March is Women’s History Month in the United States and we will, no doubt, be reminded of the work of Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton in promoting women’s suffrage. And we will hear about the many “first women” like Hillary Clinton and Sally Ride.
Of course not all notable women or “firsts” are nationally noted or celebrated. There are plenty of women in the history of small towns across the nation that have played an important role in their communities.
In 45 years of newspaper reporting in my small town, I reported on the “first” woman elected to the town board, the first woman elected supervisor and the first woman elected to the village board (still no woman mayor!). The fact that it took a half century or longer after earning the right to vote for women to hold these offices says something about the pace of political progress for women.
While political “firsts” are often recorded, the many other accomplishments of women in small towns often are known mainly to local historians. In the Collector’s hometown of East Aurora, the arts and crafts Roycroft Shops and Inn were largely run by Alice Hubbard while her flamboyant husband Elbert crossed the country lecturing and promoting Roycroft books, magazines and crafts. At its height, she was managing a workforce of 500 Roycrofters and receiving famous visitors at the Inn. Alice and Elbert met an untimely death in the sinking of the Lusitania in 1915. Also in East Aurora, Fisher-Price Toys included Helen Schelle as a co-founder in 1930 and a driving force in the success of the company.
Not all towns will have a notable businesswoman or political figure in local history, but chances are a local library, school or hospital is there because of the work of a woman. And there is probably a woman who organized to support a war effort. Most communities have benefited from what may have been seen as “woman’s work” in the past – the parent-teacher organizations, garden and beautification clubs, historical societies, Red Cross volunteers and so on. They typically are only footnotes in local history, yet their contributions made their communities better places.
So for this Women’s History Month, take a look at a local history book (often edited by a local woman), or stop in a local museum (often staffed by a volunteer woman), and find about a local “historic” woman.
The fact that it’s possible to “Google” firsts for women and find a list that includes many from the 20th and 21st centuries is telling. At some point women’s firsts won’t be recorded for history. Then equality may have been reached.