One hundred years ago, the 19th Amendment granted our great-grandmothers and grandmothers the right to vote for the first time in their lives. One hundred years later, in its new exhibit, Nevertheless, They Persisted: Women’s Voting Rights and the 19th Amendment, the Oregon Historical Society commemorates the bravery of the women who worked for nearly fifty years to gain that right. The exhibit invites visitors to think about subjects beyond the woman suffrage movement, and it inspired me to call my own mother to learn more about the generations of women in my life.
Growing up as the daughter of a female naval officer, my parents raised me to believe I could do anything; I just had to decide what I wanted. But I had little understanding of the historical weight of my reality. When my mother, then Lynne Ulmer, swore the oath to our country in 1970, she did so by being commissioned as an “officer and a gentleman” in defense of the U.S. Constitution. That phrase always confused me, since it never occurred to me that the term would refer to only one person at a time — in my house the officer and gentleman were my mother and father. Growing up, I was often asked what it was like to have a mom in the Navy, to which I could never answer because it always felt like asking: “What’s it like to see the world through brown eyes?” Having never seen the world through blue eyes, I have no idea. It wasn’t until I started to examine the world my grandmothers and great-grandmothers grew up in that the differences started to become clearer.
My great-grandmother, Mary Ella “Mamie” (Vest) Ulmer, was born on March 21, 1892, and in her 89 years of life, she bore witness to the invention of the car, sliced bread, the space race, and women gaining the right to vote. To me, she has only ever been a blurry photograph of a woman standing in the snow, but I sometimes try to imagine what that fundamental change must have felt like to a 28-year-old woman. From my perspective now, the idea of having to spend my formative years turning to some else to voice my political perspective feels decidedly un-American. I can only imagine that those sweeping changes across the country were both overwhelming and exhilarating.
Mamie Ulmer’s daughter-in-law and my maternal grandmother, Erna (Borngraeber) Ulmer, was six years old when the 19th Amendment was ratified. It is likely she grew up not having a memory of a time before woman suffrage existed — a marked change from the generation of women who preceded her. She moved to Oregon with her husband, Edgar Ulmer, after meeting in Chicago, and being stationed with the Navy in Corpus Christi, Texas. After Edgar left the Navy, they relocated to the Portland area, where he found work in the shipyards. They lived in Vanport, which is where my mother was born and lived until she was six months old. Ultimately, they relocated to the Cottage Grove area in April 1947, less than a year before the Vanport Flood would remove the entire area from the map.
The person who has influenced my views the most, including my strong convictions and feminism, is my paternal grandmother, Hazel (Misckot) Hanel. She was born a short seven years after many women gained the right to vote, and grew up on a small farm near Butte, Montana. As the first generation in the family born in the United States, voting and participation in the democratic process was always non-negotiable. Her father insisted she and her siblings speak English instead of German outside the house and demanded they fully participate as American citizens. On the farm, all seven kids helped with chores alongside their mother and father. My grandmother was the only one in the family who understood how the car worked, which was a skill she used to her advantage — when coming home after curfew she would pull out the spark plugs and push the car up the driveway claiming car trouble. She taught my father and his brothers and sisters about the joy she felt from running a household. She got satisfaction from doing “women’s work,” and would tell me: “Nothing like drinking a Coors while getting the ironing done.” The joy she found in running the house and becoming a teacher, despite her lack of a formal education, instilled in me the belief that feminism isn’t just about having the chance to do whatever I want; it is also about not being ashamed of what I love, no matter what societal impressions are placed on those things.
These women and their lived experiences, in many small and large ways, have shaped who I am and affected the way my voice is heard today. My mother’s, grandmothers’, and great-grandmothers’ stories, like the women highlighted in Nevertheless, They Persisted, are also part of the complex history of democracy in the United States. As visitors exit the exhibit, they will see a digital slideshow featuring pictures and stories of mothers, grandmothers, daughters, aunts, sisters, mentors, and history makers as part of our “In Their Honor” campaign (PDF). These women who came before us exercised their voting rights to help shape our nation and our world. These tributes are so personal and touching that we have decided to also share them here.
