Article first published in Vol. 27 (2009-2010)
By Sarah E. John
Some people might think that there are few significant women who contributed to the development of El Paso. In fact, the opposite is true. There are so many women who should be mentioned that it would take many publications to highlight them, and choosing the few who are part of this article was very difficult. The information included here has come from the hard work in research done over the last 30 years by many local historians, especially women, who are interested in getting the message out that women have played an important role in the progress of El Paso.
The “her-story” of El Paso women reflects the city’s international influences, and it is a story which encompasses several centuries, races, nationalities and age groups. The women of El Paso have been actively engaged in the civic, political, economic and social development of the city. They were businesswomen, educators, domestics, laundresses, military women, factory workers, artists and architects – and most were raising families at the same time. Their hard work and struggles have helped all of us today, both men and women.
While a couple of these women technically did not live in El Paso, they still made a contribution to its history, either through their presence here at one time or another or through the accomplishments of their descendants. Some were prominent, some will not be familiar to you, but all made their contribution.
See if you can find the names of 20 such women in the word search puzzle below. Solutions run up and down, forward and backwards and diagonally with no spaces between first and last names. Good luck! The women puzzle and solution can be printed from these links.
Puzzle by Ruth Vise and Heather Coons, created using Puzzlemaker at discoveryeducation.com
Isabel de Oñate, Juan de Oñate’s wife, was the granddaughter of Hernán Cortés and the great-granddaughter of Moctezuma. She is a perfect example of the mestiza, a person of both indigenous and European blood. She along with other mestizos and Spaniards passed through the area in 1598 on their way to establish a permanent Spanish colony in what is now Northern New Mexico.
Juana Márquez Dowell (1833-1891) was the daughter and granddaughter of Tigua Indian caciques, or chiefs, from Ysleta. In 1852 she married Ben Dowell, a veteran of the Mexican War who eventually became a popular local saloon keeper. They lived on a ranch at what would eventually become downtown El Paso. During the Civil War, Juana and her children moved the family to the “safety” of Paso del Norte (present-day Juárez) while Ben fought for the Confederacy. Later, when Ben became the first mayor of El Paso, Juana became El Paso’s first First Lady. (See Pioneers tab on El Paso Women to Research)
Francisca Alarcón (1840s-1930s) was born in Chihuahua and was left a large amount of money by her first husband, a banker. She moved to the United States and bought a great deal of property in El Paso. She remarried and was known as Doña Paca, which was eventually twisted into “Grandma Parker” by some local Anglo Americans who could not pronounce her name. When one of her sons-in-law ran for alderman in early El Paso, Doña Paca rode on a mule, carrying a flour sack of silver $3 coins, and paid one coin to each person who voted for him. Doña Paca knew all the big shots and politicians in the 1870s and 1880s. She even rolled her own cigarettes, just like all of the men of the era did. She died in the 1930s at the age of 97. (See Pioneers tab on El Paso Women to Research)
Jesusita Siqueiros Hart (1830s?-?) first met Simeon Hart during the Mexican War in the 1840s. Hart was wounded in the battle of Santa Cruz de Rosales and was cared for by Don Leonardo Siqueiros and his family at his molino (flour mill) in Mexico. Simeon and Jesusita, Don Leonardo’s daughter, fell in love and married and moved to El Paso. Simeon built his own flour mill, which became known as Hart’s Mill, next to the Rio Grande near what is now Paisano Drive just west of U.T. El Paso. The house that he built for the family adjacent to the mill became the Hacienda Restaurant in the 1960s. (See Pioneers tab on El Paso Women to Research)
Mary I. Stanton (1862-1946) was a pioneer teacher in El Paso who used her personal collection of books to lay the foundation for the El Paso Public Library in the 1890s. She organized a reading club for young men and allowed them to borrow the books. The library was moved to City Hall in 1895 and was opened to all El Pasoans. Later, an Andrew Carnegie donation allowed the city to build its first public library in the early 1900s. While highly-cultured and well-educated, the fun-loving and gregarious Ms. Stanton did not fit the schoolteacher stereotype. Proud of her independence and the fact that she never married, she reportedly said, "The life of a spinster is ideal, a spontaneous laugh is the happiest thing in the world, and to say 'damn' in the right spot is most invigorating." (See Education tab on El Paso Women to Research)
Olga Bernstein Kohlberg (1864-1935) came to El Paso from Prussia in 1884 with her husband, a tobacco merchant. Mrs. Kohlberg, a well-educated woman, was instrumental in the establishment of several civic organizations and institutions such as the Woman’s Club, the first hospital, Mt. Sinai Jewish Congregation, and the public library, among others. She may be best-known, however, for establishing the first free public kindergarten in El Paso in 1893, also the first of its kind in the state of Texas. (See Borderlands article)
Eugenia Mananyi Schuster (1865-1946), born in Hungary, was educated in Vienna, where she learned to speak five languages fluently and studied piano under Franz Liszt, the famous musician and composer. She came to El Paso with her physician husband in 1894. In 1902 she helped him establish the original Providence Hospital, becoming its administrator, and did all types of work in the hospital – including performing and managing all office work, housekeeping, cooking and custodial duties – in addition to rearing four children. (See Medical of El Paso Men to Research)
