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Empowered women in early Silver City

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  D e s e r t   E x p o s u r e   March 2012

Women's History Month

Coloring Outside the Lines

Empowered women in territorial and early-statehood Silver City.

by Susan Berry

 

  "So quietly and unostentatiously have [Silver City] women accomplished great things that the towns-people would be much surprised to hear them characterized as at all unusual."
 
— Silver City resident Joan Moorman,
in a 1914 edition of Council Fires, New Mexico Federation
of Woman's Clubs publication

 

 

The writer quoted above could speak with authority — her mother, Elizabeth Warren, was the ultimate role model for female empowerment in Silver City's early years. And Warren was by no means the only local woman of remarkable accomplishment. Decades before New Mexico statehood, the female population of Silver City regularly ventured beyond the limits of society's expectations, making a lasting impact on their community's future.

eckles
Isabel Eckles

To be fully appreciated, these women's contributions must be viewed in a context of the late Victorian period in which Silver City developed. Social agreements on the roles of both sexes had changed radically over the preceding century, as the Industrial Revolution edged out the old agricultural economy grounded on human and animal labor. A new middle class emerged, and with it the concept of "separate spheres" for men and women. Economics, commerce and politics belonged to the public sphere, the realm of men. Women presided in the private sphere of domestic life, rearing children, keeping house and attending to the family's moral wellbeing. Within each respective sphere, everyone theoretically knew his or her place; any who strayed too far outside the prescribed boundaries were censured or ostracized.

Within the Hispanic culture that made up the majority of New Mexico's population in the late 19th century, women's place in the domestic sphere was well established. Strong values of familia y fe (family and faith) reinforced close connections among relatives and communities. Although the Latinas in early Grant County rarely ventured into the public sphere (Jesusita Acosta Perrault would be a notable exception), they were hardly shrinking violets. Strong cultural ties binding the family unit took women right along with their husbands into the heart of raw frontier conditions. The US census of 1860 — just six years after this section ceased to be part of Mexico — found women in almost every household in the Santa Rita and Hanover mining camps, where virtually all residents were Hispanic. These demographics contrast sharply with the typical male-dominated mining camps established by Anglos.

When Grant County Latinas emerged into the public sphere in the mid-20th century, they would do so in a spectacular, history-making way. Although the 1950-52 Empire Zinc strike and its subsequent depiction in the blacklisted film, Salt of the Earth, fall outside the territorial timeframe, they must be mentioned. When striking miners of the Local 890 Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers were barred from picketing by court injunction, their wives, sisters and daughters took their places on the picket line. Facing violence, harassment, jail (and, for some, their husbands' disapproval), the women stood fast, supporting one another in heartfelt opposition to the institutionalized discrimination of the big mining companies. Tarnished by McCarthy-era allegations of communism, this important chapter in American history has never been recognized for its true significance. These Grant County women not only stepped outside traditional roles within their own culture but also the 1950s norm for women in general — and they did so a decade before the Civil Rights movement and two decades before the women's movement.

 

 

Civic Engagement

 

There was no question into which sphere frontier mining camps fell. These largely male enclaves were rife with danger, uncertainty, rough conditions and rougher characters. Early female settlers in southwest New Mexico had to be unusually adventurous, adaptable and resourceful to survive — much less thrive — in such an environment. By all indications, their presence was welcomed and their "civilizing" influence valued by the male population. With no evident opposition, Silver City women readily directed their nurturing inclinations beyond the parlor to address the needs of their infant town. Years before reformer Jane Addams coined the term, women in Silver City were actively practicing "social housekeeping."

koehler
Matilda Koehler

The first effort around which women rallied in Silver City was the organization of a public school. In 1873 (three years after the town's founding), they formed a Ladies' Educational Association and launched a building fund drive. Although it took nine years to accomplish, Silver City would have the first brick schoolhouse — and the first independent school district — in New Mexico Territory. Educational benefits offered to girls in Silver City's first school yielded far-reaching impacts in years to come.

A profoundly important woman-initiated undertaking was the establishment of a hospital for Grant County. In casual conversation at a sewing-circle gathering in 1883, someone lamented that injured miners had no proper place to receive medical care. In short order the women set aside their sewing, incorporated the Grant County Charity Hospital Society and secured the use of a cottage for hospital purposes. Until that time, the closest thing to a hospital was a pest house for isolating smallpox victims. A local legislator secured a small annual appropriation from the territory for hospital operations, and the county commission agreed to pay the costs of care for poor county residents at a rate of $1 per day. The county also provided free use of a larger building, and a physician contributed his services. All other costs were the responsibility of the Hospital Society.

Along with near-constant fundraising, the women actively managed the business affairs of the hospital, purchased supplies, hired and fired staff, and volunteered any needed assistance. Unofficially known as the Ladies' Hospital, the Grant County Charity Hospital continued to grow and meet evolving community needs well into New Mexico statehood. Several location and name changes later, the hospital (then in the facility remembered as Hillcrest) was finally turned over to local government by the Hospital Society in 1949. In its newest home, it lives on today as Gila Regional Medical Center.

