Happy Book Birthday to The Women Who Built Omaha

Book Birthdays celebrate one year of a book’s life in tweets, reviews, and more. This month we’re saying Happy First Book Birthday to The Women Who Built Omaha (Bison Books, 2022) by Eileen Wirth.

About the Book:

During the 1930s the Federal Writers’ Project described Omaha as a “man’s town,” and histories of the city have all but ignored women. However, women have played major roles in education, health, culture, social services, and other fields since the city’s founding in 1854. In The Women Who Built Omaha Eileen Wirth tells the stories of groundbreaking women who built Omaha, including Susette “Bright Eyes” LaFlesche, who translated at the trial of Chief Standing Bear; Mildred Brown, an African American newspaper publisher; Sarah Joslyn, who personally paid for Joslyn Art Museum; Mrs. B of Nebraska Furniture Mart; and the Sisters of Mercy, who started Omaha’s Catholic schools. 

A Word from the Author:

My book, The Women Who Built Omaha: A Bold and Remarkable History set out to challenge Omaha’s historic reputation as a “man’s town” rather than a city where women have not been credited for creating many of its signature institutions. In the year since it was published, I think it has helped do so.

I stumbled onto this premise one day while driving east on Center Street facing the all-female College of Saint Mary. Then I looked down the street towards the Nebraska Furniture Mart and thought about Mutual of Omaha and Creighton University to the north and east. All were founded or co-founded by women. WOW!

At the time, I was casting around for a new local history project, having finished a book on the history of the Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium. Suddenly it hit me that I had never seen much about women in the city’s local histories. To research this, I turned around, headed back to Swanson Branch Library and checked out two such books written a century apart. I counted female names in the indexes: about 10 percent in both. Except for a lengthy section on Omaha’s leading madam, Anna Wilson, in the 1890’s book, most women were just briefly mentioned. Then I double-checked the books for names of about 20 prominent women with similar results.

I had found my next project. Women really had been left out of our local history, a story I would adore telling. UNP’s Editor-in-Chief Bridget Barry with whom I had previously worked, was encouraging so I set out on a four-year trip through Omaha history to find the stories of women who had been left out.

I wanted to spotlight the groundbreakers before the women’s movement from territorial days to about the 1970’s.  I particularly focused on fields that women had long dominated like education, the arts and human services because local histories downplayed those fields. Two important chapters dealt with the local suffrage movement and prostitution. I began to feel that I was writing the missing chapters of Omaha history.

A Word About Local History

As I have read the blogs of some of my fellow UNP authors, I felt very humble. To date, my book has received no awards or national recognition. Nor did I expect it to. Local history is probably the least prestigious historical field and you don’t end up discussing such works on “Morning Joe” unless you are writing about New York City.

 When you write about city history, your appeal is as local as the topic. And that’s fine because you are making an impact on the place where you live. It reminds me of writing stories that made a difference when I was a young Omaha World-Herald reporter from 1969-1980. That’s also when I first became fascinated with Omaha’s colorful history and characters as well as the diversity of our population.

 We Nebraskans are fortunate that the University of Nebraska Press, one of the nation’s top university presses, serves general readers as well as scholars. The Press regards helping Nebraskans learn more about our heritage as central to its mission and welcomes books like mine that do so. Minus this focus on publishing about our region and UNP’s dedication to publishing quality books for educated adults outside academia, I would not be celebrating this anniversary.

The “Her Stories” I Tell

Journalists live for finding good stories about people and writing this book was like a daily treasure hunt. Here are a few favorite discoveries:

            •The idea of creating Creighton University (where I taught for 25 years) was most likely Mary Lucretia Creighton’s, not her husband’s since he collapsed of a stroke at his desk when he was just 54 and had no will. Mary Lucretia, who was left with his fortune since they had no surviving children, included the $100,000 bequest to found the university in her will.

            •The Women’s Bucket Brigade, organized by the National Council of Catholic Women, collected the money that paid for Overlook Farm, site of Father Flanagan’s Boys Town. The Academy Award winning movie shows money flowing into buckets with no images of the women who went door to door soliciting donations.

