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Remembering women of Lansing’s history

Last year during Women’s History Month, Lansing Journal history writer Marlene Cook wrote a series of articles on influential women in Lansing’s history. Each of those women is highlighted below, with links included to the original articles.

LANSING, Ill. (March 26, 2023) – “The hand that rocks the cradle, rules the world.”

That proverb was written by William Ross Wallace in 1865 under the title, “What Rules the World.”

The main role of a woman in the 1800s was to stay home and take care of domestic chores as well as take care of the husband and children. It wasn’t uncommon for women to bear 10, 15, or even 18 children. Many of those babies died before they reached a year old.

Although women had little to say and were limited in what they could do, their influence shaped generations.

Yet they were rarely acknowledged. The various writings about the history of Lansing, Illinois, reveal where the male pioneer was born, and when he immigrated to America, and what his accomplishments were in the world. Entries commonly read, “[John Doe] came to America with his wife and children,” going on to name the children but never the wife.

Still, these unnamed women sacrificed much and molded the lives of their children, teaching them to be good citizens of the new country. Their values were handed down from generation to generation and are the foundation of life in Lansing to this day.

Gender roles from the nineteenth century continued well into the twentieth century. The Industrial Revolution placed women in roles of domesticity, while men earned wages and supported families. Toward the middle of the century, these roles became less defined, although women continued to work in subordinate positions and for less pay.

By the end of the first half of the nineteenth century several woman’s rights conventions began changing the limits placed on women. Women stood up to the all-male, all-white, mostly good-ol’-boy legislators. After a long hard fight of lecturing, writing, marching, lobbying, and civil disobedience, on August 18, 1920, the 19th Amendment was ratified, granting American women the right to vote, a right known as women’s suffrage.

In celebration of Woman’s History Month, we salute all women who have made a difference in the lives of those around them. Some are long gone, but not forgotten, and others are still making strides to leave their footprints in our lives.

May Walker (May Anderson at the time of this photo) helped train men to fly planes for the Navy. (Photo provided)

May Anderson Walker – She taught pilots to fly

May Anderson Walker arrived in America from Norway at age 4. After learning English and graduating from high school in Chicago, she enlisted in the U.S. Navy, where she taught men to fly airplanes using a flight simulator. After WWII ended, she married, moved to Lansing, and raised a family. She took up doll- and teddy bear-making, and was an active member in her church.

Read the full story: May Anderson Walker

Dorothy Wernicke – She brought administrative excellence to municipal service

Dorothy Wernicke
Photo from a 1957 campaign ad in the Times.

Dorothy Wernicke attended Indiana Avenue School, Thornton Fractional High School, and a business college before beginning her career as secretary to the Village President and Board of Trustees and assistant clerk, serving for 15 years. She was appointed to fill the unexpired term of Clerk Henry Boender in 1943, and then officially elected to the clerk’s office in 1945. Dorothy Wernicke was re-elected every year until 1957. A NWI Times article praised Wernicke for “setting an example for efficiency and conscientiousness for public officials in the Calumet region.”

Read the full story: Dorothy Wernicke

Opal Dewalt – She imprinted a generation of Lansing students

Opal Dewalt
Opal Dewalt’s obituary appeared in the Times.

Opal Dewalt was the first principal of Lester Crawl School — which opened November 30, 1951 — serving in that role and as head of Indiana Avenue School. Under Dewalt’s recommendation to the PTA in 1952, students embedded their handprints in the concrete of the newly poured sidewalk around the school, reminiscent of Grauman’s Chinese Theatre in Hollywood where movie stars famously did the same.

Read the full story: Opal Dewalt

Winifred Edwards Gaetze – She led the library through changes and growth

Winifred Gaetze
Winifred Edwards Gaetze was Lansing’s head librarian for 20 years.

Affectionately known as “Winnie,” Winifred Edwards was appointed the fourth Lansing head librarian on February 11, 1946, when the library was located at the old pump house on Chicago Avenue. One of the duties of the librarian was to fill the stove on weekends so the fire wouldn’t go out. She was a resident of Lansing for 73 years and was head librarian at the Lansing Library for 20 years. A plaque hangs at the entrance of the Lansing Historical Society in her honor.

Read the full story: Winifred Edwards Gaetze

Julia Gault – She sued against a mandatory retirement age for teachers

TFS biology teacher Julia Gault made national history when she filed a lawsuit against mandatory retirement at age 65. In its 2-1 decision in favor of Gault, the United States Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals said, “We cannot say that the provisions in the instant case would eliminate any more unfit teachers (assuming again that such is the purpose) than a provision to fire all teachers whose hair turns gray.” Gault would go on to become the Lansing Historical Museum’s first curator until she retired in 1991.

Read the full story: Julia Gault

julia gault
Julia Gault taught in District 215 before suing against a mandatory retirement age.

Agnes Smithgall and Rilla Zabel – They created a clothing store for kids

After a chance meeting where they discovered a mutual dream of entrepreneurship, Agnes Smithgall and Rilla Zabel opened a children’s clothing shop at 3520 Ridge Road in Lansing. They chose the name Hansel and Gretel and went on to build a reputation of having the latest fashion in smart children’s wear at a moderate price. They continued their successful business until 1988.

Read the full story: Agnes Smithgall and Rilla Zabel

smithgall
Agnes Smithgall and Rilla Zabel opened the Hansel and Gretel children’s clothing shop at 3520 Ridge Road in Lansing.

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Marlene Cook
Marlene Cook
Marlene Cook is a Lansing resident who loves learning and writing about local history. A member of the Illinois Women's Press Association since 1973, she has won multiple IWPA awards. Her 2020 awards in the Mate E. Palmer Communications Contest included first place for columns and second place for nonfiction book in the history category.