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Susan Catania

Thursday, Dec 7, 2023 - Posted by Rich Miller

* As I told subscribers this morning, former Illinois state Rep. Susan Catania has passed away. Her daughter Sara Catania wrote a eulogy. Here’s an excerpt, but you really should read the whole thing

My mother, former Illinois State Legislator Susan Catania, a relentless advocate for the ERA and a fearless champion of important but politically unpopular causes, died last week.

The cause was a fire that broke out during the early morning hours of November 27 in our family cabin on Cranberry Lake outside the town of Eagle River in Northern Wisconsin, where she’d moved to spend her retirement.

In January of 1973, the U.S. was about to end its role in the Vietnam War and the Supreme Court to uphold abortion rights in Roe v. Wade. The prior November, to the surprise of no one, President Nixon was re-elected in a landslide. In Chicago’s 22nd legislative district, to the surprise of nearly everyone, my mom won close to 70 percent of the Republican vote, earning her a seat in the state legislature. In the annals of history, my mother’s victory was nowhere near as momentous an event as Roe, Vietnam and Nixon, but in the halls of local and state political power, it was shocking.

She was white in a nearly all-Black district on Chicago’s South Side, a Republican in a city of big D Democrats, and a young mother at a time when very few women — and even fewer who had children — ran for public office..

On top of all that, she had no experience in politics and no connections to the all-powerful political machine of Mayor Richard J. Daley, who maintained his white-ethnic grip on Chicago politics even as three other major U.S. cities — Los Angeles, Atlanta and Detroit — made history by electing their first African American mayors. […]

On hearing that my mother had died, someone asked me for my favorite memory of her. The first thing that popped into my head was her laugh. My mom was a serious and driven person. She also had a great sense of humor and a rolling, joyful laugh. My delight in hearing it was magnified by its stark contrast to her typical deadpan demeanor. I have many memories of her sitting at our kitchen table talking on the phone, often to reporters, in long and rambling conversations punctuated with that laugh. No wonder I became a journalist.

Her death was not the end we would have wished for her, or one she would have wanted for herself. But she died in a place she loved, after living her life exactly as she wanted.

* Compiled by Isabel…

    * 1995 Chicago Tribune | DCFS coordinator puts family values to work: As a mother of seven daughters, Catania comes to the task well-versed from a personal as well as professional angle. In the Illinois General Assembly, where she served as a liberal Republican from 1973 to 1983, Catania championed women and family issues at a time when male legislators felt free to joke about issues such as child support, domestic abuse and maternity leave. … Now 53, Catania was the mother of four young daughters when she first ran for the legislature from the South Side. She had quit a job as information director for a chemical research company after she says the company hired a man with less experience and paid him twice as much. She filed a sex-discrimination lawsuit.

    * 1990 Chicago Tribune | A world apart: Indeed, Susan Catania, an ecology-mined former state representative and mother of seven daughter, said that disposable diapers were essential to her political life. “I would not have been able to serve in the Illinois House of Representatives without them,” she said. Catania had three daughters in diapers while she held office. She used cloth diapers at home, which she washed at home, but used disposables in Springfield when traveling with her babies. “If we have the brains to do things, I think we should be out doing them, not home doing diapers,” she said.

    * 1999 Chicago Reader | Triple Threat: Catania often bucked her party leadership, voting for gun control, for abortion, for the ERA, but it was impossible for the bosses to punish her because there was no Republican organization on the south side. … With members serving in Springfield, the Chicago Republican Party wasn’t the joke it is now. Catania used her office to corral votes for Senator Charles Percy and to rally her constituents against Democratic state’s attorney Edward Hanrahan, who was hated by blacks for his role in the killing of Black Panthers Fred Hampton and Mark Clark. The machine bosses who controlled the Taylor Homes had never told their constituents about ticket splitting, so Catania had to give lessons.

