Loyola University Chicago

Women and Leadership Archives

Women's History Month

Joan Heath Fortner

One of the designs from Joan Heath Fortner's sketchbook.

To celebrate Women’s History Month, each week in March we will feature a fascinating woman or organization from our collections. This week, we are looking at Joan Heath Fortner, an artist and fashion designer from Chicago who made a splash as a teenager with her award-winning designs.

Joan gained recognition when, as a 15-year-old sophomore at Immaculata High School, she became the youngest person to win a prize at the Chicago Tribune American Fashions Competition. She went on to win awards five consecutive years in a row. Each of her winning designs earned her $50 and were created and modeled in a fashion show in Washington, D.C.

Joan’s winning design for the 1947 Chicago Tribune American Fashions Competition was a pink taffeta formal gown with a full skirt, tight bodice, and a low square neck outlined in crisscross brown velvet. After the contest, patterns for her design were available for sale.

Joan’s talent earned her many opportunities to continue her art education. In 1950, she received the Bishop O’Brien Scholarship to the Art Institute of Chicago. After a year at the Art Institute, Joan studied fine arts at Mundelein College. As a junior at Mundelein, she submitted a design to the Evans Fur Company Contest and was unanimously chosen to win a $2500 scholarship to the Fashion Academy of New York.

Joan worked as a dress maker in New York for four years before moving back to Chicago with her husband, Gene Fortner. She later continued her education at Loyola, earning her Master’s in Education in 1979. She shared her training and passion by teaching art classes and staying active in local art organizations. She is currently the First Vice President of the Des Plaines Art Guild and the executive director of Art Cubes, a nonprofit art service organization that brings the arts to older adults. She continues to create and exhibit her own watercolor and acrylic paintings.

Joan continues to win awards and attention for her long list of accomplishments as illustrated in this 1981 article.‌ 

The Women and Leadership Archives holds the records of Joan Heath Fortner, as well as the Immaculata High School records.

Project IRENE

Project IRENE Logo

To celebrate Women’s History Month, each week in March we will feature a fascinating woman or organization from our collections. This week, we are exploring a Chicago organization called Project I.R.E.N.E. that was created by women religious to address violence against women and children.

Project IRENE began as a result of the initiative of Leadership Conference of Women Religious Region 8, July 1996. The women at the conference recognized violence against women and children as the most pressing issue in Illinois and decided to organize a group to focus on creating systemic change through legislation related to decreasing this violence.  The shortened name of this organization is derived from the first letters of the formal title: Illinois Religious Engaging Nonviolent Endeavors.

Statue, 2004 - The National Leadership Conference of Women Religious Region 8 members created this statue as a symbol of their organization for the annual Convocation. The statue represents Irene as Earth Mother who, “ushers women and children into a world of nonviolence where all life thrives.”

Members from each congregation involved in Project IRENE are known as Contact Sisters and keep their congregations informed about actions that need to be taken and legislation changes regarding women and children. The Director of Project IRENE spends part of her time at the Illinois State Capitol attending meeting with elected officials in order to advocate and attending legislative sessions in order to keep the congregations informed.

Booklet - Participants in Project IRENE gathered information from a variety of materials in order to best understand issues and advocate for Illinois’s women and children.

Chicago Sisters’ Housing Group, one task force within Project IRENE, focused on issues of homelessness. Members communicated with congressmen and other officials to show their support or opposition of legislation related to housing. They regularly visited local shelters, homes, and organizations providing housing services to learn how Project IRENE could best serve these institutions.

The files of Project IRENE’s collection demonstrate the numerous issues to which the organization has been devoted. Hunger, welfare, incarcerated women and their children, domestic violence, and immigrant and refugee rights are just a few of the concerns for which the women of Project IRENE continue to advocate.

Anna Stonum

This postcard depicts Anna Stonum and Mike Ervin in a piece done by artist Riva Lehrer. The card advertised Riva Lehrer’s exhibit in 1998 where the original piece was displayed.

