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Women’s History in Nevada

We honor the ladies, past and present, who have helped shape modern Nevada.

BY NEVADA MAGAZINE | MARCH/APRIL 2014

NevadaWomensHistory-main

This year—2014—has garnered a lot of attention in the Silver State, and for good reason: it’s Nevada’s 150th birthday. But the year should also be known for another important anniversary. One hundred years ago, on election day—November 3, 1914—the women’s suffrage resolution won in the state by a decisive margin.

Determined women such as Anne Martin campaigned vigorously to earn the victory in Nevada, five whole years before the 19th Amendment granted suffrage on a national level. In fact, March 3, 2014 marks 100 years since suffragists marched on Washington D.C.

In March, as a nation we celebrate Women’s History Month, which gives us the chance to pay tribute to the generations of women whose commitments have proved invaluable to society. This year’s theme is “Celebrating Women of Character, Courage, and Commitment.” Following are the stories of several influential women from different eras of Nevada’s history.

MARLENE ADRIAN

Marlene-AdrianBorn: Sept. 3, 1933 in Milwaukee
Nevada Contribution: As president of Women of Diversity Productions, a nonprofit in Las Vegas, she is an advocate for women’s history in Nevada.

Marlene Adrian built the Great Wall of Women. Well, it’s not called that exactly, but one doesn’t have to look hard in her Las Vegas home to find evidence of her passion for Nevada women’s history. Her Las Vegas Centennial Wall of Women, consisting of four 10-foot-long nylon panels, tells the story of more than 250 women who shaped the city’s first 100 years. “Without women, we [Las Vegas] would not have grown like we have,” Adrian says. “Women have been underrepresented in all of the histories.”

When Las Vegas celebrated its centennial in 2005, 800 people attended an opening reception at the Las Vegas Museum of Art that featured the wall. Adrian has not rested since becoming president of Women of Diversity Productions, Inc., the motto of which is “respect everyone.” Now, she has set her sites on the state as a whole. “It’s the sesquicentennial year, 150 years of statehood, and we need to let people know that women have been a very important part of that history,” Adrian says.

According to Adrian, she and others will videotape women in every county of the state through August. She also has plans to produce a commemorative book called Nevada Women’s Legacy. Adrian, who has lived in Las Vegas since 1996, is also an accomplished athlete and holds a doctorate from Springfield College. A former professor, she has spearheaded leading research efforts on women’s fitness and sports.—Matthew B. Brown

WORTH A CLICK

Women of Diversity Productions, Inc.
womenofdiversity.org

Nevada Women’s Virtual Center
nevadawomensvirtualcenter.org

 

HANNAH CLAPP

Hannah-ClappBorn: 1824 in Albany, New York
Died: 1908 in Palo Alto, California
Nevada Contribution: She organized the first private school in Nevada and was the first instructor and librarian at Nevada State University in Reno. She was also one of the founders of the Twentieth Century Club, a progressive Reno women’s organization.

Hannah Keziah Clapp was 36 years old, and already an experienced teacher, when she settled on Nevada—where she spent 41 years—as her home. In the early 1860s, she recognized the need for schools in the growing Nevada Territory capital of Carson City. By the time Nevada was granted statehood, in 1864, her Sierra Seminary was a smashing success.

Clapp hired Eliza C. Babcock, a Latin and English teacher from Maine, as her assistant principal. They built a home together in Carson City, and their relationship lasted 35 years, until Babcock died in 1899. The two women made the Sierra Seminary one of Nevada’s most outstanding schools, graduating many students who went on to influential positions around Nevada, as well as to prominent national universities.

In 1877, they opened the first kindergarten in Nevada, located in the basement of Sierra Seminary. In 1895, after moving to Reno, they persuaded the fledgling Twentieth Century Club to organize the Reno Kindergarten Association. Reno’s first kindergarten soon followed. One of the duo’s most famous business transactions was the construction of the wrought iron fence around Carson City’s Capitol grounds.—unr.edu/nwhp

 

ANNE MARTIN

Anne-MartinBorn: Sept. 30, 1875 in Empire City
Died: Apr. 15, 1951 in Carmel, California
Nevada Contribution: She was a leading figure in the women’s suffrage movement, as well as an outspoken advocate of international peace and women’s and children’s rights.

From a young age, Anne Henrietta Martin proved she was extremely ambitious. The daughter of a Nevada senator (father) and teacher (mother), she earned a B.A. degree from Reno’s Nevada State University at the age of 19. She founded the Department of History at Nevada State University and was on the faculty from 1897 to 1901.

From there, a decade of international travel and study brought Martin to the cause of feminism. In England, she associated with the Fabian Socialists and affiliated with the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU).

