Famous Arkansas Women You May Not Have Heard Of

“I want every girl to know that her voice can change the world.” — Malala

I didn’t know it at the time, but the Arkansas history textbook I studied some years ago left out a few things—and a few people. Sure, we read about native Americans (to some extent), European explorers (to a larger extent), Arkansas governors and the first settlement at Arkansas Post.

Things the authors either ignored or decided were no big deals included Hattie Caraway, the first female elected to serve in the U.S. Senate; Raye Montague, an Arkansas native considered a “hidden figure” for her trailblazing work as an engineer for the U.S. Navy; and Louise Thaden, the first and only airplane pilot to simultaneously hold the women’s records for speed, altitude and solo endurance. Thaden competed and won against Amelia Earhart and others in the first all-women’s transcontinental race. The municipal airport in Bentonville is named for Thaden.

Some of these things about previous history textbooks came to mind after I participated last week in Zoom meetings with members of a state communications organization. Our affiliate is preparing to host a national conference in North Little Rock in June. The conference theme is “Lift Every Voice,” and we’re trying to incorporate Arkansas history and people into the programming. A few of us felt we needed to know more of our state’s history outside of the textbooks.

From that perspective, it seems appropriate, during Women’s History Month and on the heels of Sunday (International Women’s Day), to note the contributions of women to Arkansas history and Arkansas life.

Here’s a sampling of Arkansas women who made a difference:

  • Roberta Fulbright, a Missouri native, who was a dominant figure in Fayetteville. When her husband died suddenly in 1923, Fulbright encountered opposition from those who believed a woman had no place in business. She fought for her family’s holdings, which included two banks, a hotel, a newspaper publishing company and a small railroad. As publisher of the Northwest Arkansas Times, she championed the University of Arkansas, fought political corruption, advocated for social equality for women and promoted civic causes. She was also the mother of J. William Fulbright.
  • Little Rock native Florence Beatrice Smith Price, the first African-American female composer to have a composition performed by a major American symphony orchestra. She composed more than 300 works in her lifetime, including chamber music, vocal compositions and songs for radio.
  • Maya Angelou, an internationally renowned bestselling author, poet, actor, and performer, as well as a pioneering activist for the rights of African Americans and of women. Her first published book, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” was an autobiographical account of her childhood, including the 10 years she lived in Stamps (Lafayette County) with her grandmother.

A few of my favorite influencers may be slightly less high profile, but still significant to Arkansas and American history. There’s Charlotte Tillar Schexnayder, longtime publisher of The Dumas Clarion, a state lawmaker for 14 years and the first female president of the National Newspaper Association. There’s Ruth Hawkins, who spearheaded development of multiple historic properties of regional and national significance in the Arkansas Delta through A-State Heritage Sites—for example, the boyhood home of Johnny Cash. There’s also Dorothy Stuck, newspaper publisher, government official and proponent of equal rights. In 1970, Dorothy moved to Dallas, Texas, to become regional director of the Office of Civil Rights for the Department of Health, Education and Welfare. She was responsible for the implementation of the department’s desegregation regulations and of Title IX of the Civil Rights Act, which provided equal opportunities for women in education.

(The website for the Arkansas Women’s Hall of Fame has information about many of these historic figures. Check it out at http://www.arwomenshalloffame.com/inductees)

Debbie Miller is a faculty member and adviser for The Threefold Advocate.