Kate Moore (1870?-??) was the first woman to ride a bicycle in El Paso. Even riding with her long skirts covering her legs, she shocked many of the older residents of the city. Moore was also one of the only two graduates from the first class at El Paso High, the city’s first high school, in 1887 (the other graduate was a boy). Becoming a music teacher, she could still be seen riding her bicycle to work. (See Borderlands article)
Herlinda Wong Chew (1890s?-1939) was the child of a Chinese father and Aztec mother. By 1910 she and her Chinese husband, Antonio Chew, were living in Juárez, and owned a store there. Although the Chinese were not allowed to immigrate to the United States at that time, Mrs. Chew taught herself immigration law and found a way that her family and other Chinese people could legally immigrate to El Paso. She and her husband established the New China Grocery Store. Because of her work in immigration, she was known as the Honorary Chinese Consul, helping other Chinese and Mexicans immigrate to the United States. (See Borderlands article)
Zacchia Jabalie Ayoub (1899-1980s) was one of the few young women allowed to work outside the home in her native Lebanon, helping in her father’s business. She came to El Paso as a 13-year-old bride in 1912, working with her husband at their small store in South El Paso. During the Depression when her husband lost his business, she and her sons peddled penny candy and chewing gum from a truck. Eventually she helped build the Border Tobacco Company, a multi-million dollar business, where she continued to work until she died in her eighties. (See Business/Entrepreneurs tab on El Paso Women to Research)
Callie Fairley (1881-1965) was a brave woman who worked with the El Paso Police Department during the 1930s and 1940s, when few women were detectives and probation officers. Although she was less than five feet tall, she often worked vice and brought fear into the hearts of the prostitutes and other women offenders that she rounded up in midnight raids. Mrs. Fairley was named Mother of the Year in 1963 and was described by newspaper reporters as a "tiny white-haired great-grandmother who sits in her rocking chair and crochets beautifully just like sweet old ladies are supposed to do." Little did they know she was a pistol-packin’ mama in the early days. (See Borderlands article)
Olalee Fowler McCall (1890-1957) came to El Paso about 1914 to teach English at Douglass School, the city’s only all-black school, and became the school’s principal in 1937. She helped establish the Roosevelt Day Nursery in 1940 which was later renamed the McCall Day Nursery as a tribute to her and her husband, who had raised a sizeable portion of the money used to construct a new building. The McCalls’ former home is now the site of the McCall Research Center, a museum and educational center for the study of African American history in El Paso. (See Education tab on El Paso Women to Research)
Mabel C. Welch (1890-1981) designed and built many of the beautiful Mediterranean-style homes on Rim Road. After her building contractor husband's death in 1927, Mrs. Welch continued his business, designing the houses, drawing the plans, keeping the books and supervising the actual construction. In 1939 she became the city's first woman registered architect. (See Borderlands article )
Charlee Kelly was one of four daughters born to an early El Paso mayor. She chose the military as her career. One of the first women to enlist in the Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps in 1942, she was with the first group of WAAC officers sent to the South Pacific during World War II. She was promoted from first lieutenant to major in less than two years. She served all around the world, completing two stints at the Pentagon and eventually attaining the rank of Lt. Colonel in 1956 (See Military tab on El Paso Women to Research).
Thelma J. White, the valedictorian at Douglass School in 1954, filed a lawsuit in 1955 for admission into the then-segregated Texas Western College. The petition she filed in federal court to gain admission to TWC stated that she was denied access to an education “because of her race and color, contrary to and in violation of the Constitution and laws of the United States.” The landmark ruling proclaimed the segregation policy unconstitutional. This decision compelled all state colleges in Texas to change their admission rules. Thus her efforts eventually led to the desegregation of public colleges and universities throughout Texas. (See Borderlands article)
Polly Harris made serving the needs of El Paso’s women, minorities and the elderly her life’s work. Besides shining in the business community, she served three terms as a City Council representative in the 1970s and 1980s, and was well-known for her acting. (See Politics tab on El Paso Women to Research)
Alicia Rosencrans Chacón, born and raised in El Paso, was a graduate of Ysleta High School. She was the first woman to be elected County Clerk in El Paso (1974), the first Mexican American woman to serve on the city council (1983), and the first female County Judge (1990). (See Borderlands article. )
Rosa Guerrero not only taught dance in the public schools, but also directed the Rosa Guerrero Folklorico Internacional for almost 30 years. In 1974, her film Tapestry showcased not only her talent and work, but showed how she has striven to foster goodwill and brotherhood among ethnic groups by showing us how to "love and appreciate the many cultures that make America." (See Borderlands article.)
Peggy Rosson first gained knowledge of state government while serving on the Texas Public Utility commission as the state’s first female commissioner. She built on that experience and became the first El Paso female Texas State Senator from El Paso is the 1990s. (See Politics tab on El Paso Women to Research)
El Paso businesswoman and pilot Suzie Azar had served two terms as city representative in the 1980s before being elected the first female mayor 1989. During her time in office, she supervised the first water conservation proposals as well as various building projects and infrastructure improvements. (See Borderlands article.)
Many other remarkable El Paso women can be added to the list. Maybe YOU will be the next woman to make a positive contribution to the city’s development. Why not?