Most are just ghostly historical images now, at best - the strong women who broke down social, racial, and professional barriers in late 19th and early 20th century northwest Ohio; who labored for equal rights, improved working conditions, and health care; who spoke out on behalf of the poor and the sick.
Their names and faces were fading as long ago as 1937, when local suffragette Olive Colton told the Toledo League of Women Voters: “Civilization has been called the product of the forgotten, and even if I knew about them, there is no time to name all the women to whom Toledo owes its progress.”
The identity of many women who made an impact on Toledo and northwest Ohio may be lost today, but others are being discovered and celebrated.
“There are a lot of women who made really significant contributions,” says Ann Hurley, who is chair of the Women Alive! Coalition and a reference librarian in the local history and genealogy department at the Main Library downtown. About 150 notable women have been profiled in a series of books produced by a committee of the coalition, Ms. Hurley adds, “and there are so many more.”
The eighth book in the series - In Search of Our Past: Women of Northwest Ohio - is expected to be out late this month. Volume I was issued in 1987.
The books are published roughly every two years, and Susan Coburn, the editor of volumes seven and eight, doesn't expect that the committee will ever run out of women to profile.
“They don't have to be famous,” adds Mrs. Coburn, manager of the humanities department at the Main Library. Indeed, that's one reason for the books - “to memorialize people you might not have heard about.”
They also serve as a celebration of women's history and as inspiration, “especially for young women,” Mrs. Coburn continues. “We try to get these into school libraries whenever we can afford to do it, because these [women] are role models.”
They are women like Harriet Whitney (Toledo's first woman schoolteacher); Rose Reder (the first female Toledo police officer to be in command of male officers, and the first woman to work the streets in uniform); Bettye Ruth Kay (a national leader in the field of autism who served as director of Bittersweet Farms in Whitehouse); and Mother M. Adelaide (founder of the Sisters of St. Francis, Sylvania).
Ann Bowers, interim director of the Center for Archival Collections at Jerome Library at Bowling Green State University, observes that, “We need to constantly be looking for women's voices as we do our history. ... We may have to look at historical sources in different ways, or look at different historical sources to find them.”
Such materials as quilts and samplers tell stories of the women who left them behind, she adds. “We have to be willing to look at these kinds of sources and see what we can understand from them about women's contributions.”
While today we think of women's contributions in terms of individual standouts - eBay CEO Meg Whitman, former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, civil rights activist Rosa Parks, first American woman in space Sally Ride, for example - much of what women accomplished 100 years ago was the result of group efforts through church aid societies, literary clubs, and patriotic auxiliaries.
“I think historians ignored women's contributions for a long time because they weren't looking at these organizations. They were looking for individual women,” Ms. Bowers says.
Turn-of-the-century literary clubs weren't just tea and white gloves and gossip, she notes. It's probably safe to assume that polite conversation about families and children would have led to ideas for public libraries and parks, or establishment of kindergartens.
Such activity was socially acceptable for several reasons. One was that their areas of interest reflected women's roles at home, as teacher and nurse, for example. Another was that the ladies took care not to neglect those responsibilities.
“Most of the literary groups
met in the afternoon,” Ms. Bowers explains, so that the members could return home to get dinner on the table.
In time, the women's organizations learned to pool their efforts, building clout by forming federations. “Each group would have a representative and they would be a lot more aggressive in figuring out ways that they could meet their goals,” Ms. Bowers says.
“The women went about solving problems that they saw,” she continues. Many of those issues had to do with the needs of women and girls, but others were public health and quality-of-life matters that weren't on public officials' radar until the women put them there.
Despite their social activism, women in these groups tended to be conservative, Ms. Bowers says. They didn't see themselves as suffragettes. In fact, many only accepted the suffrage movement as a way to accomplish their goals.
“The women's movement wasn't unified in this sense. They weren't working against each other, but they were working with different mindsets,” Ms. Bowers explains.
Toledo was a hotbed of the suffrage movement - perhaps a reflection of the same cultural and political forces that gave rise to progressive social reformers such as Samuel “Golden Rule” Jones and Brand Whitlock.
“A lot of the women tended to turn to the suffrage movement after they were involved in other kinds of reform work and found that what they really wanted to accomplish, they couldn't accomplish without the vote,” says Ms. Bowers. Many of them were well-to-do, educated women, “and whether they were married or single, didn't have a role to play anymore, and so they felt, `what am I doing with my education? I can't just sit here and call on people all day and do social activities.'”
The National Citizen and Ballot Box, the newspaper of the National Woman Suffrage Association, was started in Toledo in 1876 by Sarah Williams. Other Toledoans who were in the forefront of the women's movement included Olive Colton, Amy Grace Maher, Rosa Segur, Pauline Steinem (grandmother of feminist Gloria Steinem), Emma Ashley (great-grandmother of former Ohio Rep. Thomas Ludlow Ashley), and Olivia Hall.
Their work opened doors and multiplied what Miss Colton observed in 1937 were the “four undisputed roles” of a woman in the early 1800s: “... she could be the star at her own wedding; if a wife, sick or well, she was expected to mother a new babe every year; as a nurse she was an angel to the sick; and married or single, a neighbor woman was a blessing in the death chamber.”
By 1955, a Blade columnist taking note of the 1950 Census stated that, “Women today are doing everything locally from running trains to construction work.” The article was headlined: “Few Occupations Closed; Women Invade `Most Every Field.”
Here are just a few more of the many women who made an impact on the area, as profiled in the series In Search of Our Past: Women of Northwest Ohio. Some of their names may be familiar; some may be known only to local historians.