Where Women Made History: Central States Edition

As part of the commemoration of the passage of the 19th Amendment, the National Trust has been working to tell the full history—to uncover and uplift women across the centuries whose vision, passion, and determination have shaped the country we are today. Our goal: discover 1,000 places connected to women’s history, and elevate their stories for everyone to learn and celebrate.

Continuing the incredible stories we shared in our East Coast Edition and West Coast Edition guides, we are highlighting six remarkable women who made waves in the central landlocked states. Each of these women were pioneers in their fields, which span from science to education to activism. They challenged the societal restrictions placed on women by pursuing lives and careers that deviated from the norm, despite the risks often associated with such an undertaking.

  1. Mary Fields, the first African American Star Route Carrier in the United States.

    Mary Fields (Cascade, Montana)

    Mary Fields, the first African American woman to be a Star Route Carrier in the United States, was born into slavery in the early 1830s and was emancipated in 1863 at the end of the Civil War. After a variety of jobs (including working on a steamboat, at a convent, and opening her own restaurant), she became a Star Route Carrier in northern Montana, where she delivered mail along a fifteen-mile route. Highly reliable, she became known in the community as “Stagecoach Mary,” a nickname she earned due to the stagecoach she used to complete her route. Fields challenged female gender roles by frequenting saloons, wearing men’s clothes, and avoiding marriage. She carried two guns with her while working, and was beloved by locals for her fearlessness and her generosity (especially toward children). Her funeral in 1914 was heavily attended, and her legacy has lived on in a variety of movies, television shows, and songs.

  2. Photo of the Dr. Susan LaFlesche Picotte Memorial Hospital in Omaha, Nebraska.

    Dr. Susan LaFlesche Picotte (Omaha, Nebraska)

    Dr. Susan LaFlesche Picotte was born in 1865 on the Omaha reservation in Nebraska. After witnessing an elderly woman die due to a local doctor’s negligence, Picotte was inspired to pursue medicine in order to modernize healthcare for Native Americans. She attended the Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute (now called Hampton University) in Virginia before continuing on to the Woman’s Medical College of Pennsylvania . After three years, Picotte graduated as the class valedictorian in 1889 and returned to her reservation to serve as physician for the Omaha Agency. She was the first Native American woman to become a doctor, and at one point had over a thousand patients under her care over a several hundred-mile radius. During her career, Picotte rallied for proper hygiene and sobriety, and went on to open her own private practice in Nebraska that treated both white and Native American patients. Before her death in 1915, she raised enough money to build the first modern hospital in Thurston County, Nebraska.

  3. Photo of Harriette Cooke, the first female educator in the United States to become a full professor with equal pay.

    Harriette Cooke (Mt. Vernon, Iowa)

    Born in 1829, Harriette Cooke was an early advocate for the education of both sexes, and became the first female to be granted full professorship at a college. As a woman, she was unable to attend college, but acquired knowledge from seminaries and private instruction. She graduated from the New Hampshire Conference Seminary (now Tilton Seminary) in 1853 and started working as a schoolteacher. Cornell College accepted her as a teacher several years later, in 1857. Known to be tough, she expected her students to think critically and challenge themselves. In 1871, her hard work paid off, and she became the first female in the United States to become a full professor, with a salary equal to her male counterparts. Cooke first worked as a professor of German and History, but later became professor of History and the Science of Government. She continued to work until 1890, at which time she left in order to travel and explore ministerial and charitable work abroad.

  4. Photo of Eisenhower Memorial Tunnel.

    Photo By: Patrick Pelster

    Janet Bonnema (Clear Creek County, Colorado)

    Janet Bonnema was an engineer and women’s rights activist. After earning her degree from the University of Colorado Boulder in 1960, Bonnema worked as an engineering aide at Boeing Aircraft before being hired as an engineering technician for the Eisenhower Tunnel construction project in 1970. It was later discovered that she was hired due to a typo; the hiring manager believed Bonnema to be male due to her name being spelled as “Jamet” instead of “Janet.” When she arrived at the tunnel to work, she was told that she would not be allowed to, as there was a superstitious belief that women brought bad luck to the operation if they entered the tunnel. Bonnema responded by filing a sexual discrimination lawsuit against the Colorado Department of Highways, which was settled privately in 1972 (Bonnema was paid $6,750 and granted permission to work in the tunnel). When Bonnema began working, over sixty male employees threatened to quit (though only one actually did). In 2012, Bonnema was posthumously inducted into the Colorado Women’s Hall of Fame.

  5. Photo of activist Emma Tenayuca, who rallied for the health and safety of workers by organizing worker's strikes in the 1930s.

    Emma Tenayuca (San Antonio, Texas)

    A labor activist and gifted orator, Emma Tenayuca was behind many of the organized workers strikes that occurred in Texas during her lifetime, including the 37-day Pecan Shellers Strike in 1938, which successfully resulted in increasing factory workers’ wages. Born in 1916, Tenayuca was heavily influenced by the Great Depression and its impact on American workers. She took up an interest in politics (especially relations between the United States and Mexico) and civil rights at an early age, participating in her first protest when she was sixteen years old. After graduating from high school, Tenayuca joined the Worker’s Alliance of America and the Woman’s League for Peace and Freedom. As a young adult, she founded two international ladies garment workers unions, and was instrumental in protesting against the beating of Mexican migrants by the United States Border Patrol agents. She went on to earn her degree in education from San Francisco State College (now known as San Francisco State University) and returned to San Antonio after graduating to earn her masters at Our Lady of the Lake University. She worked as a teacher until her retirement in 1982. She died in 1999, but is remembered for her foresight and courageous efforts in promoting the health and safety of workers during the 1930s.

  6. Photo of Katz Drug Store in Oklahoma City, OK, the site of the Katz Drug Store Sit-In in 1958.

    Clara Luper (Oklahoma City, Oklahoma)

    Clara Luper was an educator and a pioneer in the Civil Rights Movement. Born and raised in Oklahoma, she became the first African American student to graduate from the history program at the University of Oklahoma, and went on to receive her M.A. in History Education in 1951. After graduating, she worked, and would continue to do so for 41 yeas, as a high school teacher in Oklahoma. In 1957, Luper started to explore equal rights activism and became the advisor for the NAACP Youth Council. She organized peaceful protests in Oklahoma, including the iconic sit-in that took place at Oklahoma City’s Katz drugstore in August of 1958. After a number of student sit-ins led by Luper, the drugstore finally desegregated their lunch counters in each of their 38 locations (which spanned four states). Luper then fought for integrated public schools (she led the Oklahoma City Public School integration fight) and is credited with desegregating hundreds of businesses in Oklahoma, including hotels, restaurants, movie theaters, and churches. She ran for election to the United States Senate in 1972, but was unsuccessful. In addition to her work as a leader during the Civil Rights Movement, Luper is remembered as a highly influential educator, and inspired the Oklahoma City University to establish the Clara Luper Scholarship. She was inducted into the Oklahoma Hall of Fame in 2007.

Emma Peters is the marketing assistant at the National Trust for Historic Preservation. A history graduate, she is constantly humbled by the way past lives and societies can alter the way we consume the present.

Every place has a woman's story to tell. Through Where Women Made History, we are identifying, honoring, and elevating places across the country where women have changed their communities and the world.

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