The Hidden History of Alexandria Women

The Hidden History of Alexandria Women

When the City of Alexandria had its 250th anniversary a few years ago, Susan Butler, Vice Chair of Alexandria Commission for Women, helped put together a women's history project.

"We put together an overview of women who had made Alexandria the city it is from the revolutionary days," Butler said.

The Commission on Women, which deals with such issues as domestic violence and teen pregnancy, is using this overview as a basis for the Alexandria Women Make History tour, a guided trolley tour of Old Town Alexandria's women's history sites which took place Oct. 11 and 12 and included a tea.

The women mentioned on the tour included women from as far back as Revolutionary days as well as women who are still alive today, such as Patsy Ticer, who became the first woman mayor of Alexandria in 1991, and Marian Van Landingham, who has represented Alexandria in the Virginia House of Delegates since 1982. The Commission is also putting together a brochure, a walking tour and a bike tour of the sites.

"The idea is to get this off the ground and get the women in the community more aware of women in history," said Butler, who was also the tour guide for the event.

MANY OF THE TOUR attendees said they decided to go on the tour because they didn't know much about the history of women in Alexandria.

"I don't really know anything about the history of women in Alexandria in the past," said Mollie Danforth, a member of the School Board from Alexandria City Public Schools, who went on the tour. "There's so much history, there's no way you can learn it all in history class."

Margaretha Backers Netherton of Falls Church went on the tour with her daughters Mieke, 14, and Kaatrin, 11. Netherton has been teaching her daughters about women's issues recently, and has taken them to visit Susan B. Anthony's house.

"I feel like as women, they need to know the history of women," Netherton said.

According to Butler, there will be 75-80 sites in the brochure about Alexandria women, about 20 of which were on the tour. Butler stressed that the Commission's main project is the brochure, and that they are not tour guides. The tour will probably be held about three or four times a year.

"We're excited that there's finally going to be a permanent walk documenting women's contributions to history," said Laura Mandala, Chair of the Alexandria Commission for Women.

THE TOUR STARTED at The Campagna Center, where Elizabeth Ann Campagna was the executive director of Alexandria's YWCA. The 11 other sites on the tour included several sites related to African American women, including the 400 block of S. Royal Street, where freedwoman and laundress Hannah Jackson saved enough money washing clothes to buy her son, sister, nieces and nephews out of slavery.

Many of the women mentioned on the tour have been overlooked by history. At the Ramsey House on King Street, which is now the city's Visitor's Center, Alexandria founder William Ramsey's wife Ann McCarthy Ramsey, a civic leader and mother of eight, was a major fund-raiser for the Continental Army in the American Revolution. Butler pointed out that A Guide to Historic Alexandria, which was written for the 250th anniversary of the City of Alexandria, mentioned William Ramsey but didn't mention his wife.

Butler mentioned other tidbits of information during the tour, such as the fact that the City Hall library is named for Vola Lawson, the city's first female city manager, who began serving in 1985 and recently retired. Lawson, like Butler, is a breast cancer survivor, and created the Alexandria Commission for Women.

Other guests on the tour included four teachers from Helsingborg, Sweden, a sister city of Alexandria, who were teaching at T.C. Williams High School. Alexandria has three sister cities around the world, which are cities of about the same size that have cultural exchanges with Alexandria.

"We didn't know anything about Alexandria, but so many women have done so much ... and so many African Americans," said Swedish teacher Eva Ottosson after the tour.

Butler was pleased with the turnout for the tour. On Oct. 12, Redella S. "Del" Pepper, a member of the Alexandria City Council who is mentioned on the tour, attended.

"I was particularly thrilled with having the Swedish teachers there," Butler said. "I thought that was way cool."

The tour attendees also enjoyed the tour and the opportunity to learn about women in Alexandria's history.

"What's amazing to me is how much women have done historically and how much has been hidden," said tour attendee Junior Bridge.

Netherton liked "knowing all those women were right here in this area, like [Ann Ramsey,] who raised money for the continental army, then wasn't mentioned [in A Guide to Historic Alexandria]."

BUTLER ALSO POINTED OUT during the tour that the whole City of Alexandria sits on property that was originally owned by a woman, Margaret Brent, who immigrated from Europe and settled in Maryland. She was a strong advocate for women's suffrage and also owned land in Fairfax County.

"I never knew anything about [Margaret Brent], never heard about her until Susan brought her up," Bridge said.

Brent is one of Butler's favorite Alexandria women from history, and she concluded the tour with telling everyone about her.

"When you think about women in Alexandria, just remember that [Brent's] land is our land," Butler said.