Later this month, the community will celebrate Women in Tyler, a luncheon that recognizes local women who make a difference in their community. In its 15th year, the event has acknowledged the works of businesswomen, volunteers, educators and civic leaders from diverse backgrounds.
Even during more oppressive times, women in Tyler have been movers and shakers.
In the late 1800s, many were influential to political movements, including the suffrage movement, a brief socialist movement here and civil rights causes.
Local historians said when we celebrate Women’s History Month, we shouldn’t forget about local women.
“In general, I found that students don’t think that history happened in Tyler, Texas,” Vicki Betts, a librarian at The University of Texas at Tyler, said. “They don’t realize that women here — in what was then a small town — had opinions, took stands and worked toward good causes.”
Women established nu-merous literary clubs, church groups, cha-rities, heritage groups and professional clubs, such as the Tyler Business and Professional Women’s Club. Several Tyler wo-men championed for women’s right to vote, most notably Mary Louise Herndon, her daughter Elizabeth Herndon Potter and Eliza Sophia Robertson Johnson, better known as Birdie Johnson.
Mrs. Herndon came from a wealthy family and was the wife of former congressman, William Herndon. She’s considered the grandmother of the suffrage movement in Tyler. She organized the Smith County Equal Suffrage League in 1913 following a call for suffragettes again to push for a constitutional amendment to allow women to vote. Mrs. Herndon also was instrumental in the Women’s Christian Temperance Union.
The Baylor graduate had a leadership role at First Baptist Church as a member of the building committee.
Her daughter, Mrs. Potter, also fought for women’s suffrage and participated in the Women’s Suffrage Parade in Washington, D.C., in 1913. She emphasized the importance of literacy and is considered the “mother of the Tyler Public Library.”
Mrs. Johnson was a former state president of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, president of the Texas Federation of Women’s Clubs and an early member of the Daughters of the American Revolution. She also was a member of the first board of regents of what would become Texas Woman’s University. She made history as the first woman to register to vote in Smith County, according to newspaper archives.
Ms. Betts said studying this history is important because it helps to appreciate how far women have come.
“When you realize it’s been less than 100 years since we got the right to vote, it’s really astounding,” she said. “A lot of the rights that we do have, it took a lot of work by a lot of women to get us where we are now. I think we tend to take that for granted.”
Tiffany Wright, who works at the Smith County Historical Society, echoed the sentiment.
“They did not have as much resources and as much support as women do now,” Ms. Wright said. “There will always be challenges, but to me, it’s a source of inspiration.”
Tyler women of yesteryear also were creative, with many publishing books and poems or performing on stage. A noted soprano singer, Estelle Burns, became well known for her musical gift and traveled to Paris to study before traveling around Europe. Born in 1877 in Tyler, she established the East Texas Conservatory of Music in 1902, which was housed in the building currently occupied by Rick’s on the Square.
Ms. Wright is actively researching the singer and is seeking recordings of her work. She said she is fascinated by Ms. Burns’ ambition because she traveled abroad, beginning at age 17, to establish her career. She said she’s yet to find any information about financial support from family.
“She was so young and just didn’t think about going into the unknown when she went to school in France,” she said. “She specifically knew that she had a talent and she was going to foster that herself.”
Married twice, both of her husbands died. She had no children and cared for her mother.
“She was an original independent woman and I was so impressed by that,” Ms. Wright said.
WOMEN IN THE SHADOWS
Tyler’s suffrage movement didn’t always espouse progressive ideas. For example, some sects of the movement — both nationally and locally — were not welcoming to nonwhite women.
“At that time, race was the divider, so white women had their own groups,” Ms. Betts said. “They had their own projects and it was just very separate worlds.”
This also applied to the Red Cross. A Tyler chapter was founded in 1917 and smaller auxiliaries sprouted. Around 1919, black Tyler women formed an auxiliary. According to Ms. Betts’ research, Beulah L. Caswell, a teacher, turned in membership funds for the organization, which supported black troops at Camp Travis. Mrs. Caswell’s daughter, Zephie Brooks, may also have been a Junior Red Cross member, according to Ms. Betts’ research. She later became an educator, teaching at Butler College, an institution that operated in northwest Tyler from 1905 to 1972. She also was a charter member of a local chapter of the Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority, along with fellow soror, Willie Lee Glass.
AHEAD OF THEIR TIME: OTHER NOTABLE WOMEN
The Tyler native was the first woman to serve in the White House press corps. She covered 11 presidents in her 51 years in Washington D.C.
Ms. McClendon was noted for asking harsh questions and riling presidents. She also served as a public relations lieutenant with the Women’s Army Corps during World War II. She was a single mother — also uncommon during that time. Following the war, she worked independently after establishing her own news service.
Dr. Mildred Jefferson
While not native to Tyler, Dr. Jefferson attended Texas College and received a bachelor’s degree here before going off to Tufts University and then Harvard Medical School, where she became the first black female graduate. The Pittsburgh native became famous for her staunch opposition to abortion, and was one of the founders of the National Right to Life Committee.
Mrs. Lee was an unyielding civil rights activist during the 1970s and a member of Tyler’s Bi-Racial Committee. She worked closely with U.S. District Judge William Wayne Justice to help ease the transition of desegregation at Tyler ISD schools.
Mayor Barbara Bass
Mrs. Bass is the first female to be elected mayor in Tyler but she also served in several leadership roles before attaining that milestone, including the Tyler Area Chamber of Commerce, the Tyler Economic Development Council, The Hospice of East Texas, Pollard United Methodist Church, Better Business Bureau of Central East Texas and Leadership Tyler.