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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Best and brightest: Spokane-area women, past and present, blaze trails

Earlier this fall, The Spokesman-Review honored 15 women for the work they have done to improve the quality of life in the Inland Northwest. (Revisit those stories at On Thursday night at the Bing Crosby Theater, we’ll give these fine community members a proper shoutout during a special Women of the Year event with the Northwest Passages Book Club.

Joining us will be two impressive women who talk about “Making Life Work on Your Terms.” Karen Wickre is a former executive at Google and Twitter, and Tess Vigeland is a former reporter and host for the public radio business magazine “Marketplace.” Joining them onstage to moderate the conversation will be Mary Cullinan, president of Eastern Washington University.

But let’s not let the celebration of women end there. Here we look back at a handful of other prominent, important and inspiring women of Spokane past and present.

Early influencers

May Arkwright Hutton, and her husband, Levi Hutton, made their fortune with the Hercules Mine in North Idaho’s Silver Valley at the turn of the 20th century. She became a noted philanthropist and was renowned as a supporter of labor unions and women’s causes. She was one of the prime movers behind the effort to get the vote for women in Washington state in 1910.

Mother Joseph, a Catholic nun and member of the Sisters of Providence, arrived in Spokane in late spring 1886. In short order, she had secured a piece of land on the Spokane River (where the Spokane Convention Center now stands) and started work on building the city’s first hospital, Sacred Heart. Her legacy extends far beyond Spokane, and Mother Joseph supervised construction of hospitals, orphanages and schools throughout the Northwest.

Anna Stratton Browne came to Spokane in 1878 with her husband, J.J. Browne, and their infant son. Her husband, a lawyer and businessman, first developed Browne’s Addition, where the family settled. She was active in civic affairs and worked with the Ladies Benevolent Society to help support local orphans. She and the society also helped raise money to house needy Spokane children in the wake of the devastating fire of 1889. Spokane’s Home of the Friendless opened in May 1890. A statue of her called Mrs. J.J. Browne and Daughter, by Sister Paula Turnbull, sits at the entrance of Browne’s Addition.

Dr. Mary Latham moved to Spokane in 1887 and became the city’s first female physician. After 18 years of serving the community, her story took a bizarre turn. She was convicted in 1905 of arson for burning down her own country store and pharmacy in Mead to prevent it from being taken over by a rival. Facing four years of hard labor in Walla Walla, she fled Spokane and was captured a short time later hiding in a kitchen south of Sandpoint. Apparently her mental health had declined after the death of her son in 1903. She served a reduced sentence because of poor health.

Political leaders

Vicki McNeill broke a major gender barrier in 1985 when she became the first woman elected mayor of Spokane. Her four-year term was rocky as she endured death threats and a failed recall attempt. As her obituary in 1997 noted, “Under McNeill’s watch, the Ag Trade Center went up alongside the Opera House. Water and sewer service were pushed to the West Plains, making way for the Boeing plant. Critics accused her of being imperious, dubbing her ‘Queen Vicki.’ Supporters considered her one of the city’s greatest leaders.”

Roberta Greene became the first African-American woman to serve on the Spokane City Council in 1995. She and her husband, Nate, moved to Spokane in 1986, and they owned and operated the Empire Ford dealership in Spokane for many years. Greene also served on the Spokane Community Colleges Board of Trustees, Lilac Festival Association, Empire Health Services Governing Board, Spokane Private Industry Council and the Chase Youth Commission. A child of the Jim Crow-era South, Greene attended Talledega College in Alabama – where in the early 1960s she marched for civil rights – and later earned a master’s degree in urban studies from Trinity University in Texas. She served two terms on the council before stepping down in 2003.

Margaret Hurley served north Spokane in the statehouse for decades. She took over a state House of Representatives seat from her husband in 1952 and held it until 1979, when she moved to the Senate. A lifelong Democrat and devout Catholic, she opposed abortion and the north-south freeway when the state wanted to route it through the Logan neighborhood. She stepped down from the Senate in 1984 but stayed active in local issues. She died in 2015 just shy of her 106th birthday.


