Women’s History Month

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Article Contributed by
Walt Pickut

No cover story in the Jamestown Gazette has ever opened with an apology, but this one must. Complete coverage of this week’s story would require all 32 pages – to the exclusion of everything else – in order fairly to present all of the pioneering and remarkably accomplished women of Greater Jamestown who merit distinction. Many readers will know of more names that should have been included, and to those we apologize for this admittedly far too-brief survey.

This week we will re-introduce a few less well-known but equally deserving in celebration of their lives and work.

Beyond the Remarkable Lucys
Every account of Jamestown’s most notable women includes Lucille Ball and Lucille Wright. Both achieved record books full of “first and foremost” accomplishments and set the highest possible standards of achievement for all to admire and follow.

This week’s stories, however, present some of the giants on whose shoulders they stood, inspired and empowered by women who blazed the trail before them.

First in a Man’s World – $1 a Day
Calista Jones was born in Ellicott on May 25, 1823 and educated in private schools. She started teaching in and around Jamestown at the age of 18. Calista quickly became a pioneering suffragette. A particular male administrator in the Jamestown school system was relieved of his duties for non-performance and Calista was appointed by the trustees to replace him.

Miss. Jones is reported to have said, “Yes, if you pay me the same wages you paid the man.” The school trustees replied, “It is not the proper thing to pay a woman as much for the same work as a man.” Jones replied quite firmly, “Very well, I do not take the job.”

As a result she won the job on her own terms, the first woman to receive one dollar per day, a man’s fair wage, for school work in Jamestown. She was also key to the establishment of the Jamestown Union School and Collegiate Institute, eventually to become Jamestown High School. Calista Jones was also the first woman to vote in the city of Jamestown. She taught for 50 years and ended her career as the librarian of the Jamestown High School library.

First in a Man’s World – The Law
Katherine “Kate” Stoneman, a native of Busti, was the first woman ever admitted to the Bar Association in the State of New York. She achieved this distinction in 1886 based on self-study alone and by passing the bar examination in 1885. Until that time women were not recognized in the practice of law. She did not accept that limitation and rallied “…suffrage workers and educators who took up my cause and within a day a bill [in Albany] had been passed.” She then became the first woman to graduate from Albany Law School in 1898 and practiced law in Albany until 1922.

Kate attended the Albany Normal School (now the University of Albany, SUNY), later served as vice principal and became the first female president of the Alumni Association. In her family, Kate was welcomed as an equal among her brothers, one of whom, George, became the governor of California and another, Edward, who served as a judge on the Supreme Court of Illinois.

First in a Man’s World – Medicine
Dr. Pauline G. Stitt, a renowned 19th century pediatrician, on the other hand, overcame odds set in her path by her own family. Her father was frequently heard to exclaim, “My God! How can I face the world with such a kid. She wants to be a doctor.” He said she had wasted her time because “…she could’ve had a perfectly good life as a towel girl in a ladies restroom.” Her Jamestown high school principal recognized her abilities and helped her save money for college. He also encouraged her family to raise the balance of her tuition at the University of Michigan, at the time was $68 per year, an amount which represented a significant struggle or her family. Pauline succeeded in spite of all odds.

Later in life Dr. Stitt said, “The future well-being of a person depends on the help they get as a child,” the hard-earned truth that inspired her practice as a leading pediatrician of her day. A fellow Jamestown physician in more recent times said, “Jamestown was honored almost as much by Dr. Stitt as by Lucille Ball.”

First in a Man’s World – Politics
When Ellen Yates Miller (Jamestown, high school class of 1900) won her first elected office in Chautauqua County, every man on the staff of the County Clerk’s Office quit. Undeterred, she rebuilt the office from the ground up with a staff of all women, appealing to the county’s Board of Supervisors to win permission for permanent jobs. Yates went on to handily win seven more elections in a row until her death in 1940. She was the first woman in the entire State of New York to win the elected post of County Clerk. She played a leading role in organizing the New York State Association of County Clerks and served as the group’s first Secretary-Treasurer.

