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The Little-Known Social Worker and Writer Who Embodied Chicago’s Role as a “Cauldron” for Social Movements

Meredith Francis
Mary Field Parton and Ruby Hammerstrom Darrow in a black-and-white image
Mary Field Parton, left, sitting with Ruby Hammerstrom Darrow, the wife of Clarence Darrow. Parton had a long affair with Clarence Darrow. Image: Chicago History Museum, ICHi-182049

Chicago grew rapidly as the 19th century became the 20th, and it became a center of political ideas, particularly when it came to progressive causes like the settlement house movement, immigrant and women’s rights, and labor organizing. Though the history books rarely mention her, one woman who worked in Chicago reflects the role the city played in those movements.

Mary Field Parton was a “progressive crusader” and avant-garde writer who embodied the progressive politics and social values of the early 20th century in Chicago. She’s the subject of a book called Mary Field Parton and the Pursuit of a Progressive Society by historian Mark McGarvie, who also recently taught a class on her at the Newberry Library, where he is a scholar-in-residence.

Born Mary Field in 1878, Parton grew up in a strict, conservative home with parents that held Victorian ideas about propriety, particularly around gender. According to McGarvie, Parton was rarely allowed to venture beyond her home, and was never permitted to be around boys. But her rebellious spirit was present from the beginning: whenever Parton walked by a portrait of her grandmother in her family’s home, she stuck her tongue out at it. Such rebellion led to regular corporal punishment by her father, something that haunted her into adulthood.

By the time she went to college at the University of Michigan, Parton was exposed to new ideas, including the pragmatist philosophies of William James and John Dewey. People who subscribed to pragmatism “were encouraged to form their beliefs through daily interactions with others and then to express the truth of these new beliefs in social action,” writes McGarvie. Parton lived her life in fulfillment of those principles. In college, she also heard labor leader and eventual Socialist Presidential candidate Eugene Debs speak a couple of times.

“She grew up as a Christian, but soon moved to a Christian socialist perspective while in college,” McGarvie says.

After college and a stint teaching, Parton wrote to Jane Addams of Hull House in the hopes of joining the settlement house movement in Chicago. With a rapidly growing population and its location at the center of the country, Chicago had become a hub not just of economic activity, but of intellectual and political movements. McGarvie says that, around the turn of the 20th century, Chicago was a “cauldron” of intellectual thought and of major movements, particularly around labor organizing.

“Chicago was the basis for American growth with railroads, architecture, immigration, racial interaction. There was so much dynamism in Chicago, and the city was doubling in size in ten years,” McGarvie says. “There's so much going on that fueled the acceptance of some of these new political ideas.”

Though Addams couldn’t offer her a position at Hull House, Parton moved to Chicago around 1905 to work at another settlement house called the Chicago Commons, where she taught English and parenting classes to immigrant women. She later worked at the Maxwell Street Settlement House, where she worked with primarily Russian Jewish immigrants.

Parton continued to grow ideologically in Chicago, particularly in terms of her views on organized labor, economic inequality, and gender roles. Having grown up with strict Victorian values, Parton continued to rebel, engaging in “free love” principles. According to McGarvie, Parton dated several Chicago “playboys,” including a University of Chicago president and the city’s police chief, and she was engaged several times. Parton ended one engagement after her fiancé knocked a cocktail out of her hand and told her she wasn’t allowed to drink or smoke.

“She immediately took off her engagement ring, gave it to him, and celebrated her continued independence with another drink and a cigarette,” McGarvie writes in his book.

Parton identified as one of the “new women” of the era—women who “craved opportunities to participate independently of men in all aspects of society; to enjoy their sexuality without the restraints of convention; and to develop their talents in the arts, business, or politics,” writes McGarvie. Parton believed that if men could control a woman’s sexuality, they could control any aspect of a woman’s life.

“They could control [women] with regard to voting and economic or professional pursuits, or education or social opportunities. She saw society controlling all of that,” McGarvie says.

Parton was known to have a fiery personality. Jane Addams once described her as “very wise,” but also “saucy and irreverent,” according to McGarvie’s book. Parton wrote that she was “never interested in a man who wasn’t interested in ideas.” Perhaps the relationship that most embodied that was one of the most meaningful of her life: her prolonged affair with Clarence Darrow. Darrow was the famous lawyer and American Civil Liberties Union leader who represented Eugene Debs in his trial for the involvement with the 1894 Pullman strike, as well as Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb in their infamous murder trial.

Parton met Darrow at a protest or some other kind of rally, and was instantly drawn to his compassion. Though he was married to another woman and much older than Parton, Darrow was both a benefactor and a romantic partner for Parton for years. Parton was educated in her own right (she had completed all four years of college—something of a rarity for women in those days), but Darrow introduced her to the writings of various thought leaders.

“Darrow was able to help her put her ideas into context. So he would say, ‘Well, this is like John Locke, or that's like Henry George or, that's like Karl Marx,” McGarvie says.

Through her interaction with Darrow, Parton became increasingly involved with workers’ rights movements that were flourishing in Chicago in the early 1900s. Though Parton eventually left Chicago, Darrow introduced her to an editor at The Delineator, a woman’s magazine, where she became a successful writer on labor and immigrant issues.

Eventually, her involvement with Darrow subsided. She married newspaperman Lemuel Parton, and continued her work—but quietly. McGarvie says one of the reasons Parton is not as well known is that she actively avoided the spotlight, instead focusing on her work.

“People are remembered so often not because of what they do, but because of what they leave. So many people have lived significant lives,” McGarvie says. “Mary is one of them.”