March is Women’s History Month.
Here at The Southern, we’ve been digging through the archives in an effort to bring you a fun – yet far from all-encompassing – list of some of the women who’ve laid the groundwork for equality right here in Southern Illinois.
From politicians to pioneers, plenty of gutsy, guileless gals have called Little Egypt home.
Sarah Lusk: 'Brave Pioneer Woman'
Before it was Golconda, the small Pope County city that sits on the banks of the Ohio River was known as Sarahville, after the pioneer woman who established and operated the area’s first ferry there in the early 1800s.
According to archival records, Sarah Lusk, born Sarah McElwain, traveled to Kentucky with her husband, Major James Lusk, in 1796. Several years later, her husband having passed away, she trekked north with her children to Illinois and made her home at the mouth of Lusk Creek.
A newspaper article dated June 25, 1928, tells of Lusk’s struggles and triumphs – and a brush with a future president.
"County history tells that she carried General William Henry Harrison safely across the river one time and having revealed to him her troubles with Indians, he helped to establish protection for her,” the article reads.
Before Sarahville was re-christened Golconda in 1817, Lusk served as postmistress in the fledgling pioneer town.
A six-ton sandstone monument was erected outside the Pope County courthouse in 1928 to memorialize Lusk as the “brave pioneer woman” who put Golconda on the map.
Mrs. North and Mrs. Dixon: School Board Trailblazers
In 1891, nearly 30 years before passage of the 19th amendment, Illinois suffragists successfully lobbied to win women the right to vote – in school board elections, at least.
Over the next two years, Carbondale residents elected their first two female school board members.
Carbondale resident Inge Rader shared newspaper clippings about the elections with a Southern Illinoisan reporter in 1999.
“The next election on the tap is that for president and two board members of the board of education, occurring one week from today, April 15,” read one article from the Southern Illinois Herald, dated April 8, 1893. “One year ago Mrs. Harriet C. North was chosen a member of the board. If she has done well, why not elect another lady this time?”
Later that month, the newspaper reported that Mrs. W. E. Dixon, “a lady of culure and refinement, a woman of superior education, and above all an intelligent mother” has earned the spot.
The Duchess: Chasing ‘Blood, Guts and Sex’
When legendary reporter Virginia “Duchess” Marmaduke landed at the Chicago Sun in 1943, she made it clear she had no interest in covering society items, fashion and food.
“I wanted to be a police reporter and cover blood, guts and sex,” the Carbondale native would later say.
During Marmaduke’s 35-year career in Chicago journalism, she did just that. Marmaduke became the first woman on the Sun’s editorial staff and the first woman in Chicago with a sports byline. She interviewed Frank Sinatra, Queen Elizabeth II, Liberace, and Presidents Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower.
Marmaduke cut her teeth at the Herrin Daily Journal in the 1930s before moving to Chicago in 1943.
After her retirement in 1964, Marmaduke relocated to a log cabin in Pinckneyville, where she lived out the rest of her days raising funds for a range of causes, from cancer research to education.
Marmaduke was inducted into the Chicago Journalism Hall of Fame in 1992. She passed away in 2001 at the age of 93.
Helen Westberg: Carbondale’s Leading Lady
Long before Jane Adams announced her mayoral candidacy, another Carbondale woman reigned over City Hall.
After serving on the City Council for 10 years, Helen Westberg was elected Carbondale’s first female mayor in 1983. During her four-year term, she championed women’s rights and zoning reform, among other issues.
Originally from Pennsylvania, Westberg moved to Carbondale in 1952 when her husband, William Westberg, took a professorship post at SIU. By the mid-1960s, she was involved in city politics through the Citizens Advisory Committee and the Carbondale Planning Commission.
Former colleagues describe Westberg as a kind, effective and honest leader.
“When she spoke, people listened,” said Neil Dillard, who worked alongside Westberg on the City Council and succeeded her as mayor in 1987. “She was a fine lady, and she certainly turned out to be a very, very good mayor.”
Westberg passed away in Springfield in 2006. She was 89.
Sheila Simon: Women’s ‘Valuable Voice’
Sheila Simon, another former Carbondale city councilwoman, served a four-year term as Illinois’s lieutenant governor that ended in January.
Simon, originally of Carbondale and the daughter of former U.S. Sen. Paul Simon (D-IL), said even since her early days in politics, the outlook for women in politics has improved.
“(During an early political campaign), friends would report back that when they were knocking on doors, people would say things like, ‘She should be home with her children,’” Simon said. “Those attitudes are falling away, and I think there’s a new recognition that women have a valuable voice in the political process.”
Still, Simon said there’s work to be done.
“I’d certainly like to see a woman as president of the United States of America,” she said. “I think that would be really cool – and long overdue.”