From the Desk of Eileen Wirth: The Women Who Built Omaha

Eileen Wirth is a professor emeritus of journalism at Creighton University and a senior writer for Legacy Preservation in Omaha. She is the author or coauthor of several books, including From Society Page to Front Page: Nebraska Women in Journalism (Nebraska, 2013), Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium, and A History Lover’s Guide to Omaha. Her newest book, The Women Who Built Omaha (Bison Books, 2022), was published this month.

A light bulb went off as I drove east on the Center Street trying to decide whether to pursue writing a book on Omaha women in the Gilded Age—a fascinating subject but probably too obscure for publishers. What could I do instead?

Ahead lay the College of Saint Mary with Nebraska Furniture Mart to the north and the Mutual of Omaha tower in the distance. AHA! Were the women founders of these and other iconic institutions featured in our local histories? Could this be my next book?

A quick check of the indexes of two Omaha histories a century apart found only a small percentage of women’s names. Then I checked the names of twenty prominent women but most were missing or barely mentioned. This could work!

Thus began my four-year journey writing The Women Who Built Omaha a Bold and Remarkable History. Among the facts I discovered:

•Sarah Joslyn personally paid for Joslyn Art Museum.

•Bright Eyes LaFlesche, who translated for Chief Standing Bear at his trial, also was at the Battle of Wounded Knee and illustrated a booklet for the Trans-Mississippi Exposition.

•Anna Wilson isn’t in the Omaha Business Hall of Fame since she made her fortune in “the world’s oldest profession.”

The book covers the contributions of these and other Omaha women of many fields.

Who would have guessed that we had a women’s national cycling championship here in the 1890s or that the Caniglia family had to teach Omahans how to eat pizza after World War II using Mrs. Caniglia’s recipe? Or that World-Herald founder Gilbert Hitchcock debated a national leader during a local suffrage battle? When I learned this, I could almost hear my feisty Irish grandmother ranting that women had retaliated by defeating Hitchcock for the U.S. Senate when they finally won the vote. Go Grandma!

I found many women who refused to let their gender deter their ambitions—artists, doctors and nurses, educators, civil rights crusaders, and groundbreakers in almost every field. We even had women bootleggers, some of whom later opened popular restaurants.

Unlike histories focusing on politics and business, this book tells readers how people— especially women—lived, worked, played and took care of others. It gives overdue recognition to the contributions of Omaha’s nuns, especially the Sisters of Mercy, to education, health care and social services. The Mercys still have their western regional headquarters here.

My favorite woman in the book is Rachel Gallagher, who scoured the newspaper in the 1930s and ‘40s to find meetings where she could preach about beautifying grimy, smelly Omaha. She was so determined to protect our parks from interstate construction that in the 1950s, she went to Washington and obtained a letter from the secretary of the interior requiring her consent to touch them.

Would we have the Henry Doorly Zoo if she hadn’t preserved Riverview Park from the adjacent highway? Would we still have a menagerie instead of a world class zoo if Margaret Hitchcock Doorly (not Henry) hadn’t made the major gift to transform Riverview into a real zoo?

It’s hard to go anywhere in Omaha without encountering something women have contributed.

In the Old Market, the upscale restaurants and galleries women founded helped turn it into our top entertainment district. The families who throng Elmwood Park can thank Gallagher for keeping UNO from expanding into it. Women judges, lawyers, surgeon and state senators long ago ceased being a novelty. 

Central High finally has its second woman principal and OPS its first woman superintendent. Jean Stothert’s gender is no handicap to getting re-elected unlike when Betty Abbott first sought that office years after she became the first woman on the City Council.

In the 1930s, the Federal Writers Project described Omaha as a “man’s town.” Really?

Did they fail to notice what women were doing?

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