By Robert Nott, The Santa Fe New Mexican
Call them monuments to both the forgotten and famous women in New Mexico history.
The markers — about 100 in all, set up along the state’s roadways — pay tribute to women who contributed to the history and fabric of New Mexico through leadership, the arts, politics, bravery, celebrity and sacrifice.
Two New Mexico lawmakers are looking for funding to help the New Mexico Historic Women Marker program continue. House Bill 82, which already cleared its first committee earlier this week, would provide a one-time appropriation of $550,000 to expand the program, which started nearly 20 years ago.
The bill’s sponsors, Reps. Gail Armstrong, R-Magdalena and Pamelya Herndon, D-Albuquerque, say it’s imperative to support and draw attention to the legacies of the many women who made a difference in some way in the state.
With women currently making up at least half of the population of New Mexico, based on U.S. Census data, Herndon said in an interview “it’s important to spotlight their contributions.”
Just by introducing HB 82 during this year’s 30-day legislative session, Herndon said she and Armstrong hope “it ensures people around the state know about the amazing things these women did.”
Sure, there are some well-known women included in the program — Georgia O’Keeffe, Mabel Dodge Luhan, the Sisters of Loretto and the Harvey Girls, among others.
There are also some whose names have faded from the pages of history over time.
Take Sarah “Sally” Rooke, the town switchboard operator who stuck by her phone line to warn others of a wall of water descending upon the small Union County village of Folsom one August night in 1908. Her body, swept away by the flood as she made one last call, was found miles away.
Then there’s the late Doña Dolores “Lola” Chávez de Armijo a former state librarian who filed a gender discrimination lawsuit in 1912 when the governor said she was unqualified to hold office as a woman. The state Supreme Court ruled in her favor, opening the way for women to hold appointed office in New Mexico.
And Little Sister Lozen was a warrior and sister of the Warm Springs Apache chief Victorio, a woman who excelled in shooting, roping, riding and stealing horses. A medicine woman and healer, she died a prisoner at Mount Vernon Barracks in Alabama.
“What’s wonderful about the markers is they represent all types of individuals,” said Karen Abraham, who serves on the steering committee for the New Mexico branch of the International Women’s Forum, which administers the marker project.
“Some are names you will recognize from the marker and some are no-names who changed culture or saved lives or were the first in line in their field,” she said.
The program, which is overseen by the state Department of Cultural Affairs and the governor-appointed Cultural Properties Review Committee, got its start when Santa Fe real estate agent Patricia French and some like-minded women decided they wanted to highlight the role of women in the state. French pitched the historic markers idea, according to an El Palacio magazine article.
They and others petitioned the late Gov. Bill Richardson for funding to get the marker program going in 2006. The state Department of Transportation became the fiscal agent and was responsible for setting up the markers around the state starting in 2007. One requirement of the program is the women being honored must be deceased.
Santa Fe is home to a number of these markers. One honoring aviatrix Katherine Stinson Otero, known as the “Flying Schoolgirl,” stands near the the Santa Fe Regional Airport. Another stands on the west side of the state Capitol, honoring the late Legislative Council Service pioneers Inez Bushner Gill and Maralyn Budke.
The La Bajada rest stop off of Interstate 25 south of Santa Fe sports five of the markers — a veritable roadside feast for the eyes of any historian wanting a brief introduction to the likes of Maria Gertrudis Barceló (aka Doña Tules), the first Sisters of Charity, Mary Cabot Wheelwright of the Wheelwright Museum of American Indian fame and others.
If HB 82 comes out of the session as a success story — it’s possible the funding requested in the bill could be slipped into the state’s operating budget — some of it could go toward spotlighting the markers more, said Lisa Nordstrum, a Santa Fe Preparatory School history teacher who has built a curriculum around historic New Mexican women that was inspired by the marker program. She’s helping to work on a similar curriculum for the state’s public school system.
“I do think the majority of people drive by or walk by without noticing these markers and that’s something we’re looking at — increasing the profile based on the program website,” she said.
Calling herself “someone who does a U-turn to see a historical marker,” she said she hopes the program inspires people to conduct more research on their own about these women’s lives.
Meanwhile, there are a few more markers going up this year, said historian Matt Saionz of the DCA’s New Mexico Historic Preservation Division. Some will be put up along the Santa Fe River. Another, honoring yet another unsung heroine of our state, will go up somewhere on the state Capitol grounds after this year’s 30-day legislative session comes to an end, he said in an interview.
The one going on the Capitol grounds will honor Soledad Chávez Chacón, who was elected Secretary of State in 1922, becoming the first Hispanic woman to hold statewide office not just in New Mexico but the entire country.
Saionz said her marker is representative of the entire project, which showcases “not only the contributions of well-known women but also significant women in New Mexico’s history who are otherwise completely forgotten or unknown to our own residents or visiting passersby.
“I believe the program has been and will continue to be crucial in building a more complete and richer history of our state.”