed out 38th floor window, she told Goodwin, who was hanging from the building's side a floor below, that though she did not agree with his climbing of the John Hancock Center, she certainly opposed the fire department knocking him to the ground below. Byrne then allowed Goodwin to continue to the top.[16] In 1982, she supported the Cook County Democratic Party's replacement of its chairman, County Board President George Dunne, with her city-council ally, Alderman Edward Vrdolyak.[17] The Chicago Sun Times reported that her enemies publicly mocked her as "that crazy broad" and "that skinny bitch" and worse.[18]

In January 1982, Byrne proposed an ordinance banning of new handgun registration which was considered controversial. The ordinance was created to put a freeze on the number of legally owned handguns in Chicago and to require owners of handguns to re-register them annually.[19] The ordinance was approved by a 6-1 vote in February 1982.[20]

Cabrini–Green (1981)Edit

Byrne and her husband Chicago journalist Jay McMullen in their Cabrini–Green public housing apartment, April 1981.

On March 26, 1981, Byrne decided to move into the crime-ridden Cabrini–Green Homes housing project on the near-north side of the Chicago after 37 shootings resulting in 11 murders occurred during a three-month period from January to March 1981.[21] In her 2004 memoir, Byrne reflected about decision to move into Cabrini–Green: "How could I put Cabrini on a bigger map? ... Suddenly I knew — I could move in there."[5] Prior to her move to Cabrini, Byrne closed down several liquor stores in the area, citing the stores as hangout for gangs and murderers. Byrne also ordered the Chicago Housing Authority to evict tenants who were suspected of harboring gang members in their apartments, which totaled approximately 800 tenants.[citation needed] Byrne moved into a 4th floor apartment in a Cabrini extension building on North Sedgwick Avenue with her husband on March 31 at around 8:30 pm after attending a dinner at the Conrad Hilton hotel.[22][23] Hours after Byrne moved into the housing project, police raided the building and arrested eleven street gang members who they learned through informants were planning to have a shootout in the mayor's building later that evening. Byrne described her first night there as "lovely" and "very quiet".[citation needed] Byrne stayed at the housing project for three weeks to bring attention to the housing project's crime and infrastructure problems. Byrne's stay at Cabrini ended on April 18, 1981, following an Easter celebration at the project which drew protests and demonstrators who claimed Byrne's move to the project was just a publicity stunt.[24][25][26][27]

Bid for reelectionEdit

In August 1982, Byrne decided that she would seek a second term as mayor. At the beginning of her re-election campaign, she was trailing behind Richard M. Daley, then Cook County State's Attorney, by 3% in a poll done by the Chicago Tribune in July 1982.[28] Unlike the 1979 mayoral in which Byrne received 59.3% of the African-American vote,[29] Byrne had lost half of that vote.

Byrne was defeated in the 1983 Democratic primary for mayor by Harold Washington; the younger Daley ran a close third. Washington won the Democratic primary with just 36% of the vote; Byrne had 33%. Washington went on to win the general election.

Later careerEdit

Byrne ran against Washington again in the 1987 Democratic primary, but was narrowly defeated. She endorsed Washington for the general election, in which he defeated two Democrats running under other parties' banners (Edward Vrdolyak and Thomas Hynes) and a Republican. Byrne next ran in the 1988 Democratic primary for Cook County Circuit Court Clerk. She faced the Democratic Party's slated candidate, Aurelia Pucinski (who was endorsed by Mayor Washington and is the daughter of then-Alderman Roman Pucinski). Pucinski defeated Byrne in the primary and Vrdolyak, by then a Republican, in the general election. Byrne's fourth run for mayor became a rematch with Daley in 1991. She received only 5.9 percent of the vote, a distant third behind Daley and Alderman Danny K. Davis.[30]

Personal lifeEdit

In 1956, she married William P. Byrne, a Marine.[31] The couple had a daughter, Katherine C. Byrne (born 1957). On May 31, 1959, while flying from Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point to Naval Air Station Glenview in a Skyraider, Lt. Byrne attempted to land in a dense fog. After being waved off for landing twice, his plane's wing struck the porch of a nearby house and the plane crashed into Sunset Memorial Park, killing him.[32] Byrne married journalist Jay McMullen in 1978, and they remained married until his death from lung cancer in 1992.[citation needed] Byrne lived in the same apartment building from the 1970s until her death in 2014.[citation needed] She has one grandchild, Willie.[citation needed] Her daughter, Kathy, is a lawyer with a Chicago firm.[citation needed] Mayor Byrne's book, My Chicago (ISBN 0-8101-2087-9), was published in 1992, and covers her life through her political career. On May 16, 2011, Byrne attended the inauguration of the city's new mayor, Rahm Emanuel.[citation needed]

Death and legacyEdit

Byrne had entered hospice care and died on November 14, 2014 in Chicago, aged 81, from complications of a stroke she suffered in January 2013. She was survived by her daughter Katherine and her grandson Willie. Her funeral Mass was held at St. Vincent de Paul on Monday, November 17, 2014. She was buried at Calvary Catholic Cemetery in Evanston, Illinois.[33]

