Formidable Females

Stellers Jay
Jan 6, 2019 · 8 min read

Female ancestors are, genealogically, research challenges. We don’t often find as many records about them. Prior to 1850, we’re lucky if we find their names on a marriage record or in a local history, as the census showed the head of household (usually male) and just a count of all the other people in the household.

I found several women in my ancestry who were employed back in the World War Two days of “Rosie the Riveter”. Even before World War Two, one can see women in jobs outside the home. Their occupations and activities gave me a little more insight into their stories.

Here are a few stories of women that I’d like to share with you, the bungalow manager, the banker, the nurse, and the telephone operator. An article about my female ancestors would not be complete without a little story about my mother, the advocate.

Nancy Hunsaker (Sheets, Gallington), bungalow manager

Nancy was my second great grandmother, related through a presumed grandfather. I can give her partial credit for my existence; she convinced my grandfather’s family to move to Los Angeles, back in 1911.

Nancy was born in Edgar, Illinois in 1856. She married Andrew Sheets, who was a confectioner, and they lived in Terre Haute, Indiana. They had two children, including my presumed great grandmother (through DNA), Madge Sheets.

Andrew died young, in 1880, and Nancy remarried Albert Gallington. Nancy had two more children with Albert (Alberta and Grace). Albert passed away in 1910, and Nancy moved to California with her daughters. According to a family story, Nancy wrote her daughter Madge and convinced her and her family to give up farming in Indiana and move out to Los Angeles. Madge’s children go on to be Merville the magician, a hard-working Set Decorator, and a professor at Santa Barbara University — who was also a very talented metal worker/artist.

Nancy’s profession in 1930, at the age of 73, piqued my interest. She was the manager of a Bungalow court in Los Angeles and I think back to the lyrics of Jim Morrison’s tune LA Woman:

“Well, I just got into town about an hour ago

Took a look around, see which way the wind below

Where the little girls in their Hollywood bungalows

Are you a lucky lady from The City of Lights?”

When Nancy’s tenants came to her door and inquired for “Mrs. Gallington”, did she answer the door in a red, silk kimono, exclaiming, “in all my living glory, baby,” a la Coco in David Lynch’s Mulholland drive? Perhaps not, but the census reporting her occupation as such conjures up certain imagery for me.

Example of L.A. area Bungalow Court, By Adrianne Wadewitz — Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Helen Todd, bookkeeper, and Edna Todd, nurse

Helen was born in 1902 in Colorado. She was presumably, my great-aunt (by DNA). Her grandmother migrated to Colorado Springs from Kansas, and Helen’s mother married her father Navy Todd, from Indiana, in Colorado. Helen was born about a year after her parents married. She lived until 2000, which would have made her 98, a formidable age.

Helen married Edward Peterson in 1927. By the 1930 census, she had become a bookkeeper. In 1928, she was on the decoration committee for the monthly meeting of the San Bernardino bankers association. By 1931, as assistant cashier, she was elected to the board of directors for the First National Bank of Cucamonga, according to the L.A. Times. In 1940, Helen may have taken time off to take care of family, as she lived with her son Todd Edward, her sister Nell and her sister’s daughter Merrill, and her father Navy, in Los Angeles on North Avenue 67. Only the two older men of the household show professions, as a meter reader and a fireman. However, her impressive move from decorating to board of directors as well as almost reaching the status of centurian earn her a great deal of respect in my mind.

I don’t find Helen in so much as a directory after 1940. Her husband died in 1974. Helen is pictured on her mother’s entry in FindAGrave on the left, with her sister Edna on the right.

Helen’s sister Edna, presumably my grandmother, was also an early career woman. Edna was in-training as a nurse at the San Antonio hospital in Upland in 1920, according to an article in the San Bernardino County Sun in December of 1920. The article further reports Edna and her uncle Harry and family attending a dance given by the American Legion. She was written up in an article in the San Bernardino County Sun, December 24, 1921, “Nurses of San Antonio stage a party for children at home.”

