Local author shares ‘Bold and Remarkable History’ of Omaha women

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Published: Dec. 8, 2022 at 10:54 PM CST
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OMAHA, Neb. (WOWT) - Susette “Bright Eyes” La Flesche, in her place alongside Standing Bear at trial.

Suffragist Rheta Childe Dorr leading a group of fellow suffragists to a White House confrontation with U.S. President Woodrow Wilson.

Rachel Gallagher using her influence to assure Omaha will forever be filled with public parks.

From Sarah Joslyn, to Mary Creighton, Mrs. B., and even the city’s most famous madam, women have helped forge the Omaha of today. And according to a local writer who has blazed her own trails, the history books have barely noticed.

After a landmark reporting career at the Omaha World-Herald, Eileen Wirth taught generations of Creighton University journalism students to be aware of the history unfolding around them. A few years ago while looking for the subject of her next book, the teacher found herself the student again.

”One day, I was driving east on Center Street... and saw the College of St. Mary, I saw the Nebraska Furniture Mart, I knew that Mutual of Omaha was over there in the distance and so was Creighton University where I taught for 25 years,” Wirth said. “It hit me almost like a flash that all of these signature Omaha institutions have been founded or co-founded by women.”

The result of that spark is The Women Who Built Omaha: A Bold and Remarkable History (University of Nebraska Press).

“I felt like I was writing the half of Omaha’s history, the chapters of Omaha history, that had been left out,” she said. “You look at something like the old movie Boys Town. In one scene it shows money pouring into buckets, what it doesn’t show is that those buckets were wielded by the members of the National Council of Catholic Women who went door to door, block by block - including the pool halls and the gin joints - to collect the money that allowed Father Flanagan to buy the site that is today’s Boys Town.”

Some names she knew of, and some she wished she had known. All had at least one thing in common.

“These were women who cared greatly about whatever field they were in and they were not going to let their gender keep them from excelling in it,” Wirth said.

“I started digging and found some incredible women, a lot of women I was not familiar with or I did not know how much they had contributed,” Wirth said. “The book includes everything from a national cycling champion in the 1890s to my favorite woman in the book, Rachel Gallagher, who championed Omaha’s parks and kept the internet from destroying them. Amazing, wonderful stories about women.”

“There’s a chapter on Native Americans because I found out that the (Omaha Tribe of Nebraska), represented by Bright Eyes La Flesch, were a matriarchal society,” Wirth said, adding the importance of chronicling their place in history as Native American women played “an important role in the state before the Europeans came.”

In a blurb on the back of the book, Omaha humorist Mary Maxwell writes “in her no-nonsense leave-the-fluff-in-the-hall style, Eileen Wirth has presented us a well-researched look at Omaha women. So I asked her if it was a stuffy old history book, which brought out laughter.

“Oh, there’s a lot of fun in (the book),” she said. “There are loads of fun stories.”

As Professor Emeritus of Journalism at Creighton University, she hopes the stories will have an impact on readers, just as they had on her.

“The women in the book that I like most are those who had an idea and they just wouldn’t give it up,” Wirth said. “I think it’s very important for young women to realize that if they are determined enough to reach their goals, to pursue their passion, they can and will do great things.”