The following story was written 25 years ago as part of the series created by the Eads High School history project—Kiowa County: A Retrospective at the Dawn of a New Millennium. This series was written by EHS juniors and seniors in 1999—as the new century was about to come on to the scene. Each student chose a subject they were interested in and then through first-hand interviews and primary sources did the research and wrote the article. Each article was printed in the Kiowa County Press. The high school staff that guided this project included Pete Conrad, EHS English teacher, and Betsy Barnett, District Media Specialist. The project won a state history award in 2000.
By Amy Nordquist (Senior, EHS Class of 2000)
What is the first thing you think of when asked the question, “Who do you think conquered the West?” Surprisingly, some of the first people to settle this great land we live in, including rural southeastern Colorado, were the women themselves. Many believe it was only men who worked and sweated and slaved in order to conquer the untamed plains, when in actuality, many women had to also struggle with the unpredictable winters and the scorching summers. They had to keep the chickens laying their eggs and the milk cow giving milk. If their gardens died, the chickens didn’t lay, or the milk cow went dry, the family struggled for its sheer survival. The responsibility of rearing the children, preparing the food, and maintaining the house and grounds was that of the woman. Many times, it would take all day in the kitchen to prepare the meals for the family. Wash day on the high plains was a back-breaking chore of pumping and hauling water, scrubbing and hanging the clothes, while the other household chores waited.
There wasn’t electricity in Kiowa County until the late 1920s and the party-line telephone didn’t add to the convenience of life in these parts until 1949. This, of course, meant no electrical appliances to help with the housework, or worse yet, no way to talk to your distant friends or family. Isolation was a major fact in the life of most pioneer women who craved the company of other women with whom they could relate. Imagine having no microwave to quickly cook up the family dinner or electric stove to bake the bread, pies, and cakes. Nor did these hearty women have the luxury of running down to the local grocery store or convenience store for a gallon of milk or a dozen eggs.
Now, can you imagine having to carry in the water after pumping it from the well before you could cook, clean, or bathe your family? Ida Lessenden remembers the time when they had to! What would you do if you had to walk to school—up to five miles? Many kids would walk this long distance for education, but particularly the girls would make this sacrifice in order to get an education. Consequently, there were a number of small country schools scattered across the countryside of Kiowa County. This caused a need for many teachers. It was the women, such as Eva Doyle Amyx who taught in Galatea, Eads, Arlington, and Sheridan Lake, who educated the youth of the West. Women were primarily hired as teachers because they could be paid low wages. Although the money wasn’t good for the Kiowa County female teachers in the early years of its development, they continued to strive with pride in being good educators for the children they served. Today, in Kiowa County, women occupy all levels of the education field from teacher to administrator to board members.
Another area of employment for women in Kiowa County was in the medical field. In the early years, women were mostly midwives who aided friends and neighbors in the delivery of their children. However, with the establishment of Weisbrod Hospital in the 1940s, women began to get the training they needed to become nurses. The pay for nurses was as low as for teachers until the mid-1960s when the profession demanded and received better compensation. There was a local woman by the name of Rosa Shrammal who was even a nurse overseas during World War II. Imagine how exciting it was rushing to help the wounded men who were defending our country!
Although, Eads had a woman physician in 1917 by the name of Minnie B. Lang, M.D., who listed herself as “resident surgeon and physician“ in an Kiowa County Press advertisement, this was highly unusual as women doctors were virtually nonexistent in Kiowa County nor did local women aspire to become doctors or medial administrators. Imagine yourself wanting something since you were a small child. Now imagine never getting a chance, no matter how hard you worked and struggled to attain your goal. This was what it was like for women of the West who had to deal with gender prejudice.
Another area that women were successful in making an impact upon which began during the second world war was that of industry. Because all the men were gone fighting in the war, there was a huge need for people to work in all areas of industry including shipyards and the railroad. This is where women came into the work force. For the first time, women started getting into the jobs they had never possessed before. A local woman, Jesse (Immal) Evans, was a merchant marine cook in California during the war. Not a usual occupation for a woman. The war years was a major boon for the women’s rights movement and allowed women to demonstrate their abilities to do a number of jobs which earlier were considered too hard or physical for them.
Throughout the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, women continued to break out of the stereotypical roles they had been occupying for so long. They gradually found their voice as the twentieth century dragged on. First, by getting the vote in 1920 after fifty long years fighting in the suffrage movement when the Nineteenth Amendment was signed into law. The vote allowed women to have a voice in the political arena. In Kiowa County, Eads finally elected a female mayor in 1976 when Germaine A. Legg served a four-year term, and other area women served in political roles and on a number of political committees. Next came the war which forced women to break out of the traditional employment areas and enter the work force in areas only occupied by men. In the 1960s, Civil Rights became the hot topic and along with it followed the National Organization for Women (NOW) that gained a national reputation as they fought for equal opportunity for women. As we enter the twenty-first century, women are now in all niches of the work force and have made great strides toward equal opportunity for all.
Women in Kiowa County are no different than women all over the country. At one time, working women were only allowed to be midwives, but fought to become nurses and physicians in the medical profession. They also moved up from teachers of one-room schoolhouses to professors in large universities. They came from not having a political voice at all to being great political leaders such as governors, mayors, and someday, perhaps, Presidents of the United States.
Throughout history, women have struggled and fought to achieve and accomplish as much as they have. They have made an amazing impact and big changes in areas that were unexpected. Many people did not like or approve of it, but the truth is it was too late to stop us. Today, be it man or woman, the possibility of being anything you want, is what makes our great country the land of opportunity.