Could you imagine what my mother’s mother (Edna or not) went through if she had a child out of wedlock at that time? In the 1920s, women were almost completely blamed when these sorts of things occurred. These women were branded loose, immoral women. Who knows what she may have gone through, in the midst of launching a career and finding a suitable husband? At that time, unwed mothers were usually shipped away to relatives or sent off to maternity homes, like St. Anne’s Maternity Hospital.

“Founded in 1908 by Bishop Thomas Conaty, St. Anne’s began as a 12-bed hospital for pregnant, unwed, young mothers. At that time, St. Anne’s was regarded as a hiding place for young women to come in secrecy and to conceal their pregnancies from the community and their families, and 90% of the women who came to St. Anne’s gave their babies up for adoption.”

In the 1930 census, Edna was widowed from her husband Eugene Nelson, to whom she had been married for just a few years. She lived at home with her parents, with the occupation of private nurse. Edna remarried Max Sanborn, and in 1944, in her voter registration, she proudly lists her profession as a graduate nurse. She was a republican in this registration; my mother (see below) would not have been happy about this. When Edna died, in 1946, at the young age of 42, she was a school nurse.

Dessie Haga, Telephone Company Supervisor

My grandmother Dessie, born in Winfield, Alabama, daughter of Walter Brown and Rosabelle Vickery, lived to be 91 years old. She married my grandfather Louis Haas in 1917 and they lived in Memphis, Tennessee. She was in the 1930 census in Memphis, living with her husband, a fireman, on 1003 Monroe Avenue — as a supervisor of a telephone company. She lived with her mother-in-law Ella, and her two children, my father Louis, and my aunt Rosemary. Dessie’s daughter Rosemary, followed in her mother’s footsteps, working for the telephone company for many years.

Dessie and second husband Burt, sometime after 1940

I recall my grandmother complaining about her mother-in-law’s cooking; this was during the Great Depression. She told me she would come home from work, and her mother-in-law would make dinner: boiled cabbage every day in the winter and new potatoes every day in the summer. She became quite tired of this fare, except for the cornbread which always accompanied the meal. My grandmother made cornbread when she came to visit us in Chicago, when I was 6 or 7 years old. That and lots of fried potatoes. They were delicious.

Dessie divorced Louis some time before 1940. She lived with Rosemary as a lodger in Memphis, according to the 1940 census, still an operator with the telephone company.

“One ringy dingy, two ringy dingies. Oh, good afternoon, have I reached the party whom I am speaking to?”

She eventually moved to live with Rosemary and her family in Virginia, passing away in 1991.

Merle (Haas) Ritter, La Puente School Board

My mother was an early activist, raising funds for the March of Dimes and elected to the school board in La Puente, California.

She was a Democratic party stalwart and a big fan of FDR. She held campaign events in her home and registered voters. According to a story she told me, Bobby Kennedy once arrived at the Juneau airport where Merle was able to meet him, and where she said he held me as a baby. Unfortunately, Merle could spin some tall tales as well, and I have not verified this story.

As a senior, in Juneau Alaska, her activism continued. She won the Consumer Advocate Award of the year in 2008 from Southeast Alaska Independent Living for her advocacy work for seniors and the disabled.

On the night president Barack Obama was elected, I telephoned Merle right before his election was called by the networks. I knew that when the West Coast came in, that it would be a done deal. I told her that he was going to win — she couldn’t believe it at first. When California, Washington, and Oregon polls closed, the networks called it, and I was on the phone with her. She choked back tears.

Merle’s favorite pastimes:

Politics, raising hell, baseball, advocacy, counting steps — how far things were, debating, pets, lunch with friends at the Juneau Senior Center, loving Abigaile — her feline friend who visited her @ Wild Flower (in Juneau, Alaska), trips that S.A.I.L. provided for the Older Blind Alaskans.

Merle’s pet peeves were:

Inequality, Republicans, Racism, Disabilities, Unsavoury food, Non-voters, Jelly-bellies & Ronald Reagan, Bigotry & Intolerance

Stellers Jay

Written by

Blogger, genealogist, Pacific Northwesterner

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