Women's History Month
Women’s history is everyone’s history, and while women make history every day of every month, each March our nation offers special commemoration of Women’s History Month to celebrate the vital role of women in American history. This year, we offer special recognition and acknowledge that the park is located on the ancestral land of the First People, the Kumeyaay.
The arrival of the Spanish in the late eighteenth century brought many changes to Indigenous ways of life across California. (There are a few resources listed here that detail these histories from women’s perspectives, including “Engendering the History of Alta California, 1769-1848: Gender, Sexuality, and the Family” by Antonia I. Castañeda.)
After decades of colonial violence and attempted cultural genocide in the mission system, the promises of secularization failed to come to fruition for Indigenous communities in the 1830s. At this time, a majority of women within the Old Town community were either Kumeyaay women in a servant class or women of Spanish or Mexican descent building their households in town or in the outlying communities. Under the Mexican government, some women rose to become matriarchs of prominent Californio families, while others remained of the lower socio-economic class. Regardless of a woman’s position, most still held responsibility for the household—teaching their children the basics of schooling, tending family gardens, cooking, cleaning, mending clothes, and more.
In the 1840s, major changes occurred in the Old Town community with the Mexican-American War in Alta and Baja California and the Gold Rush in Northern California. During the war, Old Town residents were forced to “pick a side”--to support the Yankees coming from the East, or to fight to continue their way of life as Californios. (Some of these stories will be detailed on the park’s Facebook page this month as part of our commemoration.) Soon after the war ended, gold was discovered in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. This brought new opportunities for women in the region. As a result of the Gold Rush, the population of California increased tenfold in just a decade. Communities across the state saw a massive influx of a transient population headed to the goldfields. This meant increased economic opportunities to provide support for these newcomers. As the first southern port of the United States, San Diego was no exception.
Over the next few decades, the women of San Diego continued to manage households and work as servants, but they also owned land, cooked in restaurants, became laundresses, made clothes as seamstresses, worked in saloons, became stagecoach drivers, and one individual even became the first publicly funded schoolteacher in San Diego.
At Old Town San Diego State Historic Park today, we tell the stories of some of these extraordinary women who carved out a life in the San Diego frontier community by presenting living history and school programs in period attire. We are also lucky to have the leadership of Kumeyaay women as we near completion of Iipay ~ Tipai Kumeyaay Mut Niihepok (the Land of the First People Exhibit Area), opening in Spring 2021. Additionally, we recognize other contemporary women, like members of the Descendants of Early San Diego, the Colonial Dames of America, and the Daughters of the American Revolution, who provide important recognition and fundraising support for the park and its educational programs.
Old Town San Diego would not have been possible without the important contributions of women. Their legacies are well-preserved and celebrated this month, and year-round. This Women’s History Month, we especially celebrate the staff and volunteers who embody the spirit and stories of the amazing women who made Old Town San Diego thrive. Viva la mujer!
Interested in learning more about the significant roles women played in Old Town’s history? While this list of resources is in no way comprehensive, it is a great place to get started.
Old Town San Diego Stories
“The women who changed San Diego,” Hillcrest History Guild
Check out this timeline from the Hillcrest History Guild featuring Mary Chase Walker, Helen Hunt Jackson, and many more influential women in San Diego.
“The Machado Sisters: The Californianas of Old Town, San Diego” by Victor Walsh, California State Parks
Learn more about the Machado sisters: Juana de Dios (1814-1901), María Antonía Juliana (1815-1887), María Guadalupe (1819-1884), and Rosa María (1828-1893) in this article from retired park historian Victor Walsh.
Mary Chase Walker biography, San Diego History Center
Mary Chase Walker was the first accredited teacher at the Mason Street Schoolhouse, the first public school in San Diego. A Massachusetts native, Walker arrived in San Diego in 1865. Check out this biography from the San Diego History Center to learn more about her life and time in San Diego.
“The Mary Walker Incident: Black Prejudice In San Diego, 1866,” by James E. Moss, San Diego History Center
While Old Town San Diego was a diverse community, no town is free from racism and discrimination. What became known as “The Mary Chase Walker Incident” is an unfortunate, but telling representation of the racial politics and prevalent anti-Black discrimination that was present in the region.
“The Mythmakers’ Fandango: H. H. Jackson, Antonio Coronel, and Ramona Memories,” by D. J. Waldie, KCET
Helen Hunt Jackson's 1884 novel Ramona was co-opted as an important tenet of the Spanish fantasy past, or the mythologizing of a romanticized Spanish past in aid of tourism. The irony that “Jackson wrote the novel partly in an effort to bring awareness to the plight of the Mexicans and Native Americans in California” is well explored in this essay. La Casa de Estudillo became known as the fictional Ramona's fictional marriage place, the subject of the next article on this list.
“Reconstructing a Landmark: How a Popular Book, Cultural Attitudes Transformed San Diego's La Casa de Estudillo,” by Robert L. Pincus, KCET
How did La Casa de Estudillo become known as Ramona’s Marriage Place? This article explores the history of the site and features interviews from California State Parks staff on the historic buildings evolution.
Regional Stories of San Diego County and Beyond
Memorable Women in San Diego History, PBS: Historic Places With Elsa Sevilla: California's History
“Join Host Elsa Sevilla as she profiles local women in history dating back to the mid-1800s. Native American, Californio, Mexican, Asian and European Women who were trailblazers, doctors, ranch owners, authors, mothers and daughters.”
Karen Vigneault, Bridge Builder, 2008, San Diego Women’s Hall of Fame
Check out this brief write up on Karen Vigneault, “a Kumeyaay twin-spirit (lesbian). She educates U.S. and Mexican indigenous peoples about their authentic traditions and the extraordinary, respected, historic role twin-spirit people have held in indigenous societies.”
