Alumna Karen Petitte’s distinguished career advances gender equality in journalism

Karen Petitte

University of Illinois alumna Karen Lucas Petitte pursued a career in journalism at a time when barriers were common for women, and opportunities were few. But that didn’t stop the visionary trailblazer from building an illustrious career as an award-winning journalist—and helping to advance gender equality in journalism along the way. 

Petitte’s inspiration to become a journalist came from an unlikely source—the newspaper comic strip, Brenda Starr, Reporter. Petitte loved following the adventures of chic, newspaper reporter Brenda Starr, who traveled around the globe breaking stories (and, probably, just as many hearts).  

“She was quite glamorous, and I think at some point she met some dashing guy with a patch over his eye, and I thought, ‘Oh, I want to do that. That sounds great,’” Petitte said.  

Petitte, who earned two journalism degrees at Illinois (BS ’63, MS ’67), would eventually become a newspaper reporter like the comic book heroine. But it’s the comic’s creator, Dale Messick, whom she would truly come to emulate.

Dalia Messick, who used the pseudonym Dale Messick to avoid gender bias, was a rarity in those days as a female cartoonist. Like Messick, Petitte would forge her own path through a male-dominant field, opening doors for more women. 

After graduation, Petitte worked briefly at the Chicago Tribune and then joined the Chicago Daily News in 1968, assigned to an education beat. Originally, she had applied for an overnight reporter shift at the Chicago Daily News but was told it was “too dangerous” for women.

Although education was traditionally considered a “woman’s beat,” she was happy for the opportunity to break into the newsroom. In 1973, Petitte and a colleague won first prize from the National Council for the Advancement of Education Writing for an investigative piece on financial misconduct at Malcolm X College in Chicago. 

“It was kind of inspiring to be able to report on some of those activities, trying to bring to light things that many people would just as soon have kept in the dark,” Petitte said. 

After an initial focus on education, and later, consumer affairs, Petitte would go on to cover a variety of news stories including disasters, fires, and gender equality issues. She covered a protest at a local Chicago restaurant that had a men’s-only bar area and wrote about the discrepancies in men’s and women’s salaries. 

Eventually, Petitte was offered a position as assistant city editor at the Chicago Daily News—the first woman to ever be considered—and although she preferred reporting, she knew she couldn’t refuse.

“I didn't really want to be an assistant city editor at the time; I like to report. But I figured, maybe I better do this, because if we [as women] keep asking for these jobs, and then we don’t take them, they’re not going to take us seriously,” Petitte said.

In 1979, Petitte took a brief detour from journalism and tried government. She spent over three years working as Chicago’s consumer affairs commissioner under Mayor Jane Byrne—the first woman to be elected mayor of a major city in the United States. That appointment enabled Petitte to help enforce consumer regulations as opposed to writing about them. 

When Byrne’s term ended, Petitte considered going into public relations but ultimately decided to return to journalism, this time entering the magazine field. Petitte worked as editor of Consumers Digest and then Modern Healthcare and Modern Physician, published by Chicago-based media company, Crain Communications. Petitte stayed with Crain Communications for 16 years before retiring in 2001. 

Petitte’s 40-plus-year journalism career is comprised of prestigious honors, including the first female president of the Chicago Newspaper Guild, an inductee into the Chicago Journalism Hall of Fame, and among the first women to serve as editor-in-chief of The Daily Illini from 1962 to 1963. 

Petitte, who was inducted into the Illini Media Hall of Fame in 2007, has fond memories of her time at the student newspaper, including working alongside the late film critic Roger Ebert (BS ’64, journalism), whom she recalls as “quite a character” and a “very smart, capable, witty guy.” And because she worked evenings at The Daily Illini, she was provided a key to get into her dorm room after the University’s curfew for women—a perk Petitte valued, knowing she had the freedom to choose her own schedule. 

In the latter part of her career, Petitte was able to mentor younger writers, sharing the skills she’d learned over her many years of reporting. She said that helping young people move along in their career was something she enjoyed more than she expected. 

Ten years ago, Petitte found another way to bring along the next generation of journalists by creating the Karen Lucas Petitte Endowed Scholarship in Journalism.

“It just seemed to me a good way to pay back the college for the education that I received, and the knowledge that allowed me to go on and build a career that was very satisfying and rewarding and fun,” Petitte said.

The endowed scholarship, created in 2003, is based on academic merit and financial need, and has created an impact and connection with students that Petitte finds extremely rewarding.

Petitte has met a few of the scholarship winners and has received many thank-you letters—reminders that she’s still helping to pave the way for future journalists, even in her retirement. 

Petitte said she has seen a gradual shift over the years, with more opportunities available for women in journalism. While she’s hesitant to take too much credit for that progress, she is grateful to have had any impact at all.

“It’s a good feeling to know that you helped change some of the patterns, and that there’s some women who came behind you who have some more opportunity,” Petitte said. “I think that’s what it’s all about.”  

—Kelly Youngblood