Sonora Smart Dodd’s mother died when Sonora was a child, and she was raised by her father. On Mother’s Day in 1909, she was in church as the preacher talked about the virtues of motherhood. At the end of the service, she asked the preacher why there was no Father’s Day. A year later, the idea for Father’s Day was endorsed by the YMCA, and it was held in Spokane on June 19, 1910. News coverage encouraged civic leaders in other cities to mark the day, and its popularity spread over the years. Finally, in 1972, President Richard Nixon declared the third Sunday in June as Father’s Day.

V. Anne Smith fought for women’s rights and civil rights in Spokane for more than 40 years. Born in West Virginia, she moved here in 1968 when her husband was stationed at Fairchild Air Force Base. She connected with Spokane’s small minority population through Calvary Baptist Chruch and other community service groups. She led the Spokane chapter of the NAACP for a decade and was a fierce advocate for education. She was a driving force behind the Col. Michael Anderson scholarships, named for an African-American from Cheney who was a member of the crew of the Space Shuttle Columbia when it exploded in 2003, and, in 2007, she received the YWCA’s Carl Maxey Social Justice Award

Sister Madonna Buder, Spokane’s Iron Nun, has been a star of a Nike commercial. It’s easy to see why. While she’s been a nun for nearly 70 years – she’s a member of the Sisters of Christian Community – she’s been doing triathalons for going on 35. She’s also a world-record holder since 2012 for being the oldest person to complete an Ironman competition. For Buder, running is an extension of her faith. As she told The Spokesman-Review in 2007, “When I run, all the problems of the world dissolve into the openness of God’s cathedral. … Running has helped me develop a way to look at the larger picture.”

Jeanne Eggert Helfer was raised in Walla Walla. This trailblazing athlete made a huge mark statewide when in 1977 she became the first female to receive an athletic scholarship at Washington State — $1,500 toward room and board – to play basketball. In 1977. After graduation, she became a coach and physical education teacher in the Mead School District. She coached the Mead Panthers to three state titles in girls basketball in the 1990s and continues to teach at Mt. Spokane High School.

Anne McClain was born and raised in Spokane. She graduated from Gonzaga Prep, is a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army and is an astronaut. She served aboard the International Space Station from Dec. 3, 2018, to June 24 of this year. ’Nuff said.

Artists and advocates

Carolyn Kizer was a renowned poet whose 1985 collection, “Yin,” won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry. A poet from a young age, she had a piece titled “When You Are Distant” published in the New Yorker when she was 17 years old. She helped found the journal Poetry Northwest in 1959 and was its editor for several years. She also was the first director of literary programs for the National Endowment for the Arts and chancellor of the Academy of American Poets from 1995 to 1998. The Washington Poets Association gave her a lifetime achievement award in 2006.

Kathryn Gellhorn was known for many things. Her love of opera and the symphony. Her affection for theater. Her affinity for flamboyant hats. Called Spokane’s godmother of the arts, the Swiss-born woman moved to Spokane with her husband, Howard Gellhorn, in 1957. From her business Katherine’s Hats of Distinction, she created and sold handmade hats to Spokane customers until 1973. She supported the Spokane Symphony and local opera companies and was a founder of Friends of the Davenport, the group that spearheaded the restoration of downtown Spokane’s iconic hotel.

Dr. Elizabeth Welty operated a medical practice alongside her husband, Dr. Robert Welty, out of the Paulsen Building for nearly 40 years. After his death, she turned her attention to the arts, helping with the effort to restore the Fox Theater and supporting Connoisseur Concerts, the Spokane Symphony, Spokane Youth Symphony and the Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture. She also served on the boards of the Spokane Symphony and Spokane Public Radio, as well as the Visiting Nurses Association

Sister Paula Turnbull, a member of the Sisters of Holy Names of Jesus and Mary, was a beloved and influential art teacher and sculptor. Her most enduring work is the garbage-eating goat in Riverfront Park. Built for Expo ’74, the goat has delighted children and adults for decades.