Meanwhile, in 1910, the Nevada Equal Franchise Society was established with the aid of professor Jeanne Weir, and the first suffrage legislation was passed by the Nevada Legislature. Martin returned to Nevada, was elected president in 1912, and organized the campaign that won women’s suffrage with the popular vote in Nevada on November 3, 1914.

Martin became the first female member of the Nevada Educational Survey Commission in 1915 and was president of the Nevada Women’s Civic League. Never one to rest on her laurels, Martin was an Independent candidate for the U.S. Senate from Nevada in 1918 and 1920. She did not win the vote, but her powerful rhetoric supported the adoption of the Sheppard-Towner law for protection of maternal and infancy cases.—unr.edu/nwhp

 

FLORENCE (JONES) MURPHY

Florence-Jones-MurphyBorn: Dec. 13, 1911 in Fernley
Died: Jan. 23, 2006 in Las Vegas
Nevada Contribution: She was the first woman in Nevada to receive her commercial pilot’s license, in 1944.

Born into a family of six siblings—five of them boys—Florence Murphy was admittedly a tomboy. “Whatever my brothers could do, I could do, too,” she said in a 1999 article in the Las Vegas Review-Journal. “I played with trains and boys’ toys.” In the early 1900s, planes were viewed as “boys’ toys,” too, but ultimately Murphy would become a pilot pioneer among women.

She attended the University of Nevada, Reno for two years before meeting and marrying John Murphy, a State Highway Department employee, in 1930. After John was transferred to Las Vegas, both became interested in flying, earning their private licenses by 1938. Murphy received her instructor’s license in 1941 and her commercial pilot’s license in 1944—the first woman in Nevada to do so.

After WWII put their plans on temporary hold—John was thrust into service—the Murphys were introduced to Edmund Converse, who with partners had established Bonanza Air. Bonanza’s first home base was the Murphys’ Sky Haven Airport. Bonanza soon built up a fleet of nine planes, and Murphy found herself as the only female airline vice president in the country. She would also pilot many of the runs to Reno. “Believe it or not, I was afraid people would jump out if they saw me flying,” she said. “It was a man’s world.”

After she left Bonanza Air, she went on to a successful career in real estate.—Matthew B. Brown

 

BERTHA (EATON) RAFFETTO

Berthat-RaffettoBorn: Mar. 15, 1885 in Bloomfield, Iowa
Died: Sept. 6, 1952 in Reno
Nevada Contribution: Her composition, “Home Means Nevada,” is the official state song.

Bertha Eaton gave her first poetry recital at age three from her grandfather’s pulpit. Two years later, she wrote her first poem. It’s no surprise she blossomed into an independent, freethinking woman in an era when the woman’s place presumably was in the home.

Her Nevada connection begins when she married Fiore Raffetto, the man she had selected as her Reno divorce attorney to end her first marriage. They were married for 30 years and had one daughter, Frances. “In view of all the places my mother visited and lived in for varying lengths of time, I have no doubt mother felt and meant it when she said, ‘Home Means Nevada,’” Frances said upon her mother’s death in 1952.

Frances was referring to her mother’s classic, “Home Means Nevada,” made the official state song by an act of the legislature on February 6, 1933. In addition to her musical talents, Raffetto was a renowned poet and writer in Nevada and was active in club and civic work. She was a fluent speaker and participated actively in Republican politics in numerous campaigns. During the 1930s, she conducted a popular feature, the “Poet’s Corner,” in the Nevada State Journal.

Raffetto was a 25-year member of the Reno Branch of Pen women, for whom she served as treasurer, vice president, and president. She was poet laureate of the Nevada Federation of Women’s Clubs and was awarded the Poet’s Parchment by the General Federation of Women’s Clubs for outstanding work in poetry. She was also a member of the Reno Civic Club and Nevada and General Federation of Women’s Clubs.—unr.edu/nwhp

 

FERMINIA SARRAS

Ferminia-SarrasBorn: July 1840
Died: Feb. 1, 1915
Nevada Contribution: Her success as a prospector earned her the moniker, “Nevada Copper Queen,” and the town of Mina was named in her honor.

Ferminia Sarras came to Nevada some time in or before 1881, which was the date she was first listed on Esmeralda County tax records. Much of her story had been lost until author Sally Zanjani worked with Sarras’ great-grandson to reconstruct her past.

In her native country of Nicaragua, Sarras was married to Pablo Flores and gave birth to four daughters. When she arrived in Nevada, Sarras evidently felt her two youngest daughters would be safer in the Nevada Orphans Asylum in Virginia City than at the mining camps of Belleville and Candelaria. Sarras’ husband is thought to have worked in those rough mining towns, but he did not remain in her life.