    * 1982 Illinois Issues | Will it be Ryan, Totten or Catania?: Mrs. Catania is a Republican, elected and reelected to the Illinois House from heavily Democratic Chicago, thanks to cumulative voting. In other words, her clout is minimal even on her own turf. And some people got the wrong idea when she brought her babies to the House floor so they would not be deprived of their mother’s attention. The image may have been that of a vulnerable woman but, in fact, Mrs. Catania was demonstrating some unusual courage by invading the often zoo-like House chamber with an infant. … “Susan Catania can’t win,” Mrs. Schlafly said. “No one who supported John Anderson for president can win a statewide Republican primary.”She also refused to call the race a referendum on the ERA, but she acknoledged that issue is likely to dominate the campaign.

    * 1982 Washington Post | Three Congressmen Apparently Lose, Another Periled in Illinois Primary: In the GOP lieutenant governor’s contest, state House Speaker George Ryan, Thompson’s choice, was running ahead of state Rep. Susan Catania, a feminist and party maverick. State Sen. Donald Totten, who sought to capitalize on his links to Reagan, was third. Totten conceded Ryan’s victory but Catania clung to the hope that uncounted ballots in Chicago might give her an upset. … But a greater threat to Ryan, according to pre-primary polls, came from Catania, a feminist liberal who backed John B. Anderson for the 1980 GOP presidential nomination. As the former head of the Illinois commission on the status of women and the only avowed supporter of the Equal Rights Amendment in the race, Catania drew financial help from feminists across the country, who saw in her candidacy a last-ditch chance to push Illinois into the list of states ratifying the ERA.

    * 2018 SJ-R | Bernard Schoenburg: 36 years later, Susan Catania hopeful about ERA: Catania, 76, who says she still leans Republican and now calls Buffalo Grove home, says 36 years later that one anti-ERA message, about women’s role in the military, has been rebuffed. “We have a United States senator who clearly has demonstrated that women can serve with complete distinction in the U.S. military. And we have her fighting the good fight now in Washington.” She was talking about U.S. Sen. TAMMY DUCKWORTH, D-Illinois, the Hoffman Estates resident who lost both legs when her helicopter was shot down over Iraq. Catania said she voted for Duckworth in 2016. “She’s carrying the torch for women,” she said, and is “speaking out for the military and for women, for working families.”


  1. - jackmac - Thursday, Dec 7, 23 @ 1:47 pm:

    So sorry to hear of Susan Catania’s passing and what a beautiful tribute by her daughter. She was certainly a trailblazer and beholden to no one. And much of her work on issues not necessarily popular at the time are now enshrined in law and public acceptance.

  2. - JoanP - Thursday, Dec 7, 23 @ 2:00 pm:

    I’m so sorry to hear this. She was a strong voice for women.

  3. - DuPage Saint - Thursday, Dec 7, 23 @ 2:06 pm:

    How far the Republicans have fallen

  4. - Rich Miller - Thursday, Dec 7, 23 @ 2:10 pm:

    ===How far the Republicans have fallen ===

    She was an outlier in her party back then. Heck, she was one of just a few such outliers in the entire General Assembly.

  5. - Cook countian - Thursday, Dec 7, 23 @ 2:12 pm:

    God speed Rep. Catalina who came from the era of cumulative voting which showed that Republicans could be liberals and Democrats could be conservatives and great discourse in the chamber back then. We could use those voices today things wouldn’t as extreme. Thoughts to her family and thoughts also to her late husband…seven daughters…having to handle 8 strong women under one roof back in the day!!

  6. - Cook countian - Thursday, Dec 7, 23 @ 2:22 pm:

    And lest we not forget, the cutback amendment which deprived us of voices like Rep. Catania was another one of Gov. Quinn’s “populist initiatives” that failed miserably and created the legislative leadership monsters such as Speaker Madigan and Senate Presidents Philip and Jones.

  7. - Rich Miller - Thursday, Dec 7, 23 @ 2:24 pm:

    ===and Senate Presidents Philip and Jones===

    The Cutback Amendment applied solely to the House.

  8. - Amalia - Thursday, Dec 7, 23 @ 2:28 pm:

    Quinn was not the only one working for the Cutback Amendment. It was frustrating to know that the success of that effort would mean the loss of Susan’s voice. Her’s was a beacon at a time when I can recall an entire NW side/suburban (?) district that was 2D 1R and all anti ERA. She was smart and elegant and totally herself. Glad she got to live out her life the way she wanted.

