14 trailblazing women who left a lasting mark on Houston and beyond

Trailblazing women in Houston history (Houston Metropolitan Research Center, Brazoria County Historical Museum, Getty, Texas House of Representatives, The Alley Theatre, Associated Press)

Here we highlight the lives and legacies of 14 trailblazing Houston women whose names and stories you might not have learned about in school — but who nonetheless left a lasting mark on Houston and beyond.

Charlotte Baldwin Allen (1805-1895): “Mother of Houston”

Charlotte Allen | Portrait photograph of Charlotte Allen, wife of August Chapman Allen (1806-1864) who, along with his brother John Kirby Allen (1810-1838), established and developed the city of Houston. Charlotte Allen is called, "the mother of Houston." MSS0114 HMRC Photo Collection (Houston Metropolitan Research Center)

Hailed as “the mother of Houston,” Charlotte Marie Baldwin Allen was born on July 14, 1805, in Onondaga County, New York, according to TSHA. On May 3, 1831, she married Augustus Chapman Allen, a New York businessman. The couple moved to Texas with Allen’s brother John Kirby and began to speculate in land.

In 1836, the Allen brothers purchased a parcel of land along the Buffalo Bayou for $5,000 and began advertising the establishment of a new city named Houston. Historians believe Charlotte’s large inheritance helped finance the venture, according to TSHA. Charlotte and Augustus separated in the 1850s and Augustus left the city. Charlotte remained in Houston and became one of the city’s greatest supporters. She deeded property to the city for a city hall and market house and sold the land which ultimately became the site of the Rice Hotel.

Charlotte died on Aug. 3, 1895, in Houston at the age of 90 and was buried in Glenwood Cemetery. Her home was razed in 1915. The JP Morgan Chase Tower occupies the site today.

MORE: Meet Charlotte Marie Baldwin Allen, the ‘Mother of Houston’

Dr. Sofie Herzog (1846-1925): One of the state’s first female surgeons

Dr. Sofie Herzog of Brazoria, Texas seated behind desk with arms crossed, in 1911. Taken from Julia Graves' scrapbook (Image provided by the Brazoria County Historical Museum)

Austrian-born Sofie Herzog became a successful local surgeon and businesswoman at a time when opportunities for women were limited.

She opened her own practice in Brazoria County, developed her own innovative method of bullet removal and became the first female member of the South Texas Medical Association. When she accepted a position as surgeon for the local line of the St. Louis, Brownsville and Mexico railway, she became the first woman to work as a head surgeon in the American rail industry, according to the Texas Historical Commission. When railway officials attempted to dismiss her on the basis of her gender, she persuaded them to fire her only if they found her performance lacking. She had a prosperous 18-year career with the company and resigned from her position at the age of 79.

During her lifetime, Herzog pushed the boundaries of appropriate social behavior for women. According to TSHA, she wore her hair short, donned split skirts, rode horseback astride instead of side-saddle, and shaded her face with a man’s hat.

In addition to her medical practice, Herzog operated her own pharmacy, built and operated a hotel, and made a fortune investing in real estate.

Miss Ima Hogg (1882-1975): “First Lady of Texas”

Ima Hogg on the Diana Terrace at Bayou Bend c. 1974 (The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Archives)

Ima Hogg, known as the “First Lady of Texas,” devoted her life to the arts, historic preservation and philanthropy.

Hogg helped found several institutions including the Houston Symphony Orchestra, the Hogg Foundation for Mental Health at the University of Texas and the Houston Child Guidance Center.

In 1943, she won an election to the Houston school board. During her time on the board, she worked to establish symphony concerts for schoolchildren, to get equal pay for teachers regardless of sex or race, and to set up a painting-to-music program in the public schools, according to TSHA.

During her lifetime, she bequeathed several historic estates to the state of Texas: the Varner-Hogg Plantation near West Columbia, the Winedale museum near Round Top, and her Houston home in Buffalo Bayou, which she gifted to the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.

She died on Aug. 19, 1975, in London, and was buried in the Hogg family plot in Oakwood Cemetery in Austin, according to TSHA. The major benefactor in her will was the Ima Hogg Foundation, a charitable nonprofit organization she established in 1964.

Eva Bacher: HPD’s first female police officer (1877-1961)

Group with Eva Bacher (Image courtesy of the Houston Police Department Museum)

Houston’s famed woman sleuth, Eva Bacher began her career in Chicago before moving to Houston in 1913.

In Houston, she found work as a house detective for local merchants and department stores. Over the next several years, she earned a reputation for apprehending several shoplifters a day, according to the book “Houston Blue: The Story of the Houston Police Department.”

In an article written about trailblazing Houston businesswomen, Historian Anne Sloan described Bacher as a no nonsense woman who developed her own “special formula for success” – Bacher would “make friends with suspected crooks, talk nice to them, and then ease them out.”

Bacher’s method of apprehension – She’d grab the suspects with her right thumb. She said she broke her thumb a dozen times but wouldn’t let them loose.

