If captive to a John-Wayne-type narrative, the settling of the Southwest would be told as an achievement of white male pioneers embodying a weathered and stoic masculinity. That this version is rooted in mythology, not reality, is a truism, yet little is known about women’s lives in small towns that developed in the wake of the western expansion. Take Flagstaff, for example. A mountain town along the railroad line between New Mexico and California—traditionally home to the Yavapai and Tonto Apache and territorially close to the Diné people and Hopi—Flagstaff steadily expanded due to the transcontinental railroad, the lumber industry and a nearby ammunition depot during World War II. Women from numerous backgrounds were at the heart of the community, although they often did not make it into the annals and archives of a frontier town.
Take Emma Jane Wilson, for example. Born in 1852, married twice and physically abused in her marriage, she owned 120 acres of land, some of which the city of Flagstaff claimed for public use. Wilson contested it all the way to the Supreme Court. She also stood up for the rights of minorities. When in the 1880s several town buildings burned down, the small Chinese community was blamed for it—an expression of the broader anti-immigration sentiment sweeping the nation and enshrined in the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act. Wilson defended the Chinese residents, publicly calling out a group of angry white men that advocated for their forceful expulsion. Despite Wilson’s appeal to reason, the community of Chinese laborers dispersed. Not until 1915 did a Chinese family settle again and stay in Flagstaff. Dew Yu Wong arrived from Canton, China, and operated a hand wash laundry, then expanded it to a commercial laundry. Due to her poor English language skills, she never attained U.S. citizenship. Remembered as the family’s matriarch, she died in 1948.
Or take Mary C. Hart’s story. She worked in the town’s Hospital for the Indigent from 1920 until it closed in 1938. Hart had moved to Flagstaff in 1889, was married to a man later declared “insane,” then remarried William Hart, from whom she sought a divorce, though it wasn’t granted until after a long battle. Raising her many children on her own, she kept up with the administrative labor and care for the sick in the hospital. Buried in Flagstaff, her tombstone simply reads, “Beloved Mother,” thus erasing much of her bold and professional life choices.
These stories of courage, hardship and resilience would have been all but forgotten if a group of students and faculty had not embarked on a project to unearth and feature the lives of resilient women in Flagstaff’s history from the 1880s onward. A cooperation between the Martin-Springer Institute at Northern Arizona University, founded by a Holocaust survivor, and the Arizona Historical Society's Pioneer Museum turned their research into the traveling exhibit, Resilience: Women in Flagstaff’s Past and Present. The exhibit is also installed in the building that once had been The Hospital of the Indigent, the very place where Mary C. Hart had worked. Today it houses the Pioneer Museum; featuring women’s resilience in this space reflects the effort of reclaiming a broader past that does not equate “pioneer history” with white men.
Joan Dorsey grew up in Flagstaff’s historically black neighborhood in the 1940s. Her parents had migrated from the south, with her father working in the lumber industry. Dorsey attended Flagstaff’s segregated school, graduated from the University of Arizona in 1962, and eventually became the first black flight attendant for American Airlines. This opened doors to another world, including her attendance of President Lyndon Johnson’s Inauguration and the White House Ball afterward. In 2016, Joan Dorsey’s niece, Coral Evans, was elected mayor of Flagstaff, the first black woman mayor in Arizona.
Annie Watkins, born in 1929 and the granddaughter of freed slaves, helped to register black voters in Flagstaff’s Southside after the passing of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Shirley Sims, whose parents arrived in 1944 from Louisiana, led a student protest in high school when the family of a white prom queen refused a black student to be her prom king. Sims also organized a sit-in against segregation in the Hispanic-run El Charro restaurant. Today, she is still an associate minister at First Missionary Baptist Church. Stories like these demonstrate how national politics reverberate in the choices and activities of women in small southwestern towns.
Jewish families had moved into the Arizona territories by the early nineteenth century. Marianna Herman belonged to a Jewish family that settled in Flagstaff. What happened in Europe in the 1930s and 1940s seemed far away, and yet the Holocaust touched the lives of Jews even in small Arizona towns. Relatives in Germany pleaded with Herman to obtain affidavits for them to come to America. Their correspondence reveals both Herman’s tireless but unsuccessful efforts to help them and the growing desperation of those left behind in Germany, where they eventually perished. Herman died in 1949. (Decades later, Doris Martin, a Holocaust survivor from Poland, would make Flagstaff her home, where she and her husband founded the Martin-Springer Institute in 2001.)
If for some women World War II was a source of tragedy, for others it offered opportunities. Jessie Jimenez Alonzo found work at the Navajo Ordnance Depot, an ammunition storage facility near Flagstaff. The depot offered her a job at age 19 for manual labor of loading and unloading ammunition. For the first time, it provided her some independence, income and the satisfaction of, in her words, “doing a man’s job.” The Navajo Ordnance Depot also hired Native Americans in great numbers, for many the first time to enter the money economy. Job opportunities and family circumstances motivated them to seek residency in town, straddling the worlds of traditional and urban environments. Eunice Nicks, of Hopi descent, grew up in the 1940s and split her time between Moenkopi and Flagstaff, working in Flagstaff’s school district and returning to the Hopi Nation for ceremonies.
Whether public or private, women’s choices are worthy of recovering. Mary Costigan, born in 1879, became the first woman radio broadcaster in Flagstaff, until a series of deaths in her family drew her away from town. Procora Veraga Martinez, at age 19, fled in the wake of the Mexican revolution, seeking work and safety in Flagstaff. A quiet and unassuming woman, she provided food to her family and the community. When working at The Flagstaff Café during the great depression, she handed out free meals to people if they came to the back door. There are others who, like Martinez, came from south of the border but to this day must hide their identity for fear of deportation—like Noemi (a fictional name), an undocumented Flagstaff resident who is part of the town’s social fabric as neighbor, mother and teacher.
We can see the impact of world events and regional socio-economic changes on the lives of these women. Their stories illustrate resilience in the face of public adversity and personal tragedy. They illustrate how women have sustained the well-being of the community, no matter how overwhelming daily demands had been—worthy accomplishments to celebrate for Women’s History Month and year-round. It is time to unearth, remember and celebrate real women without whom the “wild west” would have been a testosterone-stricken place that exists mainly in movies.
Björn Krondorfer is director of the Martin-Springer Institute, and co-chair of the national Consortium of Higher Education Center on Holocaust, Genocide, and Human Right Studies. His new book, Unsettling Empathy: Working With Groups in Conflict, appeared in 2020.