It’s Women’s History Month! This week, Author Elaine Cotsirilos Thomopoulos profiles several pioneering Greek-American women in Illinois. Read their stories.
Women’s History Month: Remembering early Greek-American women
In this first in a special series commemorating Women’s History Month, Elaine Cotsirilos Thomopoulos, PhD, editor of Greek Women’s University Club’s book, Greek-American Pioneer Women of Illinois, profiles several Greek-American women who enriched their community and paved the way for the women who followed.
By: Elaine Cotsirilos Thomopoulos, PhD
My role model: Yiayia
My yiayia, Helen Panopoulos Constantopulos, was a good woman, an immigrant who spoke broken English and wore her hair in a bun. She would take two buses to our home in Elmhurst, IL, bringing us honey-drenched pastry. I liked visiting her at her brick two-flat in Chicago, where I watched her make hilopites by rolling out the dough with a broomstick handle on the table; after it dried, she cut it in tiny squares. I witnessed Yiayia slaughter a chicken with an axe. The sight of a bloodied chicken running around in the backyard without a head horrified and fascinated me. The smell of lard and fat as she prepared soap in the basement of her house made me wince. She learned these skills in Greece and was probably trying to teach me.
She came from Kerasitsa, Tegeas, to Chicago and married my grandfather in Chicago in 1913. Her life revolved around her husband, children, and grandchildren.
I loved my grandmother dearly and was heartbroken by her death when I was 13. Her life was cut short while she was shopping for linoleum. A roll fell and crushed her head.
Inspiration for Greek-American Pioneer Women of Illinois
My closeness to my grandmother motivated me to find out more about the early immigrant women. The Greek Women’s University Club (GWUC) supported me in my quest. After GWUC received a grant from the Illinois Humanities Council, Penny Sarlas Petropoul and I put together an exhibit featuring five immigrant women. The GWUC’s book, Greek-American Pioneer Women of Illinois, followed. I edited the book, which included. Chapters contributed by Dr. Andrew Kopan and Alice Orphanos Kopan; Drs. Nicholas and Robert Askounes Ashford; and Vivian Kallen.
My yiayia seemed happy as a nikokira (homemaker), and other than being active in the women’s club at church, she didn’t stray far from that role. Unlike my yiayia, each of the women featured in the book ventured outside the confines of the home. They were not just supporters of the men, but played major roles on their own in shaping the destiny of the community.
We profiled 5 exceptional Greek-American women. They are Georgia Bitzis Pooley, Presvytera Stella Christoulakis Petrakis, Theano Papazoglou Margaris, Venette Askounes Ashford, and Adeline J. Geo-Karis. Let’s briefly meet them.
Georgia Bitzis Pooley (1849-1945): first Greek woman in Chicago
Georgia Bitzis married sea captain Peter Pooley in Corfu and settled in Chicago with him in 1885; they had seven children. Georgia Pooley was the first known Greek woman to immigrate to Chicago. Shortly after her arrival, she organized the Greco-Slavonic Brotherhood, which initiated the first Orthodox Christian house of worship in Illinois. She also was active at Hull House and encouraged Greeks to use its services. In 1910, with Georgia’s encouragement, and support from Jane Addams, the Hellenic League for the Molding of Young Men was organized at Hull House. There, former non-commissioned officers of the Greek army drilled and trained young men. Many of these men went back to Greece to fight in the Balkan Wars. At the age of 92, Georgia was still active in the community, volunteering for the Greek War Relief Association’s efforts to raise money for the people in Greece.
Presvytera Stella Christoulakis Petrakis (1888-1979): founder of many organizations
Presvytera Stella Petrakis accompanied her husband, Rev. Mark E. Petrakis, from Crete to Utah in 1916. No matter where her husband was assigned — Price, UT; Savanna, GA; St. Louis, MO; or Chicago, IL – Presvytera put her energy and leadership skills to work. She became like a mother to the young, single coal miners of Price, and together with other women from the parish, boiled their filthy clothes in large caldrons when they came back from the mines. She sold war bonds, organized women’s groups to serve the needy, formed Red Cross units, and directed religious and patriotic dramatic presentations. In 1923, Rev. Petrakis was assigned to SS. Constantine and Helen Church in Chicago. There Presvytera founded St. Helen’s Philoptochos Society, the Koraes School Mothers’ Club, afternoon Greek religious classes, and Nea Genea. She also organized the Amalthia Chapter of the Cretan women in Chicago and was active in the Greek War Relief Association. Besides being active in the community, she raised four children, including renowned writer Harry Mark Petrakis.
Theano Papazoglou Margaris (1906-1991): Chronicler of the Greek-American experience
Theano Papazoglou Margaris, who was born in Vatika, a Greek village in Turkey, came to the U.S. when she was 17. She was orphaned at the age of eight, and twice a refugee, at ages nine and sixteen. Her daughter Vivian Kallen spoke of her mother’s resilience.
“She never got over her sense of loss, uprootedness, and disconnection with her past, or of the feeling that life is arbitrary and happiness illusory. But rather than give in to despair, she found inner reserves of strength and channeled her energy in directions that marked clear determination to be in control of her own life. She became a feminist, she broke with religion, she became involved with labor and other left-leaning groups, and she became a crusader of the use of the demotic language in Greek letters.”
