“Behind every great man is a great woman,” touts an old, familiar adage. But these women don’t have to remain in the shadows of men forever.
This year, local author Judith M. Prentice Jaeger self-published a book dedicated to telling the stories of the great women in Tulsa history. In her book, titled Pathfinders & Way-makers: A Women’s History of Early Tulsa, Jaeger tells the stories of women who contributed in great ways to Tulsa’s history, be they well-known names or somewhat unknown figures.
“Men built buildings and built the town, but women shaped the community,” Jaeger explained. “You can build a city, but you must also provide for the community.” This is where the women’s stories began to emerge.
Jaeger began her research for the book in 2009 after she retired from nursing and joined the Tulsa Public Library system.
“The Tulsa history books were all about men who were rich and famous; the ranchers and the oilmen,” Jaeger explained. “The way the books were all written was the same format, listing the women only as the ‘Wife of…”
This realization then led Jaeger to begin to look at the important women in Tulsa’s history and how they contributed to the community. Jaeger’s book tells the stories of fifty-six historic Tulsa women, giving insight on the lives of all women and citizens throughout Tulsa County’s history. The women, whose lifespans ranged from the post-Civil War era to the mid-1920’s, were chosen because they were key figures; one-of-a-kind contributors to Tulsa history.
“Each woman had a role. The history couldn’t be understood all at once; each [woman] was a tree leading to an ecosystem you could fully understand,” Jaeger said.
The women’s efforts, both collective and individual, had lasting impacts; a common theme throughout the book. Jaeger points to Thelma Duncan, an educator and social leader within the community who was a crucial member of the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA), the first integrated social organization in Tulsa. She raised resources for community projects in the early twentieth century.
“They built Greenwood Cultural Center through the nickel and dime efforts of women like Thelma Duncan,” Jaeger said.
Greenwood Cultural Center remains open today, almost a century later, in downtown’s Greenwood District.
For part of her research, Jaeger utilized the University of Tulsa’s Special Collections, housed in McFarlin Library. The Special Collections are home to the papers of Lilah Denton Lindsey, a “Tulsa Founding Mother,” who was the first Creek citizen to graduate from college.
“I don’t think I would have grasped the breadth of Lilah Lindsey and how significant her life’s work was without the Special Collections,” Jaeger said.
Most of the periods of Oklahoma history are touched upon, with personal accounts of Tulsa’s interactions with the Homestead Runs (which Lilah Lindsey watched from the windows of her house), the 1918 Influenza Epidemic (which prevented the public celebration of women’s suffrage by various women’s groups) and Women’s Christian Temperance Union’s meetings (which contributed policies to the original Oklahoma State Constitution).
Jaeger’s book explains in detail the complex and altering ways that women enriched the community in Tulsa, but these changes happened over time.
“The women in Tulsa didn’t get everything all at once. They took roles that hadn’t been allowed or fostered for women, and one woman’s excellence would lay down experience for others to build upon.” This theme resounds through the pages of Jaeger’s book, painting a unique picture of Tulsa’s history.
Judith Jaeger’s book Pathfinders & Way-makers: A Women’s History of Early Tulsa can be purchased in the Tulsa Historical Society & Museum.