Diverse range of influential women largely overlooked in Omaha history

December 26, 2022 5:00 am

The Sisters of Mercy were instrumental in establishing schools in early Omaha. Nuns were assigned large classes, like this one at St. Peter’s Elementary School in 1948. (Courtesy of Sisters of Mercy)

Some were madams and bootleggers. Others were nuns. Some battled for suffrage while others opposed it. They started the city’s schools, hospitals, major businesses, human service institutions and fine arts. They fought for civil rights, won cycling championships and taught Omaha how to eat pizza.

But these diverse Omaha women have something in common. They have largely been overlooked in local history. “The Women Who Built Omaha a Bold and Remarkable History” seeks to fill this gap by introducing readers to the numerous strong, colorful women who helped turn a raw frontier village into a livable city.

A man’s town?

Omaha has long had a reputation as a “man’s town” and understandably so given its decades as a gritty railroad/packinghouse city with bars on every other corner and smelters on the riverfront. Of course, men dominated local history just as they did city government until the modern era.

Sarah Joslyn created and funded Joslyn Art Museum. (Courtesy of Legacy Preservation)

But from the first, women were founding or co-founding such signature institutions as Creighton University, Joslyn Art Museum, Mutual of Omaha and the Nebraska Furniture Mart. Council Bluffs women attended the picnic that founded Omaha in 1854, not realizing that the Native American tribes they were displacing often had matriarchal cultures.

A couple of decades later, Bright Eyes LaFlesche, a well-educated Omaha Indian teacher, translated for Chief Standing Bear at his trial and spent her life advocating for her people on national lecture tours. She also was present at Wounded Knee and illustrated a booklet on Omaha Indian culture for the Trans-Mississippi Exposition.

Early Omaha was a terrible place to live. It took years to get paved streets and sidewalks and women had to carry water from wells. Nevertheless, women persevered.

Women dominated teaching

During the Civil War, the Sisters of Mercy arrived to start the city’s Catholic schools. Eventually they established 40 schools, two hospitals and the College of Saint Mary. Episcopalians established Brownell Hall as a boarding school for wealthy girls. It not only held Nebraska’s first high school graduation but educated the state’s early female artists.

Women dominated teaching in the growing public school system although most administrators were men. Miss Kate McHugh was the only female principal of Omaha High School (today’s Central High) until the present.

Nuns, Lutheran deaconesses and Protestant lay women established and/or staffed the city’s hospitals and established most of its first human service organizations.

In Omaha, money confers power, so it is not surprising that rich local women have played a disproportionate role in shaping the city by using their wealth to establish lasting institutions. Most notably, Mary Lucretia Creighton, who inherited her husband Edward’s fortune, bequeathed the money that started Creighton University.

Two leading madams

After her death, her sister Sarah Emily (who was married to Edward’s brother John) played a major role in organizing the infant university. Both are recognized as Creighton founders along with their husbands.

Anna Wilson, Omaha’s most famous madam. (Courtesy of Tom Kerr)

The first great Omaha woman entrepreneur, Anna Wilson, made her fortune in “the world’s oldest profession” before amassing another fortune in downtown real estate that she bequeathed to charity. Her grave is still the most heavily visited in Prospect Hill Cemetery.

Prostitution was a major component of the city’s flourishing vice industry during the late 1800s and early 1900s, when Omaha was known as a “dirty wicked town.” Today’s Wilson and Washburn Bar downtown is named for its two leading madams.

Omahans battled over women’s suffrage for decades. Amelia Bloomer of Council Bluffs, for whom the bloomer costume was named, almost persuaded the Nebraska Territorial Legislature to allow women to vote. However, many men opposed suffrage because of the movement’s ties to prohibition, and some traditional women feared suffrage would hurt their home lives. Nebraska finally approved the 19th Amendment in 1919.

Made a mark

There’s hardly a field where local women have not left their mark. Examples include:

  • Civil rights activist Rowena Moore crusaded to turn Malcolm X ‘s birthplace into a historic site, a crusade aided by her family’s ownership of the property.
  • Mable Criss bought the insurance agency that she helped build into today’s Mutual of Omaha.
  • Rachel Gallagher and Margaret Hitchcock Doorly played key roles in creating today’s Henry Doorly Zoo. Gallagher preserved the site by keeping the Interstate highway out of all Omaha parks, while Doorly made the major gift that transformed a menagerie at Riverview Park into a real zoo.
  • Betty Abbott broke the City Council gender barrier but lost her bid for mayor.
  • Women artists such as Ree Schonlau Kaneko and women restaurant owners helped develop the Old Market.

The book focuses on women before the women’s movement of the 1970s opened doors to all areas of civic life. It suggests that Omaha has always been less a “man’s town” than a city where women deserve more recognition for their contributions.


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Eileen Wirth

Dr. Eileen Wirth is a professor emeritus of journalism at Creighton University and is an author specializing in Omaha history. She was a reporter at the Omaha World-Herald and a public relations writer for Union Pacific Railroad before joining Creighton in 1991. Hers books include “The Women Who Built Omaha,” “The Henry Doorly Zoo & Aquarium” and “From Society Page to Front Page Nebraska Women in Journalism.” She is a member of three area journalism Halls of Fame and has been active in numerous groups, particularly the Omaha Public Library.