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Jennifer Kirby/MEDILL

The Cardiss Collins Post Office commemorates the congresswoman's career in public service.

Chicago-area leaders remember ‘trailblazer’ Cardiss Collins

by Jennifer Kirby
Feb 06, 2013

Cook County Board Commissioner Earlean Collins (D-Chicago) said sometimes people heard her last name and confused her with U.S. Rep. Cardiss Collins.

“You’re Cardiss! You did this, you did that!”’ Earlean Collins recalled Chicagoans saying of their time in public service.

The two weren’t related, but they worked together when Cardiss Collins served in Congress as the Midwest’s first black woman representative.

Collins, 81, died Sunday in Alexandria, Va., more than 15 years after she retired from Congress. She represented Illinois 7th Congressional District for nearly 25 years. The district extended from the lake to the city’s western edge and included parts of the Austin and Garfield Park neighborhoods.

Collins joined the House in 1973, taking over for her husband, George Collins, after he was killed in a plane crash. She served for 12 terms, retiring in 1996.

Earlean Collins — who herself was the first black woman elected to the Illinois State Senate — said when Cardiss Collins was appointed and later elected to the House, “women were just trying to break down the walls and be respected.” They were trying to prove they could hold leadership roles. “Hold office just as men, run business just as men,” she added.

Illinois State Rep. Monique Davis (D-Chicago) said that when Cardiss Collins took her House seat, she advocated for women’s issues at a time when they were not being addressed in a significant way.

Collins championed issues like Medicare coverage for post-mastectomy surgery, said Davis.  She understood what it meant to take care of a family and raise a family on an extremely limited income. She showed “she cared about the people she represented,” Davis said.

Illinois State Sen. Mattie Hunter (D-Chicago), who represents part of the 7th Congressional District, said Cardiss Collins was passionately concerned about women and women’s rights, as well as child care and human services.

Collins sponsored legislation that addressed Medicaid coverage for women and an amendment to the Public Health Service Act to establish a National Institute on Minority Health. Her Equity in Athletics Disclosure Act, requiring universities to report participation and expenditure rates in athletic programs, became law in 1993.

Tanisha Reed, an attorney at Greenberg Traurig and the scholarship fund president for the Black Woman Lawyers Association of Greater Chicago Inc., said Cardiss Collins’ efforts made her “a trailblazer for the community, for African-Americans, but for women generally.”

“She stepped into her husband’s role under a lot of criticism,” Reed said. “She proved them wrong. You have to be fearless and not worry about what other people are saying.” Reed said it was a reminder, especially as African-American women in leadership positions, to be fearless and try to obtain their goals, no matter what.

Chicago City Treasurer Stephanie Neely said Collins showed women leaders they should not be afraid of serve, to be bold and to have a strong opinion.

“She clearly paved the way and opened up many, many doors,” Neely said. “She was bold and courageous.”

Hunter, who knew Cardiss Collins personally, said, “She always said ‘Never give up. If you believe in something, you fight for it and you never give up. You are the voice of your community and your people,’ and she said you can speak out and once you continue to speak out on different issues that you passionately believe in, then you start networking and building coalitions in order to achieve your goals.”

Hunter added that for women leaders, Collins gives the encouragement and strength to keep moving forward.

Davis said the loss of Cardiss Collins is a reminder of the type of leader we need to tackle issues of today. “Where are these Cardiss Collinses of today? Where are these Coretta Scott Kings?” she said.

“Where are these Cardiss Collinses?” Davis said again. “Where are these great women today? They must step forward and continue the legacy.”

Services for Cardiss Collins will be held in Alexandria, Va. on Monday.