Museum Celebrates Trailblazing Wilmette Women

wilmette's breaking glass ceiling museum

In 1994, Catherine Pratt became the first female president of what was then Bank One in Wilmette. However, this was not a quick rise, as she had been working in the banking world for more than 20 years before breaking the proverbial glass ceiling.

Her journey required a good attitude, hard work and jumping a few hurdles, lessons she hopes to pass along to today’s young women. 

Pratt, 68, who has lived in Wilmette for the last 35 years, is just one of about 30 successful women with connections to Wilmette whose stories are being shared at an exhibit on display through December at the Wilmette Historical Museum, 609 Ridge Road.  

“Wilmette Women Breaking the Glass Ceiling” features the garments and stories of women from different professional backgrounds who have found great success in their chosen careers. 

The museum exhibit includes firefighting gear worn by Lt. Jennifer Rodgers, the Wilmette Fire Department’s first female firefighter hired in 2001, as well as a 1990s power suit worn by Pratt. Four other successful Wilmette women – architect Carol Ross Barney, Judge Rebecca Pallmeyer, construction company owner Rosemary Swierk, and Wilmette’s first woman Village President, Nancy Canafax  also are specially featured. Twenty-four stories of trail-blazing women, past and present, can also be found at the interactive kiosk in the exhibit.

Wilmette Women breaking glass ceilings
Inside the exhibit.

“We wanted to get a cross section,” said Kathy Hussey-Arntson Director Wilmette Historical Museum. “We wanted to show that women across all different professions could be trailblazers in their profession.”

Pratt, currently the president of North Shore Community Bank & Trust in Wilmette, said she “was honored” to be included in the exhibit. “There are so many accomplished women in (the exhibit) and I was delighted to be a part of it,” Pratt said. Earning her place at the top of her career, and among such accomplished women represented in the exhibit, was “a long struggle.” 

Pratt’s advice to young women starting off in their chosen careers is to listen to mentors, take all the advice offered, be open to new ideas, adapt to change and “have a really good attitude. Treat people the way you want to be treated.”

“It took a long time and I want others, especially girls, to see that this is possible and if you look at the range of occupations (in the exhibit), you know, anything is possible,” Pratt said.

Swierk, a former Wilmette resident currently living in Winnetka and president of Direct Steel & Construction, also is featured among the success stories. Swierk, 58, said she was “flattered” when asked to be included in the exhibit. “We work in our own little bubbles, and every once in a while, you get a pat on the back and an ‘’attagirl.’ It’s nice to be recognized for a lot of hard work,” she said.

Swierk began her career in the mid-1990s with buying, renovating, then renting or selling commercial buildings. Swierk started her first business in the early 1990s with buying, renovating, then renting or selling commercial buildings.

Over the years, Swierk adapted to the predominately male-dominated industry. She rolled with the changes in the field, started up Direct Steel and Construction, took on additional projects and adjusted to the fluctuations in the economy, including the economic downturn in 2008.

Navigating the federal government contracting marketplace, her company landed a contract with the Department of Defense. This tenacity brought her company many projects including USACE Olmsted Lock and Dam project, Olmsted, Illinois. This, in addition to her company’s continually growing private work, allowed Swierk’s business to maximize its networks.

“There is no easy industry any longer, and certainly, there have been obstacles, frustrations and hurdles with regard to gender,” she said adding she owes much of her success to her brothers. As a child, when playing sports, they always picked her first to be on their team over their male friends. A few years ago, she told them “I owe you a lot of thanks.” She knew even then, they didn’t pick her out of sibling obligation, but because she was good. 

In fact, her brothers confirmed that recently, saying they chose her because she “was fast and could catch a ball,” Swierk said. “I knew there wasn’t a pity party for me,” she said. “(They picked me) because (they) knew I had value that I could bring to (their) team… and it has served me very well.

“Throughout my life I have known it is more about the value you provide then it is with regard to your sex or your race,” Swierk said. “(Success) is a combination of very hard work and being lucky and surrounding yourself with people you like and trust. A lot of decisions I have made, I can’t tell you they were fully analyzed, (but) they felt right. There is a gut feeling and there is being lucky, too, being in the right place at the right time. The harder you work the luckier you get.”

Canafax, 83, has lived in Wilmette about 48 years and served as Wilmette’s first female village president. She served two terms from 1997 to 2005. Prior to that role she served as village trustee. Today she is co-chair on the committee planning for Wilmette’s 150th year celebration next year.

Canafax, an attorney by profession, said she was “flattered” to be asked to be a part of the exhibit. She also gave a nod of support to the newly elected female mayor — Senta Plunkett. Describing her as “very cool, reflective” and a “compassionate, thoughtful listener,” Canafax said Plunkett needs no advice and she looks forward to watching her in the new role.

Canafax said as a woman she did not experience much push back serving as village president, nor in her profession as an attorney. If she did hit barriers she took a “little detour.”

“I took a different path,” she said. “I never got caught up in aggressively fighting a person or issue. I just found another way to do what I wanted to do. I don’t feel like I was ever really stopped by misogyny.”

For others beginning their professions today, male or female, Canafax advises not being too hasty in deciding a career path. “Consider all possibilities,” she said. “Unless you are a really great singer or something, you should not start out to make decisions that categorize you too soon. Everything is so specialized (today) and if you really get into a certain track, you’ll stay there because that will be your expertise. It is unusually harder for people to change now. Get a good look across the board before (you) pick a final selection for a profession.”

For more information visit or call 847-853-7666.

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Amanda Marrazzo lives in the northwest Chicago suburb of Algonquin. She has been a news reporter for 25 years, including 17 years writing for the Chicago Tribune. She is married with two adult daughters and two dogs.

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