Women in Winchester History

Provided by Timothy Youmans, Planning Director and amateur local historian

While there are so many women who have contributed to making Winchester and beyond a better place, this overview is intended to highlight the achievements of a few notable women. An excellent source for learning about important women in Winchester’s history is a book titled “Some Worthy Women” written in 2007 by a much admired ‘History Guy’ Michael Foreman. Mike’s motivation for the book was partly in response to a book by Dr. Garland Quarles titled “Some Worthy Lives” that was published in 1988. Foreman noted that Dr. Quarles had only included 11 women out of his 216 biographies in that book.

Winchester has been home to many notable women. Some have fame that extends far beyond Winchester. This includes Country Music Hall of Fame inductee Virginia Patterson Hensley, better known as Patsy Cline and Pulitzer Prize winning author Willa Cather. While less well known than Cline and Cather, Nancy Larrick Crosby’s impact on children’s literature was also felt on an international basis. 

Union-sympathetic Quaker Rebecca Wright wrote an account of Confederate troop strength in Winchester at the request of Union General Philip Sheridan. In the fall of 1864 she worked with Thomas Laws who, as a slave, agreed to carry a message from Wright to Gen Sheridan who was preparing for battle against Confederate forces. Wright’s intelligence proved beneficial in the Third Winchester battle which represented the last time that the Confederate Army occupied Winchester.

That same 1864 Civil War battle would also bring fame to a nurse by the name of Matilda Russell as told in a book by noted author John Esten Cooke. “Tillie” Russell walked four miles out onto the battlefield after the final retreat of the Confederate Army to find a wounded soldier needing medical care. She stayed with him all night keeping him alive. Her heroic actions as told in the book led to the commissioning of a famous painting title "A Night on the Battlefield" that was displayed at major national exhibitions.

Another civil rights advocate Ruth Jackson was a black restaurant owner who operated Ruth’s Tea Room on E. Cecil Street where white and black patrons were seated in different sections as required by the state as a condition for obtaining a liquor license. However, Jackson did not insist that they stay segregated once inside her restaurant.

Winchester women have been in a wide array of leadership roles in Winchester. In business, Mary Henkel led the prominent Henkel-Harris furniture company for many years. In medicine, Winchester native Dr. Sara Winifred Brown became an early black gynecologist and would later become the first woman appointed to the Howard University Board of Directors. Also in education, Dr. Tracy Fitzsimmons is the first woman President of Shenandoah University.

As far as local government, the contributions of women are substantial despite archaic rules from nearly a century earlier that denied women the right to vote and hold public office. This is even more notable for women of color who faced far greater obstacles. Among notable ‘firsts’ was Dorothy Allen, who served as the first white woman on City Council in Winchester. Born in 1891, Ms. Allen was elected to City Council in 1954 and was reelected in 1958. Ms. Allen was the driving force behind establishing a Planning Commission back in the 1950s.

And the first African-American member on City Council was Effie Davis. She was a guidance counselor at Handley High School following integration. In 1975, Davis was appointed to fill an unexpired term on Council. She would be elected to a full term in 1978. Thus, there was a Black woman on Council long before there was a Black man on Council.

In 1988, City Council history was made again when Elizabeth ‘Betsy’ Helm was elected as the first female Mayor of Winchester without having served on City Council prior to her mayoral election victory. Mayor Helm had otherwise broken many glass ceilings serving on corporate boards of directors including local banks and large corporations, some outside of Winchester. In 2004, a long-serving female member of City Council, Elizabeth ‘Liz’ Minor became mayor of Winchester. She served the second longest term of any Winchester mayor. Liz first served on Council in 1980 and was appointed chair of a number of standing Council committees as well as special committees like the building committee created to lead the major renovation of Rouss City Hall in 1986. The Council Chambers in Rouss City Hall is named in her honor. Though never on City Council, local historic preservationist Katherine ‘Katie’ Rockwood was instrumental in the formation of a grass-roots historic preservation group. She was instrumental in the formation of Preservation of Historic Winchester and served as PHWs first executive director and then as president of that organization. Rockwood was very involved in creating the first architectural survey of Winchester’s historic resources and in the efforts to establish a local historic district in the 1970s. Though she died young, her contribution to saving Winchester’s vast inventory of historic buildings is a lasting testament to her efforts.

In 2004, the City's first female City Manager, Eden Freeman, was hired. Ms. Freeman served for over five years before resigning to accept a position in Greenville, SC to be closer to family. Her leadership, among many other things, helped the City accomplish it's first AAA bond rating (the highest possible rating for government agencies), improve technology in operations, and the 2019 major renovation of Rouss City Hall.

Return to Winchester History