In 1917, Bacher accepted a job with the Houston Police Department, becoming the first woman hired by the force. Bacher carried badge #10 and reported directly to the Superintendent of Police. She was part of the Public Moral and Safety Division, a precursor to the department’s Vice Division. Bacher’s HPD career was cut short in 1929 when a newly elected mayor forced the department to fire its female employees and get rid of its horses. When Bacher came back from a vacation in 1929 she was told she was let go for “The Good of the Service.”

After she left HPD, Bacher returned to Foley’s where she worked as a detective until she retired in 1945 at age 70. Bacher died in San Antonio on May 5, 1961 at the age of 84. She is buried at Forest Park Lawndale.

Christia V. Daniels Adair (1893-1989): Civil rights activist, suffragist

Portrait of Christia V. Adair, MSS0109 Christia V. Adair Papers, Houston Metropolitan Research Center (Houston Metropolitan Research Center)

Christia Adair was an elementary school teacher, civil rights activist, suffragist and lifelong leader in the Methodist Church. She became administrator of Houston’s National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1950 and later served 20 years as precinct judge in Houston’s Third Ward.

While serving as an NAACP administrator she helped desegregate the Houston airport, public libraries, city buses, and a department store’s dressing room (she insisted on using a room reserved for white women only), according to the TSHA. She also led efforts to open up jury service to Black residents and to create equal hiring opportunities for county jobs. In 1952, she helped found Harris County’s first interracial political group – the Harris County Democrats. Adair was also active in the Methodist Episcopal Church and was the first Black woman elected to its general board, according to the TSHA.

On her 84th birthday a Houston park was dedicated in her name.

Oveta Culp Hobby (1905-1995): First secretary of the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare

Mrs. William P. Hobby, Director of the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps, dons her uniform for the first time at her office in Washington on June 5, 1942. It’s the WAAC officer’s uniform of gabardine. Mrs.Oveta Culp Hobby wears the Colonel’s eagles on her shoulders but her actually corresponds to a major. (AP Photo) (Copyright 1942 AP. All rights reserved. This)

Oveta Culp Hobby was was born in Killeen in 1905, the daughter of state legislator Ike Culp. She studied at Mary Hardin Baylor College in Belton, Texas. While there she taught elocution, put on school plays, and worked as a cub reporter at the Austin Statesman, according to TSHA. Later, she pursued a law degree at The University of Texas at Austin. While studying, she became a clerk of the State Banking Commission, codified the banking laws of the state of Texas and served as the state’s legislative parliamentarian. Culp worked on the National Democratic National Convention in Houston in 1928 and accepted a post as assistant to the city attorney in Houston. Mind you, she accomplished all of this by the time she married former Texas Gov. William P. Hobby at the age of 26.

Together, the couple purchased and oversaw the Houston Post and later KPRC 2, which the Hobby family retained ownership of until 1994.

During WWII, Culp was asked to organize a women’s support section for the Army: The Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps. Culp served as its first commander and through her efforts, some 150,000 women joined the organization. In January 1945 she was awarded the Distinguished Service Medal for outstanding service. The citation stated, “without guidance or precedents in the United States military history to assist her, Col. Hobby established sound policies and planned and supervised the selection and training of officers and regulations. Her contribution to the war effort of the nation has been of important significance.”

In 1953, President Eisenhower appointed her the first secretary of the newly-created Department of Health, Education, and Welfare.

She died on Aug. 16, 1995, in Houston, and was buried at Glenwood Cemetery.

Nina Vance (1914-1980): Founder and first artistic director of the Alley Theatre

Nina Vance (Image courtesy of the Alley Theatre)

In 1946, San Jacinto High School drama teacher Nina Vance took a leave of absence to direct plays for the Jewish Community Center.

With encouragement from her friends, Vance soon began assembling a local theater group. Using $2.14 she found in her purse, Vance purchased 214 penny postcards. On them she wrote, “It’s beginning! Do you want a new theater for Houston?” and on Oct. 7, 1947, more than 100 postcard recipients met Vance to discuss a new theater company. The group assembled in a small dance studio at the end of a long alleyway, which inspired the company’s name: The Alley. Just two months later, on Nov. 18, 1947, the new company presented its first production, a war play titled “A Sound of Hunting.”

Under Vance’s leadership, the theater group transformed from an amateur troupe into a nationally-recognized theater company. In 1969, the Alley moved into its state-of-the art building at 615 Texas Avenue in downtown Houston.

Vance continued as artistic director of the Alley until her death in 1980.

Hattie Mae White (1916–1993): First Black person elected to public office in Texas in the 20th century

Hattie Mae White was the first Black person elected to public office in Texas in the 20th century. A former schoolteacher, she won a place on the Houston school board in 1958, at a time when the city’s schools were still segregated. Undeterred by her detractors, among whom shattered her windshield and burned a cross in her yard, White was outspoken about desegregation. While on the school board -- she was re-elected twice -- White advocated for an effective desegregation plan, improving the quality of education in Houston’s schools, and pressured the board to accept federal funds for education.

