Women’s History Month honors those who made a difference

Laurie Dayon, executive director of Girls on the Run Northwest Illinois sits for a portrait Thursday in her Crystal Lake office. Girls on the Run helps promote a positive body image for girls in a 10-week program that ends with a 5K race.
Laurie Dayon, executive director of Girls on the Run Northwest Illinois sits for a portrait Thursday in her Crystal Lake office. Girls on the Run helps promote a positive body image for girls in a 10-week program that ends with a 5K race.

It’s been a long and bumpy road to women’s equality. Some might argue there’s still a long way to go.

This Women’s History Month, the Northwest Herald wants to celebrate the women and organizations who’ve paved the way to make that road a little smoother, trailblazers who continue to show women and girls that anything is possible.

A pioneer for women’s suffrage

When one thinks of the women’s suffrage movement in Illinois, several female figures likely pop into mind – Jane Addams or, for the historically inclined, Grace Wilbur Trout or Ida B. Wells-Barnett.

What about Elizabeth Shurtleff?


Elizabeth Shurtleff of Marengo was once an active Illinois suffragist. Her husband, Judge Edward D. Shurtleff, a rising political star, was elected to the Illinois General Assembly and later became Speaker of the House.

Elizabeth Shurtleff’s influence on her husband’s views is well-documented. The couple often invited state suffrage leaders to speak to women’s groups at their home. It was Elizabeth who persuaded her husband to support the growing women’s suffrage movement – despite his sympathies with the Anti-Saloon League, who believed strongly that use and sale of alcohol should be contained if not eliminated, and a group known for its opposition to women’s suffrage.

Edward Shurtleff later championed a bill that would make Illinois the first state east of the Mississippi River to grant women the right to vote in presidential elections. Illinois also was one of the first states to ratify the 19th Amendment, which gave women the right to vote.

Wilbur Trout once said that she was “especially grateful when we had secured the vote of Edward D. Shurtleff because he was always before opposed to suffrage.”

Although it’s her husband whose name is prominent in Illinois history – for both good and bad – it’s Elizabeth who, in the annals of the McHenry County Historical Society, was called “one of Marengo’s best-known women.”

Shaping the county’s youth

Longtime educator May Chesak may be gone, but her legacy to education lives on today.

Chesak was the kind of teacher students remembered and colleagues admired – so much so that Huntley elementary school students walk the halls of a school named after her.

She wanted to be a teacher from the time she was 4 years old playing with her dog, she told the Northwest Herald in a 1999 interview. “I tried to make my dog a student.”

Chesak spent 51 years teaching local children, starting in a one-room schoolhouse in Fox River Grove, then on to Huntley, finally retiring in 1974 as school principal in Greenwood.

But she was slow to leave education. After she packed up her classroom, she remained active with the Retired Teachers Association and continued to substitute teach.

Her love for children and her community extended well beyond the classroom.

She was part of the American Legion Auxiliary, the Lions Club and Delta Kappa Gamma, a teachers’ honors society.

She died in 2007 at 103 years old, but left a profound legacy for generations of former students by which to remember her.

On track for a brighter tomorrow

Laurie Dayon never thought she could run a marathon. She never thought she could run a nonprofit organization, either.

But if there’s one lesson from her leading the local Girls on the Run, it’s that anything is possible.

Girls on the Run empowers girls in third to eighth grade through activities designed to help them make good choices for a lifetime of self-respect and healthy living. The organization’s mission is to inspire girls to be joyful, healthy and confident, using a fun, experience-based curriculum that creatively integrates running.

“It gives the girls the tools to stand up for themselves and be better-rounded women as they grow up,” Dayon said.

The program is designed to help girls identify who they are and “empower them to face everything they’re confronted with,” Girls on the Run program coordinator Lisa Puma said.

The culmination of the 10-week program is a 5K race. It doesn’t matter if the girls run or walk it – as long as they cross the finish line.

“The idea is when you meet that goal, it gives you the foundation for the next challenge in your life,” Dayon said.

New to Girls on the Run this year, is what Dayon called the “GO Team,” which stands for Girls who are Older. These women share their stories about who inspired them when they were young – but perhaps more importantly, who discouraged them and were proved wrong.

“We have to always remember what’s happened in the past so girls realize it’s very important to be where we are right now,” Puma said. “People fought very hard so women can have a voice.”

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