            •Rachel Gallagher, my favorite woman in the book, launched a crusade to beautify Omaha, especially its parks. She got Eisenhower’s Secretary of the Interior to sign a letter protecting them from interstate highway construction without her permission. This preserved Riverview Park as the future site of the Henry Doorly Zoo.

            •The modern zoo was born when MARGARET Hitchcock Doorly donated $750,000 to transform it from a menagerie into a real zoo but required it be named after her late husband. Without these two women, we likely would not have our world class zoo.

            •Omaha held a woman’s national cycling championship in the 1890’s.

            •Sarah Joslyn personally paid for the construction of Joslyn Art Museum and hosted two national suffrage conferences at her home, Joslyn Castle.

            •Rowena Moore created the Malcolm X Birth Site when she found that her family owned it and her father had been born in the same house as the civil rights icon.

The list goes on and on. I took special joy in recognizing the Sisters of Mercy who founded 40 schools, two hospitals and the College of Saint Mary but have seldom been mentioned in local history books. 

Since the book’s publication, I’ve spoken to more than 50 groups and the invitations continue to arrive. Women, who comprise the majority of my audiences, seem hungry to learn about our amazing local foremothers. They leave with a heightened appreciation of their own contributions and (in the case of young women), their potential. Because the book covers women in such a wide range of fields and ethnicities, I can tailor speeches to each group’s interests or background.

Impact on Me

I’m pretty sure that this book will lead my obituary based on the reaction it has received. It has far exceeded anything else I’ve done in my long career of writing, teaching and volunteering in Omaha.

I launched the book a year ago at Joslyn Castle as a benefit for Creighton scholarships and drew a gratifying crowd of friends, former students and colleagues and people featured in the book. And the reaction started building.

It has been featured in the World-Herald, WOWT, the Nebraska Examiner online news service, Nebraska Life magazine plus the websites and newsletters of the groups I’ve spoken to. KIOS (local NPR) did an interview that it replayed numerous times. I’ve done signings and talks at local book stores and other events.

I thought book clubs and retirement communities would love the book but I hadn’t expected to be asked to give six speeches in connection with International Women’s Day or to speak at major local law firms, churches and women’s organizations I had never heard of.

After all these years of writing books, I’m being approached as a significant AUTHOR, almost a celebrity. Strangers say how excited they are to meet me. REALLY?

I realized that this book had elevated my status one day when I went to my pharmacy to pick up a prescription and gave my name. The pharmacist asked me if I was Eileen Wirth, the author. She had heard about my women’s book and wondered how to get a copy. She was delighted when I went home and returned to sell her a signed copy. Later she bought several more for her church circle.

That’s how the year has gone – people getting the book then often buying more to share with their family and friends or hearing a speech and inviting me to another group they are involved in. I have felt so special.

Thank you, University of Nebraska Press and Bridget Barry.


“Anyone who has an interest in Omaha history, Nebraska history, and/or women’s history would be wise to read Wirth’s book. . . . Wirth’s book pays homage to women who struggled to improve their lives and the lives of others.”—Sheryl Schmeckpeper, Nebraska History

“This book is a great read for anyone who has ever spent time in Omaha and/or anyone who wants to know more about Omaha’s history—or in this case, her—story.”—Jean A. Lukesh, RoundUp Magazine

“Eileen Wirth offers Omahans a window into their history, a fuller accounting of the contributions of remarkable women who built this city. . . . Wirth’s extensive research and reporter’s style make this history book come alive with compelling characters and rich descriptions.”—Erin Grace, former columnist for the Omaha World-Herald

“An account of feminine accomplishment that goes well beyond the usual portraits of a few well-known society women who made their mark in the shadow of their even better-known husbands. . . . This book shares a wealth of interesting and little-known anecdotes about those women who paved the way to the Omaha of today.”—Martha Grenzeback, genealogy librarian of the Omaha Public Library

“In her no-nonsense, leave-the-fluff-in-the-hall style, Eileen Wirth has presented us with a well-researched look at Omaha women. . . . If you are a native, new to Omaha and curious, or just looking for some kind of history, The Women Who Built Omaha is for you.”—Mary Maxwell, Omaha humorist


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