Too often history has been his story – events written from a male perspective, emphasizing the role of men or told from a man's point-of-view. Because of this, women in his story have been left out.
Women have contributed as much to our parish's 147-year history as to our nation's 231-year history.
Vernon Parish’s history is rife with countless accomplished women in the fields of education, government, the arts, industry, the military and science. Because many have accomplishments in two areas, they wore two hats.
The first woman in Vernon Parish history was actually here before Vernon Parish. Nancy R. Hays was the only female of the 43 land grant recipients in the area between the Rio Hondo (Calcasieu) and Sabine Rivers, now Vernon Parish. Her third class land grant of 640 acres dated Feb. 22, 1819 was located in the Neutral Strip that many called No Man's Land. The courage of a woman to live in a lawless area had to be great.
In our parish's beginning, many women worked as educators. It must be remembered schools existed in present-day Vernon Parish before 1871.
Vernon Parish was created in 1871 from Rapides, Sabine, and Natchitoches Parishes. Collectively they had 62 schools according to the 1850 census.
In Vernon Parish from 1871 to 1876, about 37 schools were established. Teachers such as Theodosia Burr Smart of Leesville, Jennie Cole of Huddleston, Emma D. McAlpin of Elizabeth Chapel, Sarah J. McAlpin Gosset of Pine Island, C. A. Hill(s) of the Weeks community, and Lilette Couch (Coutch) Shaw of the Lacaze community stepped up to the plate when teachers were needed for $18 to $33.33 a month. (Note: men and women were paid the same.)
In our postal system, from 1847 at Huddleston and Burr Ferry to 1954 at Fort Polk, 89 post offices were established.
Burr Ferry and Huddleston were the only post offices established before Vernon Parish became a parish in 1871. Of them, seven had female postmasters. Women such as Leatha Hyatt Foster of Anacoco, Bettie Bray Faircloth of Dusenbury, Nancy Everett of Everett, Effie Long of LaCamp, Eva Duhon of Sigler, Nancy Turner Hamon (Haymon) of Six Mile, and Hattie Maude McElveen of Velma worked at various times and locations to see that the mail got through.
In the arts Vernon Parish women have contributed through writing. Kate Richards O'Hare (1876-1948) of New Llano wrote “American and Bolshevism,” “How I Became a Socialist Agitator,” “In Prison,” “‘Nigger’s Equality,” “Socialism and the World War” and “The Sorrows of Cupid.”
Another New Llano writer Anna Gregson Loutrel (1903-1986) wrote “The Constitution of the Brotherhood of Man,” “The United Communities Bill” and “How It Came to be Written.”
Both women took leading roles in the socialist movement that swept America in the early 1900s. Loutrel served as a member on the Board of Directors in New Llano.
Also in the arts was Rose "Rosebud" Joan Blondell (1906-1979) who lived in Leesville in the mid 1920s with her family.
Her family had a dress shop located in the now-closed Lee's Pawn Shop at 200 S. 3rd St. (corner of 3rd St. and Courthouse St.) where she worked with her parents.
The family lived in Leesville somewhere in the vicinity of the rear of the Leesville State School on present-day Nolan Trace Parkway (Hwy. 8).
While here, she joined a teenage girls' club called the Dirty Dozen which she changed the name to the Honey Dippers. She was viewed as the best Charleston dancer in Leesville.
The family moved about two years later to Denton, Texas where Rosebud enrolled in the Texas State College for Women (University of North Texas). She won a 1926 beauty contest in Dallas.
In the same year, she was fourth in the Miss America pageant and a finalist in the Miss Universe pageant.
She moved to New York in 1927, joined a stock company and worked on Broadway. She eventually moved to Hollywood where she made 71 movies and two television shows from 1931 to 1979. She died of leukemia in Santa Monica, California.
Many women stepped up when industry needed workers. Because many men were serving in the military during World War II, women filled their shoes as "Rosies the Riveters."
Sixty-five percent (310,000) of riveters during World War II were women working in ship and aircraft production. The same was true in Vernon Parish.
Phyllis Carper of New Llano welded copper boxes used on Norden bombsights for daytime bombers.
Gertrude Marie Townley of Fullerton went to Orange, Texas to work in the shipbuilding industry.
A third woman to work in the war industries was Vera Wiley of Slagle. She went to Birmingham, Alabama to produce B29 bombers. A fourth woman was Dorothy Peters, mother of Joyce Atchison of Pickering. She worked in Oklahoma City as an airplane riveter. By war's end 37% of jobs in America were held by women.
Many women in our parish "herstory" served in the military.
Carper went from riveter during World War II to a nurse as Lt. Phyllis Carper in the Korean War. Her stories of treating Korean War soldiers are heart-wrenching. This year she was the only woman of 22 Korean War veterans who were welcomed on an honor flight to Washington, D.C. Today she is a member of the American Rosie the Riveter Association.
Just as Carper wore two hats in industry and the military, Dr. Cynthia "Cindy" Gillespie wore two hats in education and the military. She served in the US Army from 1974 to 1978, ending her military service in Vernon Parish.
She was employed in the Vernon Parish school system and taught at Pickering Elementary School from 1978 to 1984.
Gillespie quickly moved up from teacher to assistant principal to principal. She was promoted to Curriculum Coordinator in 1994, then to superintendent in 2002 where she served for six years.
Betty Westerchil wore two hats also, in education and government. She taught school for 21 years and served on the Vernon Parish School Board for 16 years.
At the state level, Westerchil served as President of the Louisiana School Boards Association in Baton Rouge.
In government, Westerchil was the first woman to serve as mayor of Leesville where she advanced many of the activities we enjoy today. After leaving the mayorship she served as NSU Leesville/Ft. Polk Coordinator.
Carolyn Leach Huntoon of Leesville wore two hats in science and government. She became the first woman to serve as director of the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas from 1994 to 1996.
She graduated from Leesville High School in 1958 and went on to Northwestern State University where she received her undergraduate degree in 1962.
From there she received her Master of Science and Ph.D. degrees from Baylor College of Medicine in Houston.
After her retirement, Huntoon served under Presidents Clinton and Bush as assistant secretary for environmental management of the United States Department of Energy. Today she lives in Barrington, Rhode Island as an independent consultant in the fields of energy and aerospace.
What advice do these women have for today's young girls seeking professions in a world sometimes seen as a man's world?
Westerchil wants young girls to be brave without fear of failing because failing makes us work harder. She said, "girls and women should not sit and wait, but to step out of their comfort zone."
Dr. Gillespie said, "Girls should pray about decisions, wait on the Lord and follow His plan even if it's not their plan".
What did I learn? Because Vernon Parish has a Southern, rural culture where women have a traditional role of nurturer, I didn't expect to find much. I was surprised to find Vernon Parish's greatest success stories were women.
From our earliest history before parish-hood to today, women have had, and will continue to have, an important place in Vernon Parish “herstory.”