Mary Jane Hawes, class of 1856, was born in New Bedford, MA, on May 21, 1837, into a family whose ancestors had been early settlers of the area. Her father was a sea captain, who, upon retiring, moved his family to Newport, NH, where he took up farming. Mary Jane continued her schooling at Kimball Union where she studied for four years. She married Henry Wilmarth also of Newport, NH, in 1861 and shortly thereafter, they moved to Chicago where he became a prosperous manufacturer of gas fixtures and one of the organizers of the First National Bank. For the next 24 years, Mary Jane led a quiet life raising her family of three daughters although she had begun to take an active interest in social reform and in the beginning of the women’s movement. However, it was not until after her husband’s death that she dedicated herself to her lifelong interest in social and feminist concerns of Chicago.
She became a leader of many early women’s clubs including the Fortnightly Club, which was literary and scholarly in nature, and the Women’s City Club, which was engaged more in the life of the city. Mary Jane was also associated with the Legal Aid Society and Women’s Trade Union and labored hard for child labor laws and attempted to secure a Saturday half-holiday for working women. As a member of the Frederick Douglass Center, she “worked to establish a better relationship between white and black people.”
Mary Jane was influential in the founding of Hull House in Chicago in 1889, one of the first social settlements in America and was one of its original trustees. At the age of 75, she became a member of the Progressive Party and was one of two women delegates-at-large from Illinois to the Progressive National Convention held in Chicago in 1912. Towards the latter part of her life, she met and marched with fellow suffragettes whenever she felt she could further their cause. Her friend, Jane Addams, a co-winner of the Nobel Peace Prize and a social reformer and prominent member of the early women’s suffrage movement, overheard Mary Jane say, “…how frail a barrier women’s influence seemed to be in spite of its vaunted power,” but she never seemed to lose her zeal for public involvement in women’s suffrage. Addams added, “She had the rare faculty of never putting her less gifted friends at a disadvantage…In all this so-called reform work, she was never a fanatic, exacting moral rules at the expense of human nature. She retained always her spontaneity, and a knowledge of wrongdoing did not rob her of tenderness and understanding.”
While traveling in England, Addams wrote in her book, The Excellent Becomes The Permanent, “…a well-known and esteemed man of letters remarked that the person of greatest intellectual distinction whom he had met in America lived not in New York or Boston curiously enough, but in Chicago.” Addams pursued his remark and “…realized that the gentleman was referring to her dear friend, Mary Jane Hawes Wilmarth.”
Mary Jane lived in her home on Michigan Avenue for over fifty years; the only home in the neighborhood not to be destroyed by the Great Chicago Fire. Mary Jane died in 1919 at the age of 82 at her vacation home at Lake Geneva, Wisconsin.