Anna Langford and Marilou Hedlund made history as Chicago’s first female alderpersons

By Amina Sergazina, Staff Reporter

The first female alderpeople, Anna Langford and Marilou Hedlund, were fierce advocates for minority communities in Chicago. Mengshin Lin

As Women’s History Month comes to an end, honoring women who changed our world and broke the glass ceiling is as important as ever, so this month, the Chronicle is honoring two trailblazers in Chicago politics.

In 1971, members of the Chicago City Council were exclusively male until two women, Anna Langford and Marilou Hedlund—sometimes referenced as Marilou von Ferstel—made history. Langford, former-alderperson of the 16th Ward, and Hedlund, former-alderperson for the 48th Ward, were advocates for women, Black, Indigenous, people of color, and the LGBTQ+ community.

“These inspiring women paved the way for the dozens of female politicians like me who have been honored to serve the people of Chicago in City Council,” said Ald. Pat Dowell (3rd Ward), in her monthly March newsletter.

In her newsletter honoring Chicago’s first women alderpersons, Dowell said Hedlund focused on gay rights, women’s rights and landmark preservation of historical sites in her ward.

Langford did not win her ward election on her first try, and Dowell said she related to this as she did not prevail in her first attempt to defeat former Ald. Dorothy Tillman.

Before becoming alderpersons, Langford and Hedlund were helping Chicago communities in other ways. Langford marched alongside Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in the 1960s and provided free legal services in many locations, for civil rights workers and others, and King used her home to plan a march in suburban Cicero for racial integration.

“Anna Langford was important not only [for] giving visibility to women in the City Council, but also to giving a voice to African Americans,” said Dick Simpson, professor of political science at the University of Illinois at Chicago and a former alderperson of 44th Ward.

Langford earned her law degree from John Marshall Law School in 1956. She worked for a voter-registration camp during “Freedom Summer” in the office where three civil rights activists were kidnapped and killed by the Ku Klux Klan and local police in rural Mississippi.

Langford was also a supporter of Operation PUSH, a non-profit organization focused on improving the economic situation of Black communities.

“I remember I was in high school, and [Langford] was very outspoken,” said Delmarie Cobb, media and political consultant and owner at The Publicity Works. “She certainly made an impression on me; here I saw this woman for the first time in City Council, who looked like me, who was talking about issues and taking the political establishment to task.”

Hedlund was a reporter at the Chicago Tribune for eight years and won many awards for women’s interest features, youth reporting and general features. On top of being the first woman alderperson, she also was the first woman to receive the endorsement for alderperson from the Democratic Organization of Cook County.

Hedlund was one of the nine alderpersons, including Langford, who co-sponsored a bill against the discrimination of gay people in workplaces, housing and public accommodations in 1973.

“Hedlund came from the opposite side of the city [that Langford came from], on the North Side and the 48th Ward,” Simpson said. “[She] represented the Uptown community on the North Side, and did play [a] positive liberal role, but still voted with Mayor Daley, [who Langford was fighting against].”

Another initiative Hedlund supported was the 1972 Equal Rights Amendment, which has a goal to end legal distinctions regarding divorce, property and employment for all Americans regardless of sex.

Before Hedlund and Langford, Chicago’s City Council had no women’s bathrooms, and the word “alderwomen” did not exist, Cobb said. But as of 2019, women held 48% of seats at city councils with at-large seats and single-member district seats in 100 U.S. cities, according to Represent Women.

In Chicago, women hold 15 out of 50 seats in the City Council.

“You’re breaking barriers at every turn,” Cobb said of the role of women alderpersons. “You’re breaking barriers because you’re Black. You’re breaking barriers because you’re a woman. And you’re forcing your colleagues to have to deal with something that’s different. Their sensibilities are going to be challenged; things that they’ve never thought about before as it pertains to a woman’s perspective, they now have to take into consideration.”

Langford died in 2008 at the age of 90 at her home in Englewood Chicago after a long battle with cancer. Hedlund died in 2016 from natural causes at the age of 78.