Sarras began prospecting in the Candelaria area in 1883 and went on to file a number of claims on copper mines in the Sante Fe district. She spent a few years prospecting in Silver Peak, but didn’t have much luck during the 1890s, a time when Nevada was in an economic depression. She returned to the Sante Fe district in 1899, and it was there that she made her fortune. She often prospected alone wearing pants, boots, and a backpack. By the time she died in 1915, she had made several fortunes on her copper mines, often stashing the gold coins from her sales in her chicken coop where she believed it would safer than in the banks.

Each time she made a profitable sale, Sarras would travel to San Francisco, stay in the finest hotels, shop for elegant clothes, and enjoy fine dining and young men until her money ran out. Then she would return to Nevada’s mountains and resume prospecting. Sarras lived mostly at Luning, between prospecting trips.—unr.edu/nwhp

Read more about Sarras here.

 

HELEN J. STEWART

Helen-StewartBorn: Apr. 16, 1854 in Springfield, Illinois
Died: Mar. 6, 1926 in Las Vegas
Nevada Contribution: A successful rancher and businesswoman and respected historian, she is known as “The First Lady of Las Vegas.”

On April 6, 1873, Helen Jane Wiser married Archibald Stewart in Stockton, California. After the wedding Archibald moved Helen to Lincoln County; they settled on a remote ranch at Pony Springs, north of Pioche, and eventually in Pioche. They had three children together during this stage in their lives.

In 1879, Stewart, a successful businessman, loaned $5,000 in gold to Octavius D. Gass, taking the isolated Las Vegas Ranch as collateral. By 1881, Gass defaulted on the loan, and Stewart foreclosed. In 1882, Archibald moved his family to the ranch in the Las Vegas Valley until he could sell it. Stewart profitably operated the ranch, selling beef, vegetables, fruit, and wine to the mining camps in Southern Nevada. The ranch also served as a way station for travelers. Another daughter was born on the ranch.

Then Helen’s life took a drastic turn. Archibald was murdered at the nearby Kiel Ranch on July 13, 1884. With four children, and pregnant with her fifth, she had no choice but to learn to operate the ranch until it could be sold. Stewart became extremely proficient as a rancher and a businesswoman. Realizing that some day the land in Las Vegas Valley would be valuable, she began buying land adjacent to her ranch. By 1890, she was the largest landowner in Lincoln County, which at that time included present-day Clark County.

She was appointed the first postmaster of Las Vegas in 1893. The name was spelled “Los Vegas” until 1903. In 1902, Helen sold the Las Vegas Ranch to the San Pedro, Los Angeles, and Salt Lake Railroad. She and her family went to Los Angeles for a period to await the building of a new house. While in Los Angeles, Helen married her second husband, Frank Roger Stewart.

Once she returned to Las Vegas, Helen remained there for the rest of her life, playing an active roll in the community. She helped to found Christ Episcopal Church and was a charter member of the Mesquite Club, formed in 1911. She suggested the name for the club noting the hardiness and usefulness of a tree native to the area. The club is still active today and involved in supporting city initiatives.—unr.edu/nwhp

WORTH A CLICK

Mesquite Club
mesquiteclub.com

 

BARBARA VUCANOVICH

Barbara-VucanovichBorn: June 22, 1921 in Fort Dix, New Jersey
Died: June 10, 2013 in Reno
Nevada Contribution: She was the first woman elected to Congress from Nevada and the first Nevadan to rise to a position of leadership within the U.S. House of Representatives.

Barbara F. Vucanovich, the first Nevada woman to be elected to federal office, was an Army brat. She spent her early years at various Army posts where her father, Tom Farrell, was stationed. Her school years were spent in Albany, New York.

Elected in 1982, Vucanovich was the first woman member of Congress from Nevada and the first female to represent the Second Congressional District. Vucanovich served on the defunct Committee on Interior and Insular Affairs, important to Nevada because it decided public policy on resource issues, such as mining and grazing.

When she was elected Republican Conference Secretary, she became the first Nevadan to serve in a leadership position in the House. Vucanovich served seven terms from 1983 to 1997, the second longest of any Nevada member of the House. After her death last year, Governor Brian Sandoval said, “Today the Silver State has lost its Silver Lady. Barbara will perhaps forever be remembered as a gracious, personable leader with her feet on the ground and her priorities where they belonged: right here in Nevada.”

Vucanovich’s daughter, Patty Cafferata—who interviewed her mother for a story in the September/October 2008 issue of Nevada Magazine—is a noted historian and author of seven books, including The Goldfield Hotel: Gem of the Desert.

*Read more about Women’s History in Nevada in the March/April 2014 issue of Nevada Magazine.

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