This article originally appeared in the January 14, 2020 issue of the Winnetka Current as Back in the Day: Women’s Exchange — A launching point for life
By Holly Marihugh
Tucked in between two Redbud trees in the Harkness House section of the Community House in Winnetka are two unremarkable heavy wooden doors with windows. A sign outside directs visitors and reads, “Women’s Exchange.”
Through those doors, 500 women from 30 Chicagoland communities walk in and take approximately 100 classes and workshops annually. Often women say that they grow and blossom as people from learning and sharing their experiences inside.
Women’s Exchange (WE) has been woven into village life since 1983—almost 40 years now. That year, newcomer Joanne Augspurger had joined the Winnetka Congregational Church where members were gung-ho with community outreach ideas.
“I think that Joanne Augspurger saw that women were curious and wanted more self-expression while still keeping traditional roles of wife and mother,” says Deb Guy, WE Executive Director. “There was no central place to get their footing, which is why she started the Life Planning series.”
Life Planning was one of the first class offerings. Women, through self-evaluation exercises and sharing ideas in class, can define a new life direction, which could be a career, hobby, or path of further study. It became a signature WE class and has lasted decades.
While the class offering was limited in 1983, it’s expansive now. By perusing the online program schedule, women can find classes in personal finance, literature discussion, leadership, climate and migration issues, or fitness.
Women at WE testify that their lives have branched out in directions they never imagined. For example, Lauren Szwiec has has been sitting down to learn with other women at WE for 23 years.
“Lauren was transitioning from a long career in insurance to a new one in accounting,” Guy says. “She wanted more conversation among women, and she also wanted to travel, but her husband preferred staying in Chicago.”
Over two decades, Szwiec’s taken numerous WE classes, served a six-year term on the board of directors, facilitates book discussions, and became a fundraising expert. After traveling with Women’s Exchange groups, Lauren said her husband of 52 years decided that he wanted to pack his suitcase and join her.
Rather than pushing networking opportunities, WE offers personal connection.
“WE encourages connections that prompts women to explore who they are as people rather than talk about what they do,” Guy says. “I think that is what separates us from other organizations.”
Since 1983, only three women have steered the ship: Founder Joanne Augspurger; Judi Geake, who led WE for 20 years; and Deb Guy, who stepped into the role when Geake retired in 2011.
“There’s a consistency here that helps us keep our original essence,” Guy says. “We also have a home base in Harkness House, and that’s made a huge difference. Women know they can come here and feel comfortable.”
Women’s Exchange is still connected to Winnetka Congregational Church for its non-profit status, but WE is completely self-sufficient financially.
As Deb Guy looks ahead, she sees an opportunity for WE to guide men who want navigational tools in the era of “Me Too.”
“I was attending a professional workshop,” Guy says. “A 29-year-old man came to me saying, ‘I’m a rising leader, and I don’t want to screw up. Do you have any classes at Women’s Exchange where I can learn more about issues for women in the workplace?’”
Questions like this will continue, and Guy knows that Women’s Exchange will rise to the challenge just like it has for almost 40 years.
Discover more online at womens-exchange.org.
Back in the Day is a monthly column by The Winnetka Historical Society.