Pioneering Women

Local author Wynne Brown highlights the trailblazing women who came to Arizona to help build it.

In 1910, a young Philadelphia woman who'd had a grueling summer in the West wrote a letter home.

The botanical professor she'd been working with had just died in a river accident, but 21-year-old Mary-Russell Ferrell Colton, future co-founder of the Museum of Northern Arizona, had no intention of giving up the untamed West.

"The wilderness of which you have such a horror holds no terrors for me, no, not even now," Ferrell Colton wrote to her worried stepfather. "It beckons, beckons and claims its own, that is all ... the city and the places that are old with man shall never hold me. I must breathe."

Ferrell Colton's letter sounds a theme that's repeated again and again in More Than Petticoats: Remarkable Arizona Women, a new book by Tucson author Wynne Brown. Brown has written short biographies of a dozen women, all of them born before 1900, who came to Arizona--attracted by the West's rawness and opportunity--and helped shape the state we know today. These are women who developed a hospital, organized the public schools, promoted Indian arts and wrote down Arizona's pioneer myths. Though Brown diligently ferreted out the stories of relatively unknown native women, most of the Arizonans she writes about were born elsewhere. Like Ferrell Colton, they came to love the rugged beauty of their adopted home, and some even thrived on its dangers.

Iowa native Mary Kidder Rak first came to Arizona to teach at the UA, but she soon traded the classroom for a ranch. She and her husband, forester Charlie Rak, bought a remote spread in the Chiricahuas, and plunged into a life, Brown writes, of "brand(ing), medicat(ing), and vaccinat(ing) the cows É searching for broken fences, monitoring wold traps, separating out animals bound for sale, checking watering spots É"

Kidder Rak, author of four nonfiction books about her new life, relished the daily skirmishes with nature. "It is not all 'beer and skittles' anywhere," she wrote a friend in 1934, 13 years after leaving Tucson behind, "but I would rather take my hardships out in the open."

Literate, educated white women such as Ferrell Colton and Kidder Rak are easiest to find in the records, and Brown's chapters on them and other women of their race and class are the most detailed. She covers Sister Mary Fidelia McMahon, the New York-born Irish American nun who headed St. Mary's Hospital in Tucson during the heady years from 1893 to 1920. Sharlot Mabridth Hall was born in a dugout house on the Kansas prairie, and as a child, made the classic covered-wagon journey West. She grew up to become a plucky historian, adventurer and writer whose personal collection of Arizoniana turned into the eponymous museum in Prescott.

C. Louise Boehringer, a teacher and journalist, was born in Illinois to German immigrant parents in 1878, and enjoyed a long career in Arizona education and politics. In 1913, winning the post of Yuma superintendent of schools, she was the first woman to win an election in the brand-new state.

Much harder to track down are the native and minority women whose lives were barely noticed in their own time by white observers. Brown nonetheless made a valiant effort to stick to her agenda of geographic and cultural diversity. She found an Apache warrior who fought alongside Geronimo, a Hopi teacher who struggled to find a way to embrace both Hopi and Anglo culture, a Chinese photographer and a black hotelier. In some cases, Brown moved into oral history and interviewed surviving family members. Other times, she resorted to providing background material on, say, Chinese immigration to Arizona, or statistics on Arizona African-Americans.

Teresa Urrea, the Mexican healer, is increasingly well-known; Brown was able to quote her nephew, the writer Luis Urrea. Likewise, the career of singer Luisa Ronstadt Espinel, daughter of Federico, aunt of Linda, is well-documented, but the other women are more problematic. The challenge is making them come alive on the page when so little information is available about them, and their own words are forever lost.

The book is thin--Brown was evidently limited by her publisher to just 11 or 12 pages for each woman--but it's meticulously researched and documented. And its cast of characters help illuminate the lives of unsung Arizona women. Many of Brown's subjects were unmarried and most were childless, a set of conditions that likely helped them escape the confines of their sisters' lives. When Boehringer ran for political office, for instance, one contemporary observer wrote approvingly, "She will go to Phoenix unhampered by domestic ties of any character." Had she had such domestic ties, she doubtless would never have set foot inside the hallowed legislative halls.

One can't help but be moved by the awe these women felt when Arizona seemed new, big and untouched. Here's Sharlott Hall in 1910:

"And all day long I'm so glad, so glad, so glad that God let me be an out-door woman and love the big things. I couldn't me a tame house cat woman ... I'm not unwomanly--don't you dare think so--but God meant woman to joy in his great, clean beautiful world ... "

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