Pioneers of Greatness: The History of Women in Dayton

“I believe in woman suffrage because I believe in fundamental democracy. There can be no fundamental democracy where half of the population, being of sound mind, are compelled to obey laws in the making of which they have had no voice.”
~ Grace Isabel Colbron, “Why I Believe in Woman Suffrage”

Woman. Second Class. Inferior. Private Sphere.

These words were something that defined women in the United States since its inception. They kept women in their place, at home, caring for children and men, and not seeking enlightenment or a place in public life, a place dominated by men.

But something radical happened at the turn of the twentieth century. Modern America had begun to take shape.  Industrialization had brought more than a change to everyday life in terms of urbanization.  People were brought together as never before, living in cities and closer quarters. New mechanized inventions meant everyone, including women, had time to pursue new ventures.

The exchange of information became inevitable and as women networked outside of the home and into the public sphere of which they had long been denied access. And slowly a change began to occur.

Women worked alongside one another to effectively change their society. They created benevolent organizations to provide aid to people in need. They sought education and demanded access to universities. They taught and encouraged one another about literature, music, and art. This led them to establish libraries, orchestras, and museums in their communities. Their collective efforts had changed society forever.

The peak of their efforts was realized when they began to demand equal rights and an equal say in their lives. They wanted to own property. They wanted to keep the wages they had earned. They wanted to have a voice when it came to laws and they wanted a permanent, public role in society. They wanted to vote.

As we continue to explore the theme of empowerment for women, we will specifically focus on women in Dayton who represented this change from private sphere confinement to public social activist. We will explore the lives of women who campaigned for culture. Women like Electra Doren who was instrumental in the establishment of the Dayton Public Library, Sara Thresher who was a leader in the establishment of music in Dayton, and Julia Shaw Carnell who founded the Dayton Art Institute.

We will also examine women who were civic activists and pioneers for social reform in their community. Women like Hallie Q. Brown, born to former slaves and became a world-renowned elocutionist, educator, and social activist.

Another example is Annie McCully, Dayton’s first policewoman as well as an educator and suffragist. We will discuss Emma Miller, also called the “Little Mother of the Soldiers,” who was the first Matron of the Soldiers’ Home in Dayton and the first woman in US history to receive a funeral with full military honors. And we will discuss Charlotte Reeve Conover, the author and historian who wrote about all of them.

By exploring these women and what they did we will realize one overarching fact: that these women were not extraordinary because they were rich or famous, though some were well-known and wealthy. What we will come to see is that every day women achieved great things because they had passion and worked together; that these women could be you or me. They empowered one another to seek a better community and society and they accomplished it. If they can – so too can we.