A strong vein of historical scholarship is flowing with untold stories left out of previous history books and discussions that almost exclusively focused on white male leaders of the past to now flesh out the fuller body of our collective past. Not only are the stories of minority groups getting their due by being discovered, researched and chronicled for history buffs, but the stories are being told in ways that are inspiring, thoughtful and approachable.
Such is the case of “Leading Ladies: Twenty-One of Tacoma’s Women of Destiny,” a quick-read paperback written by Deb Freedman and Michael Ann Konek in 2019. When it was published, 1,400 copies of the privately funded book were donated by the Tacoma Historical Society to the Tacoma Public School District. It is also now available as a free audiobook for everyone to enjoy from the historical society’s podcast stream.
The book, read by Freedman herself, honors 21 of the many women who played a role in Tacoma’s history. There are certainly more women of history worthy of mention in future books, but “Leading Ladies: Twenty-One of Tacoma’s Women of Destiny” was meant to show the variety of women from all walks of lives, who championed worthy causes, perfected their crafts and left their marks on this fair city.
Freedman collected a committee of notable women of Tacoma to suggest candidates, help fund, and steer the project. And they did with great success since it covers the full length of Tacoma’s history and the span of fields from arts and business to law and education.
“I didn’t want it funded by a non-profit or a foundation,” Freedman said. “I wanted women to sponsor it.”
It’s a model she hopes to repeat for other under-represented groups to record and present their contributions to the City of Destiny’s cultural tapestry.
Tacomans might know some of the women included in the book. Clara Antoinette McCarty Wilt is the first graduate of the University of Washington and the first woman to hold public office. Tacoma philanthropist Franke Tobey Jones was a key backer of what is now the University of Puget Sound and a retirement facility on Point Defiance’s edge. So too is Gretchen Kunigk Fraser, the first North American woman to win an Olympic Gold Medal in skiing.
But others are less known, like Judie Fortier. She championed women’s rights at all levels of government. She fought against domestic violence at every turn for decades, as an activist, organizer of National Organization of Women chapters and as the city’s coordinator of the Women’s Right Division for 30 years.
“She was out there getting committees formed and taking action,” Freedman said. “She really blew me away.”
Another woman who faded into the background over time was Peggy Strong. Freedman, a notable historian in her own right, had never heard of Strong when she started researching who she was to tell her story correctly.
Strong was an artist at a young age, sketching dollhouses and designing clothes before she attended school. A car accident left her mostly paralyzed at the age of 20, but that didn’t stop her from venturing through nature to capture a scene or up a moveable platform with her wheelchair to put hand-made paints onto ceiling panels. Her noted mural of Paul Bunyan once greeted travelers at Tacoma’s Unions Station and now resides at UPS.
Other little gems found in the Leading Ladies book are the list of 21 honorable mentions and 21 female firsts that scream to be researched and written. But the effort also proves the concept that a community collated and funded book can tell stories of people and groups that have yet to be told.
“We hope to do an African American one next,” Freedman said.