LOS LUNAS—For the next three months, a local museum will be celebrating the accomplishments of local women, so it’s fitting that local women are spearheading the exhibit.
Jan Micaletti, museum specialist at the Los Lunas Museum of Heritage and Arts, is the driving force behind the museum’s latest exhibit, “Wonder Women of the Rio Abajo: Celebrating 100 Years of Women’s Rights.”
“I’ve always thought women have accomplished so much,” Micaletti said.
While planning the exhibit calendar for 2020, Micaletti realized this year was the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, guaranteeing all American women the right to vote after decades of advocacy, protests and agitation.
That significant anniversary and some initial research quickly led her to a Valencia County native who played an important role in securing voting rights for women in the state and across the nation.
Adelina (Nina) Otero Warren, a noted suffragist, author and business women, caught the attention of suffrage leader Alice Paul, who recruited Warren to the cause in 1917. Warren headed the New Mexico chapter of Congressional Union and insisted suffrage literature be published in both English and Spanish in order to reach the widest possible audience.
In New Mexico, the 19th Amendment was ratified by the Legislature and the fourth governor of New Mexico, Octaviano Larrazolo, on Feb. 21, 1920.
“This started with Nina and then we started looking for women who accomplished firsts,” Micaletti said.
Valencia County women who became the first in different fields such as the military, education public service and politics will be featured in the upcoming exhibit, which begins Saturday, March 7, with a reception at the Los Lunas Museum of Heritage and Arts, 251 Main St. SE, and runs through Saturday, May 30.
Some of the women featured include Valencia County’s first female sheriff, Denise Vigil; the first woman to serve on the village of Los Lunas council, Cecelia Castillo; and the first woman chancellor of The University of New Mexico-Valencia campus, Dr. Alice Letteney.
“As people go through the exhibit, we hope they, and women especially, will say, ‘Oh, I know her,’ or ‘I remember her,’” Micaletti said.
Many of the women accomplished their firsts here in our community, such as Tina Garcia, the first female Division 1 magistrate for the county, while others made their marks elsewhere.
A resident of Rio Communities, Capt. Helen Smith was the first woman in the U.S. Navy to attain the rank of captain.
The first female University of New Mexico ROTC graduate to receive her pilot’s wings was Belen’s own Tamara Long Archuleta, who was killed in a helicopter crash in 2003 while flying an emergency rescue mission for two children in need of medical care in Afghanistan.
The women of the Pueblo of Isleta will also be represented by several past Miss Isleta’s, native women’s rights activist and Isleta member Agnes Dill, as well as the first female pueblo governor, Verna Teller, who also made history again by becoming the first Native American to deliver the opening prayer in the U.S. House of Representatives in November.
There will be a gallery of queens — from fiestas to Christmas to homecoming — many donned in decorated cardboard crowns, as well as a salute to mothers.
“We are featuring women with 12 children or more,” Micaletti said. “We didn’t want to leave anyone out and the work they do is important; in a way, they do all the work.”
As Micaletti and Los Lunas Public Library Director Cynthia Shetter researched the women and their stories for the exhibit, there were some interesting things discovered along the way.
While the history of beauty pageants is often said to begin on the boardwalks of Atlantic City, Shetter found they actually originated with the world-famous circus mogul, P.T. Barnum in 1854.
Public protest shuttered the pageants featuring live women but he continued the practice by substituting daguerreotypes for women, a practice quickly adopted by newspapers of the day which held photo beauty contests for many decades.
“When P.T. Barnum held the contests, there was a huge protest. People didn’t like ‘their women’ being put on display,” Shetter said.
A very vocal Valencia County woman — Dolores Elizabeth “Lola” Chavez de Armijo — played an important role in bringing attention to gender discrimination. At the dawn of statehood, in 1912, Chavez de Armijo was serving as state librarian.
Gov. William C. McDonald sought to have her replaced by court order, claiming women were unqualified to hold office under the Constitution and laws of New Mexico.
“While the court did side with Lola, the wording of the ruling wasn’t the best,” Shetter said.
The court found that her being a woman did not impact her job performance as state librarian since the office did not require the holder to exercise “neither judgement no discretion.”
“Not the best outcome, but the real irony is McDonald wanted to replace her with, of all people, another woman,” Shetter said laughing. “He made the argument a woman couldn’t do the job, and yet …”
Despite the damning language of the court’s decision, the case nonetheless let to legislation — House Bill 150 in 1913 — allowing women in New Mexico to hold appointed office.
In addition to the displays on the women and their firsts, Micaletti and museum staff have gathered items from women ranging from fiber arts and jewelry to wedding trousseaus and fancy hats.
“I think when people come see this display, they will be surprised,” she said. “So many of these women we know and grew up with but we didn’t pay attention. It’s amazing to see all these women who have come up over the years.”
On almost every Saturday during the exhibit, there will be women speakers and workshop leaders at the museum, covering a range of topics such as women’s voting rights, death rituals, local herbs and the art of colcha.
Julia M. Dendinger began working at the VCNB in 2006. She covers Valencia County government, Belen Consolidated Schools and the village of Bosque Farms. She is a member of the Society of Professional Journalists Rio Grande chapter’s board of directors.