If you are interested in honoring an important woman in your life and supporting the educational and preservation work of the Oregon Historical Society, please consider making a $1,000 gift to this campaign. All “In Their Honor” slides will be featured within the exhibition and will be added to this blog post to be shared virtually with friends and family who may be unable to visit in person. I hope that through the stories in this slide show, and mine, that you will be inspired to dig into your own family histories and learn about the powerful, trail-blazing women who came before you.
“For our young granddaughters, Helen and Winston, and for all other girls: Grow up to be a voter, and honor those who persisted.”
– Oregon Governor Ted Kulongoski
In honor of Gerry Newhall, motivated by justice, an unwavering voice for public education, human rights, and peace, always a unifying force
– Sarah Newhall
In honor of Kathleen Cornett, for dedicated service to the Oregon Community Foundation from 1987 to 2019.
– from all oregonians
In honor of Fannie Kay Bishop
“I feel sure it will come and one must not be asleep and blind when the opportunity comes but be wide-awake and searching for it.”
– Fannie K. Bishop
1909 | Salem, Oregon
In honor of Tracy Curtis. Thank you for 32 years at Wells Fargo and your leadership in our community.
– your colleagues at wells fargo
In memory of Evelyn Jewell Westphal
“The matriarch and ‘Jewell’ of our family.”
– william Westphal and family
In memory of Esther Dudletz
“My aunt, she always saw the positive side of life.”
– Patricia Reser
In honor of Martha Shepherd
“We love you, Mimi! Thank you for marching for equal rights, then and now!”
– molly cochran
Marian Wood Kolisch
“Beyond being artistically striking, her portraits give a snapshot of history, as she photographed each of her sessions in the subject’s own environment. Working to capture both the visage of each individual and the milieu in which he or she functioned, Kolisch produced a valuable record during her thirty-year career of those who shaped the Oregon we know today.”
- leslie kolisch
In memory of Gail Achterman
May we all, like Gail, be lifelong learners and leaders, help others on the journey, and make a difference for the better.
In honor of
In honor of Esther Pohl Lovejoy
a champion for community health, a leader in healthcare innovation and in women’s right to vote
– Cambia Health Solutions
In honor of Linda Williams
compassionate community servant, leader and friend, with a measure of humor added for the full effect
– John Bradley
In honor of Marlene Tymchuk
wife, mother, grandmother, community volunteer,
Oregon’s “Teacher of the Year” 1978-79
– Kerry Tymchuk
In honor of Kimberly Cooper
for her focus on investing in people and places that make our state the place we love
in memory of
In 1977, as Vice President for College Relations, she became the first female and the youngest member of Reed College’s cabinet. Beloved wife, mother, grandmother, and advocate for education and children, especially children of incarcerated parents and youth in foster care. She was a force of nature with one of the best moral compasses I have ever seen.
– William F. Martson, Jr.
Thank you, Jamie Anderson, Joan Anderson, and Elinore Nudelman, for your persistence, resilience, and kindness. Your belief in a better world for your children and grandchildren inspires us every day.
– Mike Anderson, Taylor Anderson, & Kris Anderson
In honor of Oregon History Makers
Kathryn Jones Harrison
& Ann Curry
for your courage, advocacy, & determination
In honor of Melissa Kay Harder Petkus Bowen
Her unconditional love and encouragement continues to support all of the women around her. We reach higher because we know that if we fall, she will catch us.
– andie petkus
In honor of Mary E. Fellows
The world's greatest mother, mother-in-law, and grandmother. May you always have good books, good company, and good causes.
– john russell
In honor of OHS Board President Mary Faulkner
for her engaged, compassionate, and enthusiastic leadership in the face of our toughest challenges, and for showing our future leaders what it means to persist
In honor of Lori Flexer Sacket
For her commitment to her community, clients, friends and family. Her reach is extensive, her resilience is inspiring, and her love is limitless.
In memory of Elsie Spokane Conner
suffragist and grandmother of Bobbie Conner
In honor of Gwyneth Gamble Booth
-Helen B. Sutherland Foundation
Lucy Kivel & Scott Howard, Trustees
In memory of Dr. Marie Equi
-Helen B. Sutherland Foundation
Lucy Kivel & Scott Howard, Trustees
In loving memory of Eva Lewis
She blazed a trail for her four daughters and loving extended family.
– Nancy Visenberg
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