Myrtle Woldson’s father, Martin Woldson, made his fortune as owner of the Northern Pacific Railway. She learned at her father’s elbow and added to the family’s coffers with wise investments in real estate. In her later years, she starting giving the money way. She gave $3 million to the restoration of the Martin Woldson Theater at the Fox. To honor her mother, Edwidge, she contributed $1.2 million to the Moore-Turner Heritage Garden. She saved her largest gift for last, bequeathing $55 million to Gonzaga University for construction of the Myrtle Woldson Performing Arts Center, which opened in April.

Patrice Munsel was born in 1925 and raised in Spokane, but she gained fame on one of the most famous stages in the world, the Metropolitan Opera. After winning the nationally broadcast radio talent contest “Metropolitan Opera Auditions of the Air” at age 17, the coloratura soprano made her official debut with the Met at 18, singing the role of Philine in “Mignon.” The youngest singer to star at the Met, she would go on to perform on that stage more than 200 times in operas including “Die Fledermaus,” “Cosi Fan Tutte,” “Rigoletto” and “The Barber of Seville.” She would return to her hometown occasionally, with performances at the Fox Theater, the Spokane Coliseum and Expo ’74.

Mildred Bailey was born in Tekoa in 1907 and spent her childhood on the Coeur d’Alene Reservation, where her mother was an enrolled member, and later Spokane. She developed a distinctive vocal style inspired by the singing and storytelling traditions of the Coeur d’Alene people. She began her professional career in Seattle and soon made her way to Los Angeles, where she established herself as “the Queen of Swing,” as she recorded with Paul Whiteman, the Dorsey Brothers, Benny Goodman and her third husband, Red Norvo. She also notably helped Bing Crosby and his musical partner, Al Rinker – Bailey’s brother – find work when they left Spokane for Los Angeles.


Dorothy Powers arrived in Spokane during World War II and started work at The Spokesman-Review covering beats – city hall, cops and courts and the stockyards – vacated by men who had joined the military. After the war, she stayed and thrived, winning accolades for stories that saw her check into the Eastern State Hospital and the women’s jail to report on the conditions there. She took leave of her journalism career in the 1960s to make a couple failed bids for Congress but returned to the paper afterward. By 1977, she’d been named editorial page editor and was a winner of the Ernie Pyle Memorial Award for Newspaper Writing. She retired in 1988.

Myrtle Gaylord was a widow in 1930 with a family to support when she applied for a job at the Spokane Press newspaper. Nine years later, she moved to the Spokane Daily Chronicle, where for the next 21 years she would earn the title of “the dean of Spokane newspaper women.” She was the first female reporter to cover a murder trial, but she became beloved for a much gentler type of coverage. Each spring, she would offer $1 to the child who brought the first buttercup of the season to the Chronicle offices downtown. Gaylord retired in 1960 and died two weeks later of cancer.

Legal leaders

Kathleen Taft was one of the first female lawyers to begin practicing in Spokane. And she certainly was among the longest serving. When she died in 2005 at age 98, she was among the oldest practicing lawyers in the country. She earned her law degree in 1935 from the University of Washington and started her own firm after World War II. In addition to her law practice, she spent 26 years as a family court commissioner, mediating disputes, working out divorce agreements and helping children however she could. While her specialty was probate law, in the 1980s she became the premiere lawyer in Spokane for helping lesbians adopt children.

Kathleen O’Connor in 1988 made history when she became the first woman elected as a Superior Court judge in Spokane County. She spent 37 years on the bench before retiring in 2016. She graduated from the Gonzaga Law School in 1975 and the next year opened a firm with fellow female lawyer D. Jean Shaw. Her specialty was family law, and she was appointed a court commissioner in 1979. Among the cases she adjudicated were the civil commitment of South Hill rapist Kevin Coe and the class-action suit stemming from the 1991 firestorm.

Debra Stephens has served on the Washington Supreme Court for 11 years. She grew up in Spokane, graduated law school from Gongaza and is a former member of the Orchard Prairie School Board. During her time on the court, Stephens has been the author of some major opinions, including the 2012 McCleary decision, which ruled the state had not provided adequate money to meet basic education of students in public schools. Just recently, she was elected by her colleagues to become Chief Justice of the Washington Supreme Court effective in January.