To celebrate Women’s History Month, each week in March we will feature a fascinating woman or organization from our collections. This week, we are exploring the collection of Anna Stonum, an artist and activist who fought for the rights of people with disabilities.

Anna Marie Stonum was born on October 14, 1958, in Granite City, Illinois and moved to Chicago to attend Mundelein College, where she earned a bachelor of fine arts degree. Anna suffered from Friedreich’s Ataxia, a degenerative condition that affects coordination, and eventually caused her to use a wheelchair for much of her adult life. Her artwork evolved from watercolors to sculptures to work on the computer as her condition increasingly affected her coordination, but she never let her disability keep her from creating. In 1994, Anna started her own graphic design company, Designs for All. Through the company, Anna used her talent to create designs for disability activism, including the “Adapt or Perish” logo used by local and national disability rights organizations.

This logo, created by Anna Stonum, was used on t-shirts, newsletters, and more to promote the rights of the people with disabilities.

In 1987, Anna married Mike Ervin, an accomplished playwright who was also disabled. The two were founding members of the Chicago chapter of Americans Disabled for Accessible Public Transit (ADAPT), a group that advocated for lifts to be installed on Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) buses to meet the needs of those with disabilities. After years of protests and court battles, CTA committed to buying 700 buses with lifts, ordering over 400 of them in 1989. Anna was also a leader in the protests against Jerry Lewis’s national telethons, which many felt painted a demeaning image of people with disabilities.

Designs For All created this window sticker for people with disabilities to place on cars illegally parked in handicap parking spots.

The dedication of ADAPT chapters across the nation led to the passing of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990, which removed barriers keeping people with disabilities from participating in mainstream life. She and Mike participated in many other projects including demanding higher wages for home aides.

Anna passed away at 40 years old after a heart attack. During her short life, Anna saw many victories for people with disabilities thanks to her leadership and commitment to civil rights.

The Women and Leadership Archives hold the papers of Anna Stonum.






Zonta International

Party - A few of the Zonta Club of Oak Park enjoy the 1920s theme of the 1991 District Conference.

To celebrate Women’s History Month, each week in March we will feature a fascinating woman or organization from our collections. This week, we are looking into one of our more recent collections, that of the organization Zonta International and its local chapter, Zonta Club of Oak Park.

 Zonta International was formed in 1919 in Buffalo, New York with the purpose of creating a strong network of businesswomen and women executives. Following the passing of the Equal Suffrage Amendment and the admirable service of women during World War I, the founders felt women should participate in the world in which their status and responsibilities were growing. Early members were the first generation of women to go to college and part of the increasing legion of women joining the workforce. The goal of Zonta International was to improve the legal, political, economic, and professional status of women. The organization continues to pursue these objectives through service projects at the local, regional, and international levels.

This design was used on some of the club’s pamphlets and other materials.

In 1934, Zonta Club of Oak Park joined the international organization. The club’s records detail their many projects including sewing 139 felt puppets for the local children’s hospital and collecting eight cartons of playing cards to donate to the veterans’ hospital. The club gave grants and ongoing support to local agencies such as the Oak Park Food Pantry and The Way Back Inn/ Grateful House, a residential rehabilitation program for women with drug and alcohol issues. It also raised money for international service projects chosen by Zonta International that often addressed issues of violence against women.

In 1938, Zonta International established the Amelia Earhart Fellowship Fund, in memory of the aviatrix and Zonta member who was the first woman to fly across the Atlantic Ocean. Each fellowship grant of $6000 was awarded to women engaged in graduate studies of aerospace-related sciences or engineering. Oak Park also joined other Zonta clubs in offering the Young Women in Public Affairs Award, a $200 scholarship for a young woman interested in becoming leaders in careers including policy-making, government, and volunteer organizations.

After over 70 years of service and fellowship, the Zonta Club of Oak Park closed in 2012. However, Zonta International continues to serve women with 1,200 clubs in 67 countries.

The Women and Leadership Archives holds the records of the Zonta International Oak Park Chapter, which includes materials from the regional and international organization.