I’ve been reading up on Waukesha history lately and, with Mother’s Day approaching, I found myself wondering about the historic women of Waukesha.
History books about our area are replete with the men who made Waukesha famous, from spring prospectors like Col. Dunbar, musicians like Les Paul or politicians like Gov. William Barstow.
What is somewhat lacking, though, is information about Waukesha’s founding mothers, the women who helped make Waukesha what it is today.
In celebration of Mother’s Day, let’s consider a few women from different eras and walks of life who were important to our fair city.
As a country doctor in a pioneer town, Dr. Margaret Caldwell (1846-1938) was an important part of life in Waukesha. Caldwell, a former teacher, was the first female doctor in Waukesha. According to a display at the Waukesha County Museum, she opened a successful sanitarium for women in the 1890s but also remained a family doctor throughout her 60-year career. She was one of the oldest active and well-known physicians in Wisconsin in her time.
Theodora Winton Youmans (1863-1932) attended Carroll College and worked for the Waukesha Freeman as a writer, then editor, unusual occupations for women at the time. She was strong advocate for the suffrage movement. She was president of the both the Waukesha and the Wisconsin Woman Suffrage Associations and lobbied the U.S. Congress on behalf of women’s enfranchisement. She founded the Waukesha Historical Society and was president of both the Waukesha Women’s Club and General Federation of Women’s Clubs.
Matriarch Antonia Don Diego Melendes, born 1900 in Mexico, is considered to be one of the first Hispanic settlers of Waukesha, moving to Waukesha in 1919 with her husband, Joseph Melendes. Together, they owned a boarding house and provided rooms and assistance for newly-arriving immigrants. The couple had a history of helping people in need and Melendes was "like a midwife" to the newly-arrived families who could not access medical care, according to the book “Images of American: Latinos in Waukesha,” by Walter Sava Ph.D. and Anselmo Villarreal. Melendes worked at various places in Waukesha and was active with church groups. Their home was known for its welcoming spirit. Calles Melendes, an alley in The Strand, is named for them.
Lois Stair (1923-1981) paved the way for women in the Presbyterian Church. In 1957, Stair was ordained a ruling elder of the First Presbyterian Church of Waukesha. In 1971, she was elected moderator of the 183rd General Assembly of the United Presbyterian Church in the United States of America (UPCUSA). She was the first women elected to such a position, according to the Presbyterian Heritage Center. During her term, she weathered controversy over the church’s monetary support of the defense of African-American militant Angela Yvonne Davis, who was charged with conspiracy and murder. Stair maintained her involvement with the Presbyterian Church after her term as moderator ended until her death in 1981.
Betty Cooper (1931- 2006) was a well-known local politician, activist, mother and grandmother. She was elected in 1984 as the first female chairman of the Waukesha County Board. Cooper was first elected as a County Supervisor in 1972 and successfully re-elected seven times until her retirement from the chair in 1988. In 1985, she was named a Woman of Distinction by the Waukesha County Community Foundation. In 1987, according to an online obituary, Milwaukee Magazine recognized Cooper as one of the “87 Most Interesting People in Town” and crediting her for helping forge an aggressive and committed governance system for Waukesha County.
Carol A. Opel (1946-2005), a mathematics instructor at Waukesha County Technical College, became the city’s first female mayor in 1994, after being an alderman for nine years. According to her obituary, her most prized achievement during her term as mayor was the implementation of the Fox River Corridor Plan. Opel was also a board member of the Literacy Council of Waukesha, a board member of The Caring Place and a member of the Rotary Club.
Although there are many other notable historic women of Waukesha, I selected these women for their overall impact on women or families in general, in deference to Mother’s Day.
Many thanks to the , the reference staff at theand to historian Ellen Langill for helpful suggestions of women to research.