First in a Man’s World – Evangelist
Betty Weakland, born in 1916, started preaching at the age of seven. By the age of 10 she had crossed the United States four times in revival crusades. At the age of 12 she edited her own monthly publication, the Betty Weakland Magazine. She had spoken in person to 6 million people by the age of 15 while also broadcasting her message on more than 150 radio station coast-to-coast. Her parents were prominent supporters and members of her team.

As an adult, Betty became a full-time pastor of her own church and for a period of 14 months she preached in the new 2000-seat Weakland Chapel that her father had built for her in Jamestown. After World War II, she returned to Jamestown with her husband, a military captain named Daniel Bixby, to resume her pastoral duties at the Betty Wheatland Chapel, a landmark still well remembered by many.

First in a Man’s World – Education
Mary Willard was Robert Houghwout Jackson’s English teacher. Robert Jackson, Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court, called her his “second mother,” because of her profound and formative influence on his life. Locally, she is also revered for her work to help save the renowned “100 acre lot,” now considered to be an invaluable natural and educational asset for the region. She also founded the Avon club for study and performance of Shakespearean plays.

Readers are encouraged to visit the Robert H. Jackson Center in Jamestown to experience a full display of Mary Willard’s accomplishments and her seminal role in the early development of one of the world’s finest legal minds.

Against All Odds
Catherine Harris was described as a tall and slender woman with a refined and intelligent face, a sunny and happy disposition, generous, thoughtful and unselfish.” She was a free-born African-American who grew up in Jamestown in the years before the Civil War. Mrs. Harris was a powerful force in the abolition of slavery. She harbored untold numbers of runaway slaves, giving them food and medical care and refuge. She “played the deadly game of hide and seek,” repeatedly defying the Fugitive Slave Law, risking a $1000 fine and six months in prison to do so. She was also one of the few free-born African-Americans in the United States to maintain a station in the torturous trip between the southern states and Canada. She died in 1907 at the age of 98.

A Visit to Local History
“This is all too important to lose,” said Norm Carlson, historian at Jamestown’s Fenton History Center. “We can’t let our history disappear.” Carlson and dedicated staff at Fenton’s Hall House lovingly maintain archives, books, files and vast, international computer resources where history lives again for all who search for it.

Asked for one more favorite memory, Carlson smiled and mentioned Emma Dewhurst, a woman who began her career as a music teacher at the Jamestown Union School and Collegiate Institute, eventually Jamestown High School. She completed her career as a music professor at Depaul College in Indiana. “But that’s not the best part” Carlson said.

Dewhurst published a 60-page book in 1875 that is still regarded by many historians as the finest book ever written on Chautauqua Lake, its history, commerce and especially its lore. The book is both richly detailed in the style of a historian and musically lyrical in its affectionate retelling of the lakes many tales and legends.

Off the tip of his tongue, Carlson quickly added Singer Natalie Merchant and her band, the 10,000 Maniacs with gold and platinum records hanging in Jamestown’s City Hall, Carolyn Gifford Seymour, the first woman and 21st mayor of Jamestown from 1992 to 1994, Cheryl Bailey, Executive Director of the National Women’s Soccer League. Then he added Suzan Ball, actress, Laura Kightlinger, actress, comedian and writer, Julie Anne Peters, author, and Imogene Haseltine was the first librarian at the Prendergast Library. His list want on…

Carlson invites anyone who is interested to visit the Hall house and take a stroll through history, especially the dozens of additional accomplished and remarkable women who made Jamestown and Chautauqua County the birthplace of so much that has by now made America, America.

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Walt Pickut
Walt Pickut’s writing career began with publishing medical research in1971 while working at the Jersey City Medical Center and the NYU Hospital and School of Medicine. Walt holds board registries in respiratory care and sleep technology as well as bachelor's degrees in biology and communication, and a master's degrees in physiology from Fairleigh-Dickinson University in New Jersey, with additional graduate work in mass communication completed at SUNY Amherst. He currently teaches Presentational Speaking in the Houghton College PACE program at JCC and holds memberships in the Society of Professional Journalists and the American Society of Business Publication Editors. He lives in Jamestown with his wife Nancy, an MSW social worker, and has three children: Dr. Cait Lamberton in Pittsburgh, Bill Pickut, a marketing executive in Chicago, and Rev. Matt Pickut in Plymouth, IN.