Although not a native Oak Parker, Hannah Cristobel Beye Fyfe lived most of her life in the village. She was the daughter of William Beye (for whom Beye School is named). After her graduation from Oak Park River Forest High School, she attended the Art Institute of Chicago, where she specialized in design. She was both a “sketcher” and a jewelry designer who owned her own shop in Chicago until her marriage to architect James L. Fyfe.
She was a member of the Nineteenth Century Woman’s Club, and throughout her life, she took an active interest in civic affairs. Her friendship with May Estelle Cook, one of the club’s founders, resulted in a request years later to illustrate Cook’s classic book “Little Old Oak Park.” Her husband was selected to design the 1928 Club building, now an Oak Park Landmark.
In April 1925, she received an envelope addressed to “H.B. Fyfe.” She later recalled thinking, “I have a summons to jury duty. I certainly would like to answer it and see what happens. It would give the authorities a start to learn that H.B. Fyfe, the citizen, is also a female.” The election judges were indeed surprised, and disqualified her on account of her sex.
As a charter member of the recently formed Oak Park League of Women Voters, Hannah Fyfe wasn’t about to sidelined. She hired a woman attorney (Elizabeth Perry) and brought a lawsuit against the commissioners, the first volley in what became a decades-long battle between the legislature and the courts. Initially her complaint was upheld, because the 1871 jury statute referenced “electors” without mentioning sex. However, the state Supreme Court overturned that decision, saying the framers of the law could not imagine women as voters and therefore meant men only.
It wasn’t until 1937 that the General Assembly passed a new law allowing women to serve on juries. During all the legal battles, Hannah remained engaged and active. When asked about the connection between her art and her activism, she replied, “True art does not necessarily mean a pretty picture or a well-designed gown. Rather it should mean beauty in everything, well-laid-out streets, properly conducted governments, and happy contented people.”
In 1961, at the age of 82, Mrs. Fyfe was voted “Woman of the Year for Action” by the local League of Women Voters.