My main task the last few weeks has been preparing for Women’s History Month in March. Women’s History Month is an opportunity to celebrate some of the unique women in our collections through weekly posts on our website. My first step in writing these posts was to peruse our finding aids and find four collections I wanted to share. Among the many fascinating individuals and organizations, one woman’s story stood out to me and begged to be shared. Her collection consisted of only one small box, but in that box I found many cool things that represented a life of leadership and spirit.
Anna Stonum’s finding aid described her as an activist and artist, two categories the WLA has many of, but this woman’s story was different. She is a great example of the diversity of our collections.
Anna Stonum, born October 14, 1958, moved to Chicago in 1980 to attend Mundelein College. Anna suffered from Friedrich’s Ataxia, a degenerative condition that affects coordination and caused her to spend most of her adult life in a wheelchair. Anna was a passionate artist who worked with different media as her coordination worsened, but never quit creating. In the 1980s, she joined the movement fighting for rights for the disabled and demonstrated her leadership and courage. She picked fights with the CTA, Wrigley Field, and Jerry Lewis, all in the name of accessibility and respect for those with disabilities.
Anna’s papers don’t contain any photos of her, other than a couple tiny, grainy images from news articles. I was concerned that I wouldn’t have a picture to accompany her web feature, and then I found this.
Pretty cool, huh? OK, maybe it seems a little dramatic at first, but Anna and her husband Mike Ervin were cool enough to pull it off. And don’t you kind of want someone to paint you looking like you’re ready to conquer the world in the middle of a lightning storm?
The portrait was done by artist Riva Lehrer for her series Circle Stories. Before creating this portrait, Lehrer interviewed her subjects to learn about their lives and find imagery that represented their experience. This powerful image illustrates Anna and Mike’s determination and strength as a team.
So why does this couple deserve such an intense tribute?
As a woman who just recently moved to the big city, I am fascinated by Chicago’s public transportation and have been amazed by the technology that allows buses to lower and lift wheelchairs so that everyone can take advantage of these vehicles. Today, every CTA bus you ride is accessible because of Anna, who helped found the Chicago chapter of Americans Disabled for Accessible Public Transit. The organization spent years fighting for CTA to install lifts before the company committed to ordering 700 accessible buses in 1989, influencing similar cases across the nation.
Anna’s strength and spirit can also be seen in her refusal to let challenges get in the way of her creativity. In 1994, Anna started her own graphic design company, Designs for All. She mostly did work for newsletters, but she also created some cool logos and designs that were used nationally by disability activists.
Anna Stonum passed away suddenly at the age of 40 due to a heart attack. As sad as this was to learn, it was from the writings of her friends and family after her death that I learned the most about who Anna was as a person. Her collection contains her obituary, where a friend describes how she inspired others who saw how much she enjoyed living. There is also a copy of New Mobility magazine that includes an article her husband wrote after her death. He tells stories about how he spontaneously proposed after a couple of cocktails in New Orleans and about one of the many times they were arrested for “raising hell with ADAPT” and spent three days in a Canadian jail.
When you jump into a collection, you never know what you might find. Sometimes, it’s hard to understand a person through documents and articles. But with Anna Stonum, her passion and strength could be found in every folder.
Caroline is a Graduate Assistant at the WLA and is working on her Master’s in Public History at Loyola University Chicago. She spends her spare time caring for her pufferfish, interpreting dreams, and watching cheesy movies.
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