  9. - granville - Thursday, Dec 7, 23 @ 2:45 pm:

    I never met Susan Catania but I spoke to her many times. I interned for an anti-war group and she was a member, and back then we had to call members for renewals every year. Ms. Catania would keep me on the phone for probably 30 minutes (the average call was about 5), talking about post-Cold War politics and how it related to matters of violence and environmental justice. I think I was 19. There are two people who were just unusually kind to a bratty 19 year old kid just getting involved in organized politics. One was Adolph Reed, who gave me a photocopy of his next book before even his editor, and Susan Catania. I’m sorry for her family’s loss.

  10. - Randy Wells - Thursday, Dec 7, 23 @ 2:45 pm:

    Toward the end of her public service career, Susan worked at DHS. She was a tremendous asset to DHS policy and legislative staff.

    As the DHS Legislative Director I knew when Susan had done an analysis on a bill it was complete with all sides of a policy argument explained in detail which made working those bills so much easier.

    I loved to chat with her and she loved hearing what was happening down at the Statehouse. She would light up when sharing stories of her battles with the “good old boys” in Springfield.

    May Susan Rest in Peace. Prayers to her family and friends.

  11. - Cook countian - Thursday, Dec 7, 23 @ 3:03 pm:

    = The Cutback Amendment applied solely to the House =

    Yes thank you for clarifying, the Senate did not change composition after the cutback amendment. However, I brought them up as since the reduction in 1982, political scientists have clearly observed a huge increase in power in the hands of the 4 legislative leaders. Indeed, after the 1970 constitutional convention, which forced the Senate to alter and redistrict for the first time in a generation, effectively taking out the leadership of Senate President Arrington (a previous generation version of Speaker Madigan, albeit in the Senate), there were a string of much weaker Senate Presidents until power became consolidated following the cutback among the 4 legislative leaders. But yes, the cutback did not change the Senate numbers at all, and for those interested in this subject, the history and politics of it, the link Isabel found to the 1999 Chicago Reader article is perhaps the best read to be found. I remember reading it years ago and it still has relevance and good historical reference. Bravo Isabel for digging it up!

  12. - Anyone Remember - Thursday, Dec 7, 23 @ 4:01 pm:

    “… the cutback amendment … was another one of Gov. Quinn’s “populist initiatives” that failed miserably … .”

    Was before my time in Illinois, but the extended Illinois family voted for it, not because of the Catanias, but because of the “fetcher bills” that the FBI investigated.

  13. - Anonymous - Thursday, Dec 7, 23 @ 4:02 pm:

    ===How far the Republicans have fallen ===

    == She was an outlier in her party back then. Heck, she was one of just a few such outliers in the entire General Assembly.==

    Rep. Virginia Frederick from Lake Forest was another. Fiercely pro-choice, and also an advocate for the ERA. Wish we had more like her and Catania.

  14. - The Professor - Thursday, Dec 7, 23 @ 4:03 pm:

    I first met Susan when I first started lobbying. I had attended grade school with a Catania so their was a connection. Super lady. She certainly caused a stir when bringing her infant child on the House floor. I will always remember her.

  15. - Cosgrove - Thursday, Dec 7, 23 @ 4:26 pm:

    It was my honor and privilege to know Susan and work with her as a much younger political activist finding his way in Springfield. On top of all her support of women’s rights, she was a rare legislator at the time who who was not afraid to stand up for and support LGBTQ rights leading to her induction into the LGBTQ Hall of Fame. She was a fearless trailblazer who greatly inspired me along with her colleagues Giddy Dyer, Helen Satterthwaite and Virginia Frederick among others. Susan Catania set the table for all the advances we have made in Illinois since her days in the legislature and we owe her the debt of immense gratitude.

  16. - Dan Johnson - Thursday, Dec 7, 23 @ 5:38 pm:

    I got my start advocating for a return to three-seat districts with cumulative voting rights and almost everyone who was involved before the 1982 switch to single-member districts mentioned Susan Catania as an example of the kind of minority party representative that was an absolute benefit.

  17. - Albert - Friday, Dec 8, 23 @ 4:59 am:

    Very sad to hear; my thoughts and prayers to her family. I looked her up and found this Wiki article that tells a lot more of her story:

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