As Silver City grew, women tirelessly raised funds for any number of local causes, often staging benefit concerts and performances. The 1880s saw several attempts at establishing a local library, including a reading room run by temperance advocates. The DAR public library, started in the early 1900s by the Daughters of the American Revolution, operated into the 1920s. Silver City's first park, on the block now occupied by the College Plaza complex, was another DAR project in the same period.

The organization of a Silver City Mother's Club in 1909 brought together many talented and determined women to focus their energies on civic betterment (it became the Silver City Woman's Club in 1911). Club members campaigned for the introduction of domestic science and manual arts instruction into New Mexico schools and worked closely with the county health officer in an intensive campaign to improve sanitation. With a strong concern for children, the club donated playground equipment to the public school and launched the first social welfare programs to aid the community's neediest residents.

 

 

Working Women

 

Occupations for the women who worked or owned businesses in the territorial period usually fell into two categories: "nurturing" professions aligned with traditional female roles (teachers, nurses, hotel keepers, restaurant operators and cooks, laundresses, child care providers, instructors in music or dancing) and services provided by women for women (dressmaking, millinery, midwifery, hairdressing). The enchilada parlors and enchilada stands that were the ancestors of Silver City's Mexican restaurants were run by women, including Simona Gutierrez, Chona Clark and Guadalupe Patton. (Local lore suggests that the practice of serving enchiladas with an egg on top originated in Silver City.) Some local women assisted husbands in running businesses. This is the avenue through which Elizabeth Warren entered the public sphere, where she would long occupy a prominent position.

warren
Elizabeth Warren

Elizabeth von Wachenhusen was born in New York in 1855. At age 19 she married Orange Scott Warren, and they traveled extensively in the early years of their marriage. Ready to settle down, O.S. Warren came to Silver City in 1882 and started an insurance business, then sent for his family to join him. Elizabeth traveled to Silver City from San Francisco by stagecoach with her three young children in tow. She was among the Hospital Society organizers, assisting at the hospital's first surgery.

When her husband died suddenly in 1885, Elizabeth Warren secured the appointment as agent for the insurance companies he had represented. She excelled in this field, eventually buying out several of her competitors. Expanding into real estate, she acquired many properties and converted a mining boom-era hotel into a luxury resort for health-seekers. Despite her personal achievements, she modestly conducted business as Mrs. O.S. Warren.

Early 20th century events pushed Warren deeper into the public sphere. After the devastating 1902 flood, she oversaw construction of a massive stone wall to shore up her home and office at the corner of Market and Main Streets; this would be the first Big Ditch stabilization project, and her house the only historic Main Street building that ultimately survived. Her business activities expanded to include construction when a 1907 ordinance required property owners to install concrete sidewalks. Matilda Koehler, newly resigned as public school principal, superintended Warren's crew. Several miles of sidewalks later, the women engaged in a full-scale general contracting business, constructing and remodeling homes and businesses and tackling public works projects.

Koehler (who signed her name M.R. Koehler) originally came west in 1888 to help organize the New Mexico A & M College in Las Cruces. She served 15 years with Silver City's school and was regarded one of the best educators the community had ever known. Years later, though, she conceded that construction was the preferable job "because it paid better."

Warren and Koehler were probably the only local women of their era to have second careers, but not the only ones doing nontraditional jobs at the turn of the 20th century. Others included Dr. Carolyn Spangenberg, osteopathic physician; Mrs. M. Wenzel and Grace Shaw, who each operated the Santa Rita stage line; Victoria Carroll, who ran a boot and shoe repair shop; Miss E.F. Rondquist, telegrapher; Martha Bryant and Alva Argenbright, photographers; Kate Crawford, greenhouse operator; and Margaret Lohman, who took over her late husband's barbershop. Artie E. Galloway became Silver City's first female postmaster in 1898; Agnes Morley Cleaveland (future author of No Life for a Lady) bought the Rosedale Dairy in 1907; Frances Leach discovered radium deposits near White Signal in 1920.

By the 1890s new fields of employment began to open up to women, including stenography and clerical work. A number of young women worked as compositors, setting type for the two weekly newspapers. Silver City was selected in 1893 as the site for the New Mexico Territorial Normal School, the predecessor of WNMU. This reinforced the community's long-standing value for education and provided students — mostly young women — with higher education and training for teaching careers.

Anita Scott, the daughter of a former Buffalo Soldier, was the Normal School's first African-American graduate in 1909. Although her prolific writing career went largely unnoticed in Silver City, today she is considered an important contributor to the Harlem Renaissance. Born in Guaymas, Mexico, she was raised from an early age on her father's homestead south of Silver City (present site of the municipal golf course) and attended the public school. After several years of teaching, Anita married James Harold Coleman and they lived on the family homestead until moving to Los Angeles in 1926. Her first 13 short stories, published while she lived in Silver City, marked the beginning of a 30-year writing career. Anita Scott Coleman published stories, poems and essays in a number of national magazines and two books. Her work lent a distinctly Southwestern voice to issues of racism, war and the definition of patriotism.

