Welcome Contributing Writer John P. Psiharis! This month, he tells us about Greek Women’s University Club (GWUC)– Chicago’s first Greek organization dedicated to professional women.
A novel idea: a group for educated, professional Greek women
Many years ago, women were not admitted into area Greek professional organizations, including the Hellenic Professional Society of Illinois. Then one day, Irene Harvalis Glyptis introduced an at-the-time revolutionary idea to a small group of friends: to create a club to bring together college-educated, Greek-American women in Chicago. It’s doubtful that eight decades later, she could foresee the impact her idea would have on Chicago’s Greek community.
In the midst of the Great Depression, on February 21, 1931, the idea came to life, and the Greek Women’s University Club (GWUC) was born. Katherine Miller Parry was elected the first president of the organization. By 1934, it was incorporated as a not-for-profit organization.
According to the Articles of Incorporation, GWUC was formed for:
- the promotion of education among Greek girls and women or girls and women of Greek descent.
- The maintenance of a Benefit Scholarship Fund for girls in need of assistance in pursuing their education.
- Cooperation with national or civic movements which tend toward the social and educational advancement of the Greek race in America.
In later years, the mission evolved, to include “To encourage the arts, literature and sciences among Greek people.”
Early members were primarily the educated daughters of Greek immigrants. Some were immigrants themselves, having arrived in the United States at a young age. They had one thing in common – they were going against the grain, in an era when it was believed by many that a woman’s place was in the home — cooking and raising a family. College education for Greek women was not the norm and at the time, many women felt fortunate to graduate from high school, let alone attend college.
The members believed that it was important to promote the higher education of Greek women to the community, as well as to provide an opportunity for socialization and networking amongst these university graduates.
Students were invited to join as associate members. They could participate in meetings but did not have a vote. In its early years, the club even provided bus fare and lunch money to needy students.
According to a timeline in the 85th Anniversary commemorative booklet, in 1935, GWUC provided its first scholarship of $300 to Evangeline Jouras for first-year tuition at the University of Chicago.
Eighty-one years later, scholarships to needy young women to pursue higher education are still a cornerstone of the organization. Between 1974 and 2013, GWUC awarded 33 scholarships totaling $110,000 to Greek-American women.
The events provided a forum for musicians and composers of Greek descent, both women and men, between the ages of 20-29. Both vocal and instrument performances are featured.
Since 1989, GWUC has organized an annual music competition for Greek-American musicians.
Since it’s inception, through this event, $76,000 in prizes has been awarded.
Celebrating Hellenic culture
It is not widely known that GWUC held an ambitious goal of establishing a Hellenic Cultural Center to provide a space for meetings and events. GWUC members worked to raise funds for this project from the 1940’s through the 1960’s. These efforts raised $40,000.
By the late 1960’s the cultural landscape of the Greek community had evolved. Women pursuing higher education were becoming more commonplace. As Greeks moved outward and into the suburbs, new churches with adjoining community centers were appearing throughout the metropolitan area, so the need for an additional cultural center was no longer as critical.
Although $40,000 is a lot of money, it was not sufficient to build a new cultural center. In 1969, the process began to convert the cultural center funds into a trust that would be held until a worthy cultural endeavor presented itself in the Chicago area. In the interim, the interest had been used to help support the organization’s scholarship program.
To fulfill its cultural mission, GWUC has over, the years, sponsored or co-sponsored an array of cultural activities to celebrate and enlighten GWUC members and the greater Greek community. These events include performances, exhibitions, lectures, and receptions for Greek American artists, musicians, and authors, among others.
Greek American Pioneer Women of Illinois
In the 1990’s, GWUC began a series of events around the theme, “Greek-American Pioneer Women in Illinois”. Coordinated by longtime member, Author Dr. Elaine Thomopoulos and partly funded by the Illinois Humanities Council, the program included speakers from throughout the nation. Oral histories were also completed. The series culminated with an exhibition at the James R. Thompson State of Illinois Building in Chicago.
Five pioneering women were the focus of the series: Georgia Bitzis Pooley, Presbytera Stella Christoulakis Petrakis (mother of renowned author Harry Mary Petrakis), Theano Papazoglou-Margaris, Venette Tomaras Askounes Ashford, and Illinois State Senator Adeline J. Geo-Karis. The stories of these fascinating women were featured in a book published in 2000 by GWUC and edited by Dr. Thomopoulos.
Past and present officers and members commemorated the organization’s 85th anniversary, at a celebration this past February. The evening featured a tribute to GWUC’s past presidents. It was a great opportunity to look back to see how much Greek-American women had achieved over the past 85 years.
Ongoing support to Greek-American women
Irene Harvalis Glyptis’ vision, plus the efforts of many women over several generations, continue to impact and enrich the lives of young Greek women and the community as a whole. GWUC’s founders and members were truly pioneers, working diligently for the advancement of educational and professional opportunities for Greek-American women. There are certainly many more opportunities for women today than in the past, nonetheless, GWUC’s mission remains relevant. They will continue to support Greek-American women of all ages, for many years to come.
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John was co-founder and executive director of Greek-American Community Services from 1986-2001. He is a co-founder and longtime board member of the Greek-American Nursing Home Committee. He has provided consulting services to a number of institutions, businesses and organizations and has served on numerous boards and committees. Over the years, John has contributed to The National Herald, The Greek Star, and other publications.
Latest posts by John Psiharis (see all)
- Hellenic Link-Midwest: Building Bridges of Understanding Since 1985 - December 14, 2016
- ENOSIS: Working to Unite the Greek Organizations of our Omogenia - September 21, 2016
- GWUC: Promoting Higher Education for Greek Women Since 1931 - August 17, 2016