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Exhibit honors Kitsap County working women

An all-female crew at the shipyards during World War I era. - Leslie Kelly
An all-female crew at the shipyards during World War I era.
— image credit: Leslie Kelly

Some of them were teachers and nurses, working in the more traditional employment roles for women.

Others were ferry captains, politicians and even bankers, breaking the mold of what women were expected to do.

An exhibit at the Kitsap County Historical Museum honors them all, and all women in Kitsap County who are women of character, courage and commitment.

The exhibit, titled “Women’s Work: Breaking the Mold,” opened last week at the museum in downtown Bremerton. Volunteer museum curator Nina Hallet put the exhibit together as a part of the National Women’s History Project which is honoring a dozen women throughout the nation and history this month.

In Kitsap County, Hallet found great examples of women who led the way from the early days to recent times.

One such woman was Mary Watkins, better known as “Polly.” In 1893, she left London to come to American and settled in Kitsap County. She traveled by ferry to Seattle almost daily for years to work as a maid, cook and nursemaid in the homes of the very wealthy. She wanted to earn enough money to build herself a house so she didn’t have to live in the “shack” that her husband called their home.

“She was a woman with goals and the will to reach them,” said Patricia Drolet, museum executive director.

Many of the women featured were teachers and nurses and carried on more traditional roles, Drolet said, especially for the time in which they lived, the 1800s and early 1900s. All of them showed character, courage and commitment to whatever they pursued, she said.

In 1881, Elizabeth Ordway became the first female school superintendent for Kitsap County. Ordway is featured in the exhibit.

“She fought for female rights,” Drolet said. “And she always signed her name L.M. Ordway, so as not to be judged because she was a woman postmaster.”

Drolet added that in those days, even titles showed how hard women had to work to break the mold. There was no title of postmistress.

Scattered throughout the exhibit are some museum artifacts of the work that women have done. Included is an old-fashioned washboard and tub because back then, washing was always women’s work, historians said.

Another woman featured is Millie Woodward, who in 1940 along with her husband, took over editorship of the Bainbridge Review newspaper. They ran the paper until 1963 and it was the only west coast paper to speak out against the Japanese interment camps during World War II.

The exhibit also includes a photograph of an all-female construction crew at the Puget Sound Naval Shipyards in 1919, during World War I.

In the photo, the women hold rivets, buckets and tongs. A second photo shows a woman “ship fitter” driving a bridge crane at the shipyard during World War II.

Then there’s Dora Troutman, who was the wife of the owner of the “Mosquito Fleet,” small ferries that operated around the Kitsap Peninsula during the late 1800s. She is thought to be one of few female skippers, when in 1899 her husband “mysteriously” disappeared and she took over the ferries.

Of the more modern day women in the exhibit are the Langer women. Hannah Norum Langer was the first female bank president west of the Mississippi when she took over the Kitsap Bank in 1952. Her daughter, Helen, followed her and was chairman of the board at the bank until 2011.

The exhibit will remain up through May. Hours at the museum are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Tuesday through Saturday. It is located at 280 Fourth St. Call 360-479-6226 for more information or go to www.kitsaphistory.org.

Soroptomist clubs from Port Orchard, Bremerton and North Kitsap helped to fund the exhibit.

 

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