In a dedication ceremony held on August 29, 2014, Governor Pat Quinn renamed the Circle Interchange in Chicago the Jane Byrne Interchange.[34] In July 2014, the Chicago City Council voted to rename the plaza surrounding the historic Chicago Water Tower on North Michigan Avenue the Jane M. Byrne Plaza in her honor.[35]


  1. ^ Chicago Tribune - After death, a question about Jane Byrne's birth date (November 14, 2014)
  2. ^ "When A Mayor Moved To The Cabrini-Green Projects". National Public Radio. Retrieved 2018-06-10.
  3. ^ "Chicago Mayors". Chicago Public Library. Retrieved 24 March 2019.
  4. ^ "Chicago Mayors". Chicago Public Library. Retrieved 8 December 2017.
  5. ^ a b c d Babwin, Don (November 15, 2014). "Chicago remembers Jane Byrne (1933–2014), city's only female mayor (1979-83)". Christian Science Monitor (online ed.). Associated Press. Retrieved 2018-03-30.
  6. ^ "Mayor Jane Byrne Biography". Chicago Public Library. Retrieved 2018-06-10.
  7. ^ NNDB – Jane Byrne (1933–2014)
  8. ^ Encyclopedia - Jane Byrne (1933-2014)
  9. ^ Geiger, Kim. "Jane Byrne, Chicago's only female mayor, dies at 81". Chicago Tribune. Retrieved 2018-11-14.
  10. ^ a b Ford, Lynne E. (2010-05-12). Encyclopedia of Women and American Politics. Infobase Publishing. ISBN 9781438110325.
  11. ^ Warren, Ellen (December 5, 2004). "NO APOLOGIES, NO REGRETS". Chicago Tribune. Retrieved 2019-07-06.
  12. ^ a b Grossman, Ron (November 15, 2014). "Jane Byrne humbles powerful party pols in mayor's race". Chicago Tribune (online ed.). Retrieved 2018-03-30.
  13. ^ Illinois Issue – Don Rose analyzes Jane Byrne's victory – July 1979
  14. ^ Yardley, William (November 14, 2014). "Jane Byrne, Only Woman to Lead Chicago, Dies at 81". The New York Times. Retrieved November 17, 2014.
  15. ^ Dold, R. Bruce (November 14, 2014). "When Jane Byrne was elected mayor". Chicago Tribune (online ed.). Retrieved 2018-03-30.
  16. ^ Constable, Burt (November 4, 2014). "Wallenda supported, Spider-Dan nearly killed". Daily Herald. Retrieved November 17, 2014.
  17. ^ "Mayor Byrne's Choice Wins Post as Cook County Leader". The New York Times. March 30, 1982. Retrieved November 17, 2014.
  18. ^ Steinberg, Neil (November 14, 2014). "Ex-Mayor Jane Byrne left colorful legacy during time of change". Chicago Sun-Times. Archived from the original on November 16, 2014. Retrieved November 17, 2014.
  19. ^ Chicago Tribune - Byrne Pushes Strict Gun Law - January 15, 1982
  20. ^ Chicago Tribune - Panel Ok's Byrne Handgun Ban - February 26, 1982
  21. ^ Chicago Tribune – Jane Byrne is making history – March 26, 1981
  22. ^ Chicago Tribune – Byrne Moves Into Cabrini; Gang Raided – April 1, 1981
  23. ^ New York Times – Chicago's Mayor Spends Lovely Night At Project – April 1, 1981
  24. ^ Chicago Tribune – Jane Byrne Easter Celebration at Cabrini-Green, 1981 – April 20, 1981
  25. ^ "Jane Byrne Cabrini-Green Easter: A Look Back At A Mayor's 1981 PR Fail That Ended In Shame". The Huffington Post (video). March 31, 2013. Retrieved November 17, 2014.
  26. ^ Chicago Tribune – Mayor Byrne move to Cabrini-Green – April 18, 1981
  27. ^ Chicago Tribune – Symbolism of politics is jolted by Jane Byrne – March 27, 1981
  28. ^ Jane Byrne: off and running for reelection in Chicago - August 23, 1982
  29. ^ Contours of African American Politics: Race and Representation in American - Georgia A. Persons
  30. ^ 1991 Chicago mayoral election results,; accessed November 16, 2014.
  31. ^ [1]
  32. ^ "Plane Crashes in Cemetery, Pilot Killed", Chicago Tribune, p. B1, 1959-06-01
  33. ^ Former Mayor Jane Byrne Dies,, November 14, 2014; accessed November 16, 2014.
  34. ^ "Circle Interchange to be renamed for Jane Byrne today". Chicago Tribune. Retrieved 2014-08-29.
  35. ^ Jane Byrne to be honored,; accessed November 16, 2014.

Further readingEdit

External linksEdit

  • Former City Hall Reporter Ray Hanania's online look at the City Hall Press Room and the Byrne Administration, published in the Chicago Reader and later online,; accessed November 16, 2014.
Political offices
Preceded by
Michael Bilandic
Mayor of Chicago
April 16, 1979–April 29, 1983
Succeeded by
Harold Washington