“Two Spirits and Kumeyaay LGBTQ+ Activism,” by Connelly Meschen, Women’s Museum of California
Learn more about the Two Spirit identity and how contemporary Kumeyaay communities are recognizing and honoring community members, especially through the work of women like Jane Dumas and Karen Vigneault.
Women On The Move: Overland Journeys to California, by Pam Van Ee, Library of Congress
“In this essay Pam Van Ee contrasts the experiences of various women who left their homes to put down roots in California during the last quarter of the eighteenth century to the mid-nineteenth century. She discusses women who were part of Juan Bautista de Anza's overland expeditions in 1774-75 from the Spanish provinces of Sinaloa and Sonora in what is now Mexico to the San Francisco Bay area; women who lived in California when it was under Spanish (1769-1821) and Mexican (1822-46) control; and women who were drawn to the area following the discovery of gold in 1848.”
“Engendering the History of Alta California, 1769-1848: Gender, Sexuality, and the Family,” by Antonia I. Castañeda, California History
This journal article by scholar Antonia I. Castañeda “[uses] gender and sexuality as categories of analysis, [to] explore how women articulated their power, subjectivity, and identity in the militarized colonial order reigning on this remote outpost.”
“Feminizing the History of the Gold Rush,” by Glenda Riley, Western Historical Quarterly
This journal article by historian Glenda Riley gives a peek into the lives of entrepreneurial women during the California Gold Rush. Riley writes that although records like the 1870 census “overlook women’s economic contributions to early California and distort the historical record. Fortunately, women’s historians’ probing questions and methods have helped remedy the omission.”
“Changemakers, a look back at the evolution of women’s clubs over the last centuries,” by Darlene G. Davies, Ranch & Coast Magazine
Learn more about the important role women’s clubs played in the day to day life of women across the country. (The San Diego Woman’s Club was formed in 1892.)
Books and Other Resources
Testimonios: Early California Through The Eyes Of Women, 1815-1848, Edited and translated by Rose Marie Beebe, Robert M Senkewicz (University of Oklahoma Press, 2015).
“When in the early 1870s historian Hubert Howe Bancroft sent interviewers out to gather oral histories from the pre-statehood gentry of California, he didn’t count on one thing: the women. When the men weren’t available, the interviewers collected the stories of the women of the household—sometimes almost as an afterthought. These interviews were eventually archived at the University of California, though many were all but forgotten. Testimonios presents thirteen women’s firsthand accounts from the days when California was part of Spain and Mexico. Having lived through the gold rush and seen their country change so drastically, these women understood the need to tell the full story of the people and the places that were their California.”
Re-dressing America’s Frontier Past, by Peter Boag (University of California Press, 2011.)
In the Journal of American History, historian Michael J. Lansing describes the book as “Rooted in innovative primary-source research…It carefully reconstructs the lived experience of cross-dressing women and men. Their fascinating stories—complicated and sometimes tragic—propel the narrative.” The book’s description reads: “Americans have long cherished romantic images of the frontier and its colorful cast of characters, where the cowboys are always rugged and the ladies always fragile. But in this book, Peter Boag opens an extraordinary window onto the real Old West. Delving into countless primary sources and surveying sexological and literary sources, Boag paints a vivid picture of a West where cross-dressing—for both men and women—was pervasive, and where easterners as well as Mexicans and even Indians could redefine their gender and sexual identities. Boag asks, why has this history been forgotten and erased? Citing a cultural moment at the turn of the twentieth century—when the frontier ended, the United States entered the modern era, and homosexuality was created as a category—Boag shows how the American people, and thus the American nation, were bequeathed an unambiguous heterosexual identity.”
“What's Intersectionality? Let These Scholars Explain the Theory and Its History,” by Arica L. Coleman, Time Magazine (time.com)
An important recent contribution to women’s history over the last several decades has been Kimberlé Crenshaw’s concept of “intersectionality.” Check out this article as a good primer of this idea and how this important theory applies to women today. “They exposed the interlocking systems that define women’s lives. The theory of those systems became known as intersectionality, a term popularized by law professor Kimberlé Crenshaw. In her 1991 article ‘Mapping the Margins,’ she explained how people who are ‘both women and people of color’ are marginalized by ‘discourses that are shaped to respond to one [identity] or the other,’ rather than both.”
Honoring Women's History Month, The Heritage Foundation
In this 3-minute video, The Heritage Foundation describes the history of Women’s History Month. “It’s a time we set aside to honor women’s contributions in science, business, sports, social movements, and so many other fields. For centuries in America, women's contributions in these fields were often overlooked. As a result, they were omitted from history. That’s why we celebrate Women’s History Month and the opportunity it gives us all to get a more complete picture of our American history.”
#RaiseHerVoice Women’s History Month Themed Events are being hosted virtually by Ellevate Network. You’re invited to join free events like trivia night, story slams, and candid short Ted Style talk stories highlighting women in the workplace.
For more information, visit San Diego State University’s Women’s History Month webpage.
Other historic sites and museums to explore:
Youth Educational Materials
March is Women's History Month, a month where we learn about and celebrate the women who have changed the world and the women in our lives.
These topics are investigated through the histories of individual women, their organizations, and their struggles for greater rights and social justice.
For Women’s History Month in March, we honor women from both past and present who’ve had the courage to affect change.
BRAINS ON! PRESENTS...IT'S ALIVE on Wednesday, March 17th. This Women's History Month, join co-writer Molly Bloom for a talk on women in STEM who've inspired her, why STEM is a great way to explore the world, and more.