Theano acted in Greek theater and became a writer. She published five books of short stories, two literary studies, a play, and countless articles in Greek American newspapers, like The National Herald, The Greek Star, and Greek Press. By drawing on her own experiences as a refugee and immigrant, she touched the soul of her readers. In 1967, she was admitted to Greece’s prestigious National Society for Greek Literary Writers. In 1969, she was named Archondissa of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, unusual for a woman at that time.
Venette Askounes Ashford (1906 – 1994): “The Jane Addams of the Greeks”
Venette Askounes Ashford immigrated to Chicago from Filiatra in 1914. She worked at her brothers’ restaurant across the street from Hull House. After graduating from DePaul University, she volunteered at Hull House, where she became a protégée of Jane Addams. After Venette attended graduate school at the School of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago, she took a job at the Immigrants Protective League. She devoted herself to helping immigrants for thirty years, while still having time to nurture her three sons and adopted daughter. “The Jane Addams of the Greeks,” as she was known, facilitated the immigration of over 5,000 Greek immigrants, and she and her husband Theodore personally sponsored hundreds of newcomers. Together with a network of volunteers and community members, she helped them find employment and housing, and obtain their citizenship. In 1959, she received a letter of recognition from Mayor Richard Daley for her years of service, beginning in 1932.
“The labor of love for those who come to a strange land can only be provided by a woman like Mrs. Askounes, who understands the need for friendship and help for newcomers to our community. The citizens of our community are grateful to her.”
Adeline J. Geo-Karis (1918-2008): Icon of Illinois Politics
Adeline J. Geo-Karis gained renowned and respect for her service to the people of Illinois. She served in the State of Illinois legislature for over thirty years, first as a representative and then as a senator until 2006. Adeline immigrated from Tegeas at the age of four. She grew up in Chicago, and graduated from DePaul University College of Law. After graduation, she joined the Navy. She was one of the first women assigned as an officer to the Navy’s Judge Advocate Corp. In 1946, Adeline settled in Zion, Illinois, where she established her law practice. Senator Geo-Karis blazed many trails in the political sphere. She broke the glass ceiling in the state senate when she became assistant majority leader for the Republican Party in 1993. She remained in that role until 2003. She was the first Lake County woman to achieve the following positions: justice of the peace, assistant state’s attorney, Illinois state representative, Illinois state senator, and mayor of Zion. The State of Illinois renamed a state park in Zion for her — the Adeline Jay Geo-Karis Illinois Beach State Park. Adeline also served the Greek community admirably. She directed the church choir and was church president at St. Demetrios Greek Orthodox Church in Waukegan, IL. When she was Grand President of the Daughters of Penelope, she spearheaded an effort to include the Greek Orthodox religion on servicemen’s dog tags.
Early immigrant women
Early immigrant women came to the U.S. without knowing the English language or understanding the alien culture. They had to adapt, while holding fast to their Greek religion and values. They pined for the family members and friends they left behind in their homeland, fearing they never again would see them. Chicago, with its smoke and smog, was much different than the clear blue skies of the old country. They tolerated the brutal Chicago winters and learned to navigate the city via streetcars and buses, even in the coldest of weather.
In those early days, women seldom worked outside of the home. These pioneer women showed great strength and determination by following their passions. They faced criticism from their families and the community, but were steadfast in their goals, and paved the way for generations of Greek-American women.
Many of the early immigrants were illiterate. These 5 women had the advantage of education. Georgia Pooley and Presbytera Petrakis attended high school. Theano Margaris, although she had attended only grammar school, was an avid reader who was self-educated. Venette Askounes and Senator Geo-Karis, who came to the U.S. as children, went to graduate school. Each of them used their education, intelligence, and leadership skills to lay a foundation for the nascent Greek-American community. They became role models for the women who followed them.
Axion (meritorious) describes these five Greek-American women. However, most of the women who came from the poor rural villages of Greece and Asia Minor could be called Axion as well. Scared and lonely they were when they first arrived, but strong. They worked to build the churches and community institutions.
Although they might not have had much education, they encouraged their children to excel in school. With discipline and tenderness, they nurtured their children and their grandchildren, who are today’s doctors, civil servants, scientists, engineers, lawyers, educators, and entrepreneurs — leaders of our nation.
Despite overwhelming hardships in the early years, these courageous immigrant women built a loving community and left a rich legacy. Heroines, all!
By: Greek Women’s University Club, Edited by Elaine Cotsirilos Thomopoulos, PhD
Publisher: Arcadia Publishing; First Edition (US) First Printing edition (November 27, 2000)
Elaine Cotsirilos Thomopoulos, PhD wrote History of Greece, and edited the Greek Women’s University Club’s book, She also directed the Greeks of Berrien County Project, resulting in a publication as well as an exhibit now on display at the Greek Museum of Berrien County, which is located at the Annunciation and St. Paraskevi Greek Orthodox Church in New Buffalo, Michigan. She has been managing editor of “Books” and “Greek American Scientists,” special issues of The National Herald newspaper, and has written numerous articles for newspapers, magazines, and journals. Elaine has been active in the Greek-American community for many years. She is the former director of social services for the Hellenic Foundation. In this capacity, she opened its first office and initiated a multifaceted program that served 3,000 Greek immigrants and their children each year. As administrator of Greek-American Community Services, she developed and directed numerous programs, including services for the elderly, and humanities and arts programs.