 

 

Getting Political

 

Women in territorial New Mexico were not entirely without legal rights. The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo upheld the property rights of women, long guaranteed under the Mexican land-grant system. Women could initiate lawsuits, file for divorce and obtain custody of minor children, administer the estates of deceased persons, and serve on corporate boards. Those who broke the law were subject to the same punishments as their male counterparts. But they could not vote or — in theory — run for public office.

International Women's History Month Events

 

All events are in Silver City except as noted. For more information, see www.womenonthemove-silvercitynm.com.

 

Women's Day Parade, Sunday, March 25 — 1 p.m. assemble at Morningstar Parking Lot on Bullard Street; 2 p.m. parade begins and moves south up Bullard to Javalina for a music celebration

 

Women Speaking Series,
at Silver City Museum Annex

 

Friday, March 2, 2-5 p.m. — Alexandra Todd: "Women of Dakar, Senegal, West Africa," reading and film

Thursday, March 8, 3-4 p.m. — Ann Marie Elder: "A portrait of Susan Glaspell: America's First Female Playwright"

Sunday, March 18, 2-3 p.m. — Susan Berry: "Founding Mothers (and Daughters): Some Powerful Women from Silver City's Early Years"

Friday, April 6, 2-5 p.m. — Lee Gruber, Bina Breitner and Diana Ingalls Leyba: "Good Grief!"

Sunday, April 22, 2-3 p.m. — Manda Claire Jost: "The Divine and the Devastated: A Paradox of Women in India"

 

Speakers

 

Thursday, March 22, 6:30 p.m. — Katherine Brimberry, fine art printmaker, Artist Lecture Series, WNMU Parotti Hall

Saturday, March 24, 11 a.m. — Cindy Donatelli: "History of Women Marching in the Streets," Public Library

 

Music

 

Thursday, April 12, 7:30 p.m. — Michelle Shocked, Buckhorn Opera House, Pinos Altos

In 1892 a local newspaper noted some talk of nominating ladies for the office of county school superintendent, something that had apparently been tried in other parts of the country. Elizabeth Warren was suggested (one editor candidly remarked, "Mrs. Warren was really the first superintendent Grant County ever had, as she did the work while her husband, Mr. O.S. Warren, filled the office"). At the county Republican convention Warren's name was placed in nomination, but she withdrew it because of legal doubts "as to whether a woman could qualify under our statutes." Professor R.H. Theilman received the nomination. The county Democrats selected Kate Thompson, a popular young health-seeker, as their candidate for school superintendent. She was reportedly the first woman ever to run for an office in the territory, but despite her strong campaign Theilman won the election.

Silver City teacher Isabel Eckles was placed in the running for Grant County school superintendent in 1911 and was elected, taking office just as New Mexico entered statehood. A product of the Silver City public school (and the Normal School's first graduate), Eckles served as superintendent for seven years. She then became registrar at the Normal School, and served as acting president of the institution for several months.

In 1922, Eckles was the second-highest vote getter on the Democratic ticket when she was elected state superintendent of schools. After two terms in that office, she superintended the Santa Fe schools for 10 years and then completed her career in the Women's Division of the WPA for New Mexico. Eckles was the first woman to head the New Mexico Education Association, served as president of the 1,800-member National Council of Administrative Women in Education, and was appointed by President Coolidge as New Mexico representative for Education and Health. Urged to accept the presidency of the National Education Association by its nominating committee, she declined due to other commitments.

Educator, author and politician Jesusita Acosta Perrault became one of New Mexico's most influential women in the early statehood period. Born to a prominent family in Chihuahua, Mexico, in 1877, she was educated in Silver City in the public school and the Academy of Our Lady of Lourdes. After graduating from the Normal School in 1898, she married Charlie May, but her young husband soon died. Jesusita taught for several years at the San Juan and San Lorenzo public schools in the Mimbres Valley, followed by a brief teaching stint in three state schools in Chihuahua. She returned to Grant County and in 1909 married Edward A. Perrault, member of a pioneering area family. The couple had four daughters.

Jesusita Perrault worked as a translator for the Selective Service in 1915, and in the early 1920s was Grant County deputy assessor. She also became active in the Alianza Hispano-Americano, a mutualista (community-based mutual aid society for Mexican-Americans) with many chapters in Grant County. Widowed a second time in 1926, she entered politics as Republican candidate for county school superintendent. In 1928 Perrault was named the area's juvenile court and probation officer, and the following year became secretary of state for New Mexico. This position took on extra significance when the lieutenant governor resigned and Perrault — the next in line — acted as governor on several occasions while the chief executive was away. In 1931 President Hoover appointed Perrault as federal employment commissioner for New Mexico, and the same year she was named to the State Board of Education. During 15 years on that board, she authored a textbook on New Mexico geography that was used widely in public school classrooms. She also served on the national board of the Alianza Hispano-Americana.

Sadly, New Mexico statehood in 1912 did not grant women the right to vote — in fact, it was the only Western state not to do so prior to passage of the 19th amendment to the US Constitution in 1920. The state constitution did include a provision for school suffrage, permitting women to vote only in local school elections (and these were required to be held separately from "other" elections). Another constitutional provision, however, allowed counties to opt out of the school suffrage provision. One only has to imagine what the women of early Silver City could have accomplished if they'd had the vote!

 





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