Once upon a time in Chicago, there was an ambitious little politician who decided to make a name for himself by picking a fight with the women of Hull-House. For a man who built things for a living, perhaps he should have known better than to employ a political strategy of burning down the house. But he was new to politics, and he did not know better. He saw his path to power in the persona of “Battling Peter,” who would rattle the foundations of the city’s social reform structures to raise his voice above the progressive din. His political strategy was to attack social reformers in the city, particularly the female ones, and the institutions they supported.
Peter Bartzen, a 61-year-old proprietor of a mason and carpentry business, was that politician. The office he sought was President of the Cook County Board of Commissioners. During the fall of 1910, the fiery Democrat campaigned for that office by denouncing what he called the “hypocritical horde of reformers,” particularly the women of Hull-House. Politically ambitious with his eyes on a future gubernatorial run, Bartzen was a political novice. His only political experience was a four-year stint as an appointed building commissioner. To be governor, he needed a political victory and a message to launch his political career. With an “aggressive personality,” Bartzen decided to make a name for himself by whipping up foment against his city’s “child savers” and meddling do-gooders.
Bartzen was not a popular candidate, but the incumbent he hoped to unseat was not all that popular, either. Bartzen, who was not widely known, won the election on the coattails of a historic Democratic sweep, the county Democrats upsetting Republicans who had held power for sixteen years. The women Bartzen had maligned during his campaign for office had no direct say in the election, because women in Chicago, in Illinois, and in most states across the country, could not vote. No doubt that is precisely why Bartzen was so comfortable in his attacks against them. But when Bartzen took his seat, many prominent women reformers in Chicago set their watchful eyes upon the pesky, provocative politician.
During his first year in office, Bartzen did much to earn the disdain of Chicago reformers. For instance, he took aim at many of the county’s social service institutions, arguing that they were doing more harm than good to the county’s children and their families. In particular, he launched a full-scale investigation of the Chicago Juvenile Court in July 1911 in an effort to dismantle it. At the same time, Bartzen wholeheartedly embraced the long Chicago tradition of the spoils system by appointing his political allies to various posts under his authority, including some within the court itself. When Bartzen removed the juvenile court’s chief probation officer John Witter, a professional hired through the civil service system, he renewed his personal attacks against Hull-House, as well. In a public statement about Witter’s firing, Bartzen said: “It looks as if Mr. Witter has been under the influence of Hull-House. He ought not to be listening to a bunch of old women all the time.”
That bunch of old women was led by the 51-year-old Jane Addams, a nationally respected and beloved social reformer, and the 53-year-old Julia Lathrop, who helped found the influential Chicago School of Civics and Philanthropy and was one of the city’s most prominent proponents of the Chicago Juvenile Court. Both of the women were a decade younger than Bartzen, but he dismissed them as members of the weaker sex, with no right to their opinions let alone their influence. Bartzen’s position was a powerful one. He presided over a fifteen-member board that controlled some $10 million and managed much of the county’s infrastructure and its public institutions, including its civil service system. But the city’s community of social reformers was also powerful, and Bartzen underestimated the women who led them.
In September 1911, Bartzen’s fight with the women of Hull-House escalated. When he made a particular play to discredit the work of the Chicago Juvenile Court and the Illinois Industrial School for Girls, Julia Lathrop fired back. In a public speech, Lathrop responded: “Both attacks have been made for the purposes of political capital…The noble minded women who have been working for the salvation of Chicago’s children made some errors. They were not serious errors, but they were enough to give politicians a peg on which to hang an investigation.” The court had suffered some growing pains, but the court’s founders and supporters were willing to recognize problems and work to correct them. As well, the Chicago Woman’s Club and the Juvenile Protective Association, which included some very well-heeled and outspoken women, loudly reaffirmed their support of the institution in the wake of what they believed were unwarranted, politically motivated attacks against it.
Reformers in Chicago were eager to defend the court and its mission to help disadvantaged youth escape the harsh justice of the criminal courts. They were growing particularly concerned about Bartzen replacing qualified probation officers working with the juvenile court with political hacks. Just days after Lathrop’s defensive stand against Bartzen, Dr. James A. Britton, the chief medical officer of the city’s juvenile home, resigned his post in protest. He charged that Bartzen was thumbing his nose at civil service law, which provided qualified professional probation officers to the juvenile court, and that Bartzen was “loading up the county service with political friends.” Britton was a Hull-House resident and the husband of Gertrude Howe Britton, another Hull-House resident, who was also affiliated with the Juvenile Protective Association. Mrs. Britton was just 43-years-old, but Bartzen no doubt dismissed her, and likely her husband, too, as meddling Hull-House do-gooders. Bartzan was leaving in his political wake a long list of scorned old women at Hull-House.
During the next year, Bartzen did not change his colors, and neither did the old women of Hull-House. Bartzen continued to undermine the civil service system and threaten the life of the city’s social institutions; and the city’s reformers grew increasingly certain Bartzen was a dangerous political incumbent. In the fall of 1912, Jane Addams decided to beat Bartzen at his own game: politics. She led a group of the city’s reform-minded citizens, most of them men with political clout, to select a candidate to defeat Bartzen in the November 1912 election. The committee chose Alexander A. McCormick, a former newspaper editor and progressive thinker. In August, Addams sent a telegram home to Chicago while she was vacationing in Maine, indicating the reformers’ choice: “Social workers have much to do in persuading A A McCormick to run for president of county board.” Addams believed a failure to defeat Bartzen would spell the “destruction of juvenile court.”
