Making Women’s History
River Forest resident Anita Alvarez’s dramatic rise as both the first woman and first Hispanic to hold the office of Cook County State’s Attorney played out in the media as something of a revolution.
Talk with Alvarez, though, and it’s clear that what led to her historic victory last November had far more to do with personal evolution. Before this daughter of immigrants rose to direct the criminal prosecutions of the second largest county in America, she first learned to transform herself into a person willing and able to handle life’s many challenges.
Coming into focus
Back in the late ’70s, as a student at Maria High School on Chicago’s South Side, Alvarez was too busy challenging the timeworn to ponder exactly what she might become, let alone wanted to be.
“I had no idea where I’d be or what I’d do,” she admits of her high school years. Alvarez’s mom and dad modeled hard work and familial love, but their limited options and modest ambitions – her mom had an eighth-grade education; her father, a waiter, made it through sixth grade – provided little in terms of a road map for their daughter.
Her dad died when she was 12, and her mother went to work as a seamstress to support the family.
“She was an awesome seamstress. She could make anything you can imagine,” said Alvarez. What her mother couldn’t imagine was the educational and personal journey Alvarez was beginning. She was, Alvarez suggests, not so much disapproving as uncomprehending.
“Just graduating high school was a big deal for my mother,” she said. “College, to her, that was foreign.”
Alvarez admits her own early ambitions were vague and unfocused, though she knew her heart. “I wanted to be in a position where I could help people,” she said, and enrolled at Loyola University with the idea of eventually earning an M.S.W. and becoming a social worker.
Then she took a class in criminal justice. “It was exciting,” she recalled. Still, she focused on social work, thinking she might become a probation officer.
As graduation approached, Alvarez was encouraged by friends to go further. One told her, “You should go to law school. You like to argue, and you usually win.” At the last minute, after graduation, she took the Law School Aptitude Test (LSAT) and applied.
Another unfamiliar horizon opened. If college was foreign to her mother, law school was from another planet.
“She said, ‘You’re supposed to marry a lawyer, not be a lawyer,'” Alvarez recalled.
It was the turning point in her life. “It was a great ride,” she recalled. “Tough but happy.”
But not so happy at first. Alvarez described her first year at Kent as “total culture shock.” Unlike high school and even undergraduate at Loyola, her classmates at Kent College of Law had parents “who were doctors and lawyers, accountants.”
“I really felt like I didn’t belong,” she said. Her first semester “was a struggle.”
Her next turning point came in a class that captured her imagination and crystallized her sense of purpose: trial advocacy.
“I found a class I really enjoyed,” she said.
That first year of law school, she said, was a lesson in perseverance, of keeping her eye on the prize regardless of how she felt at the moment. It was a lesson that would hold her in good stead throughout law school and for decades as she confronted long-held biases during her primary campaign for state’s attorney.
“When you have feelings like that, you have to keep going,” she said. “At the beginning of the campaign, I was counted out. They said, ‘She’s a woman,’ and asked, ‘Where’d she come from? Who does she think she is?'”
Alvarez’s simple but emphatic response was: “I’m the most qualified person in the race.” It became her campaign mantra, that her experience was superior to any other candidate in the primary, that she belonged there with everyone else, that she had what it took.
And she did. “It felt really good on election night to win over all those guys,” she said, recalling her primary triumph over five male politicians.
Role model and mentor
The young woman who wanted to help people through social work now finds herself in a position of power and influence far greater than she envisioned years ago. And though she didn’t wind up where she thought she was headed, she remains involved with some of the same issues she first set out to address.
“As state’s attorney, I combine social work with the law. I still get to help people,” she said. Wielding a bit more clout than the average social worker, of course.
“It does feel good that I can pick up the phone and make calls that might not have been answered before,” she said.
With her added power, Alverez said, she feels an added responsibility, both to use it wisely – and generously.
“I feel I have a duty to mentor,” she said, noting that the ladder she climbed must remain in place for those behind her, especially women and minorities – people who, like her, grew up unaware of the many possibilities available to them.
“I want to leave it down, not pull it up behind me,” she said. “To be a role model, and cognizant of my responsibilities to others.”
Speaking March 6 to hundreds of girls as part of Trinity High School’s National Women’s History Month celebration, Alvarez challenged and encouraged them to climb that ladder. Echoing Trinity’s mission statement, she urged each girl to find what fills them with purpose and satisfaction, and pursue that with dedication and commitment.
“Stay true to your hearts,” she said. “Take advantage of every education opportunity that comes your way.”
Education, she stressed, is the indispensable starting point, “the greatest equalizer available to you.”
“I would not be standing here before you but for education,” she said. “It’s the one thing that puts you on the playing field, that puts you at the table.”
Alvarez told her audience they must be patient as well as persistent. “There is time. You can evolve,” she said.
“There’s going to be people who tell you that you don’t belong here,” Alvarez said, looking out over the Trinity assembly. “But you do.”