Barrier-breaking politician, activist, social organizer: these terms barely scratch the surface of Joanne Alter’s amazing legacy. According to her son Jonathan, a Newsweek columnist, Alter "was a gale force of nature. At a time when most women took a back seat to men in politics and civic life, she was usually in the front row or up on the stage directing the action."
A lifelong resident of Chicago, Alter served as commissioner of the Metropolitan Sanitary District of Greater Chicago from 1972 to 1990. According to her obituary in the Chicago Tribune, in 1971 Alter confronted Mayor Richard J. Daley and the Cook County Democratic Party to demand they back female candidates for public office. The list of 32 potential candidates she gave Daley did not include her own name. Daley responded by putting Alter herself on the ballot, thus launching her political career.
Alter also served two terms on the Democratic National Committee and worked closely with women politicians such as Bella Abzug and Ella Grasso ’40 (first female governor elected in her own right). Alter’s strong commitment to encouraging women to run for public office led her to found the Illinois Democratic Women’s Political Caucus.
A dedicated supporter of educational opportunities for all, Alter helped start Working in the Schools (WITS), a tutoring program for at-risk children in Chicago. She was also a founding member of the Friends of the Chicago River, which since 1979 has successfully worked to improve the environmental health of the river and surrounding watershed.
Alter graduated cum laude from Mount Holyoke with a major in political science. From 1980 to 1985, she served as a Mount Holyoke trustee. She was also a member of the University of Chicago Women's Board and a founder of the Junior Museum of the Art Institute of Chicago.