McCormick agreed to run on a Progressive Party ticket, and Addams’s political committee went to work. The campaign against Bartzen was ruthless, focused as it was on exposing him as a danger to the county’s most vulnerable citizens. Women led the charge, giving speeches and writing letters. On Nov. 2, 1912, on the Saturday just before the election, Addams and her committee behind McCormick published in the Chicago newspapers a signed circular entitled “Call to Public Service in the Interest of the Poor, Sick, Aged and Injured, and the Helpless Children of Chicago and Cook County.” The document skewered Bartzen’s policies, accused him of wasting public funds, asserted his guilt in “crimes of neglect and mismanagement of the Cook County Hospital,” and called his attack on the juvenile court “misleading and fraudulent.” In summary, the circular cautioned readers: “A vote for Peter Bartzen means a vote for the continued demoralization of all the public service institutions of the county, on which Bartzen and his henchmen have feasted while the dependents of the county have starved and been neglected.”
It is true that 1912 was a weird political year, with the role of a spunky third party mixing things up at the local, state, and national levels. The “Bull Moose” factor definitely influenced the Cook County elections. However, Bartzen’s particular reelection chances appeared to have lost traction on the heels of Chicago’s old women weighing in so loudly on his political record. Bartzen’s political strategy of picking a fight with Hull-House and Chicago’s most respected citizen backfired, and he lost the election.
The ambitious little politician had underestimated the old women at Hull-House and the political power they could garner, even without the right to vote for themselves. Bartzen not only lost this election, but he did not become the governor of Illinois, either. Even his obituary in 1933 dismissed his brief political career as minor, remembering his tenure as “anything but peaceful.” In the end, “Battling Peter” lost his battle against the battle-tested old women of Hull-House. While those women continued to make their positive marks on the history of Chicago, history resigned Bartzen to the political dustbin.
In 1914, Jane Addams published an article in the Ladies’ Home Journal in which she hailed the value of women over the age of fifty. “The weariness and dullness, which inhere in both domestic and social affairs when they are carried on by men alone, will no longer be a necessary attribute of public life when such gracious and gray-haired women become a part of it,” she wrote. “Ever-widening channels are gradually being provided through which woman’s increasing moral energy may flow, and it is not too much to predict that in the end public affairs will be amazingly revivified from those new fountainheads fed in the upper reaches of woman’s matured capacity.”
In the article, Addams shouted praise to “old” women like Ella Flagg Young, the Chicago Superintendent of Schools; novelist Edith Wharton; and Dr. Anna Howard Shaw, the long-running president of the National-American Woman Suffrage Association. Jane Addams knew the fight that resided in the hearts of experienced, capable, older women. She understood the beautiful extent of possibilities for women who used their talents for the betterment of their communities and the world. Peter Bartzen probably didn’t read that Ladies’ Home Journal article, and he may have never admitted to himself or to anyone else that he had been undone by women. Who knows if he harbored any regrets about his brief political career or the choices he made to conduct it.
The story of the politician and the old women of Hull-House is not a fairytale in which the villains are defeated and heroes in the story live happily ever after. Real life is more complicated than that. But this story is, perhaps, a fable Aesop himself may have written if he had lived in Chicago during the Progressive Era, when Jane Addams and scores of smart, capable, and commanding older women roamed the city’s dirty streets in order to clean them up. The moral of that fable is this: Beware the people you look past in your blind ambition; beware the people who seem to be precisely what you assume, unthreatening and unworthy of your respect. They might just turn out to be the clever, unrelenting, powerful force that becomes the fatal obstacle you never expected.
By Stacy Pratt McDermott, Associate Editor
Notes: David S. Tanenhaus, Juvenile Justice in the Making (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), 82-110; Albert Nelson Marquis, ed., Book of Chicagoans, 1911 (Chicago: A. N. Marquis & Co., 1911), 42-43; Illinois, Deaths and Stillbirths Index, 1916-1947; Witter v. County Commissioners, 256 Ill. 616 (1912); “Editorial Musings,” The Daily Herald (Arlington Heights, IL), Nov. 4, 1910, p. 1; Letter, Nov. 5, 1910, “Busse-Deneen Ring Is Smashed in Cook County by Democratic Victory,” Nov. 9, 1910, p. 1; “Would End Juvenile Court,” Chicago Tribune, July 30, 1911, p. 7; “Fight New Child Court Idea,” Chicago Tribune, Aug. 1, 1911, p. 4; “Bartzen Scored by Julia Lathrop,” Chicago Tribune, Sep. 24, 1911, p. 5; “Physician Quits Bartzen Regime,” Chicago Tribune, Sep. 26, 1911, p. 3; “Call to Public Service,” Nov. 2, 1912, p. 5; “Sociologists Say Bartzen Is Menace,” The Inter Ocean (Chicago), Nov. 2, 1912, p. 5; “Chicago Women, In Humane Plea, Flay Bartzen,” The Inter Ocean, Nov. 2, 1912, p. 1; “Save the Helpless From Bartzen,” The Inter Ocean, Nov. 4, 1912, p. 6; “Old and New County Board Presidents Shake Hands,” Chicago Tribune, Dec. 1, 1912, p. 3; “Peter Bartzen, Old Political Battler, Dead,” Chicago Tribune, Apr. 8, 1933, p. 1; Jane Addams to Julia Clifford Lathrop, August 7, 1911; Endorsement for Alexander McCormick for Cook County Board of Commissioners, 1912; Jane Addams to Alexander Agnew McCormick, August 21, 1912; Jane Addams to Charles E. Merriam, August 21, 1912; Jane Addams to Raymond Robins, August 21, 1912; Raymond Robins to Jane Addams, August 22, 1912; Need a Woman Over Fifty Feel Old?, October, 1914, all in Jane Addams Digital Edition.