“Although White achieved few of her objectives, she did help convince the district to accept federal funds, she witnessed some improvement in the status of Black employees in the district, and she kept the people of Houston informed about the issues before the board,” the Handbook of Texas says of White. “Most importantly, her election in 1958 demonstrated that African American could win political office in Houston, and it helped promote increased political activity among the city’s minorities.”

In 1967, White was defeated in her efforts to win another term. After an unsuccessful bid for a seat in the Texas Legislature in 1968, White returned to teaching and retired at age 70. The Houston ISD headquarters building was named the Hattie Mae White Educational Support Center in her honor.

Mary Kay Ash (1918-2001): Houston-born businesswoman and founder of Mary Kay Cosmetics

Mary Kay Ash (Getty)

Born on May 12, 1918 in Harris County, Mary Kay Ash graduated from Reagan High School in 1934. She worked in in direct sales for 25 years, pitching child psychology books and later conducting demonstrations for Stanley Home Products. Though one of the top sales directors, she was repeatedly refused the promotions and pay raises her male counterparts received.

Disillusioned with her experience, Ash retired in 1963 at age 45 and made plans to go into business with her second husband. Though he died of a heart attack one month before their business was slated to begin, Ash carried on with their plan and began operating Mary Kay Cosmetics with help from nine saleswomen and her 20-year-old son. Two decades later, the company had grown into one of the most successful direct-sales companies in the world.

Ash remained involved in the business until she suffered a stroke in 1996. She died in her Dallas home on Nov. 22, 2001. She was 88.

Terese “Terry” Tarlton Hershey (1923-2017): Second woman in history appointed to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission

Terese Hershey (Image provided by the Bayou Preservation Association)

Terese “Terry” Hershey was a leading environmental activist in the Houston area for several decades. She had a role in forming numerous environmental organizations in the state, including the Bayou Preservation Association, the Harris County Flood Control Task Force, Citizens Who Care, The Citizens Environmental Coalition, Urban Harvest, Park People and the Jacob and Terese Hershey Foundation. In 1991, Hershey was the second woman in history appointed to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission.

She first got involved in what would become her life’s work quite by chance in 1966 when she noticed an area along Buffalo Bayou ravaged by fallen trees and bulldozed undergrowth. When she called county offices, she learned that the Harris County Flood Control District and the Army Corps of Engineers were in the process of rerouting Buffalo Bayou without public notice, according to Houston History Magazine. Hershey mobilized neighbors and community organizations and after a period of public outcry, the Harris County Commissioners Court agreed to a six-month moratorium on the project. It was then that Hershey turned to her newly elected congressman, George H.W. Bush. Interested in the campaign, Bush invited Hershey to testify before Congress. Hershey and her fellow campaigners conducted community education campaigns and continued to challenge the Army Corps of Engineers, the Harris County Flood Control District and the Commissioners Court until their efforts finally succeeded in 1971 with the passage of the National Environmental Policy Act, which required the Army Corps of Engineers to gather public input and prepare environmental impact statements before moving forward on significant projects. With feedback from the community, the Corps finally canceled the project to reroute Buffalo Bayou.

Thanks in part to her efforts, Buffalo Bayou remains a mostly natural area offering animals a habitat and countless local residents a green space for recreational opportunities, according to the Bayou Preservation Association.

Hershey dedicated the remainder of her life to environmental activism. A Houston park is named in her honor.

Eleanor Tinsley (1926-2009): One of the first women elected to the Houston City Council

Eleanor Tinsley holding a framed newspaper article clipping | Eleanor Tinsley was president of the board of the Houston Independent School District from 1969 to 1973, and member of the city council from 1979 to 1995. She was involved in the school integration movement and was instrumental in the creation of the Houston Community College. RG D 0006 Houston Post Photographic Collection (Houston Metropolitan Research Center)

During her decades of public service, Eleanor Tinsley championed many proposals to improve the quality of life for Houston residents.

In 1969, Tinsley was elected to the Houston School Board. She became its president in 1972. During her time on the board, she helped integrate Houston public schools in an “orderly and non-violent manner” which “set the example for positive integration throughout the state and resulted in a magnet school concept, which served as a national model,” according to the Texas Women’s Hall of Fame, which inducted Tinsley in 1988.

She also served as president of Harris County Children’s Protective Services and helped establish several educational programs and groups, including the Texas Council of Child Welfare Board, the Volunteers in Public Schools Program and the Houston Community College System.

In 1979, Tinsley became one of the first two women ever elected to Houston City Council. During her 16-year career as a councilwoman, Tinsley championed billboard regulations, smoking bans, bicycle helmet requirements, protections for LGBTQ residents, choking first-aid signage in restaurants and the 911 system, according to TSHA. She also founded the Spark Park Program, which has developed more than 150 Houston playgrounds since its inception in 1983.

Eleanor Tinsley Park and the Eleanor Tinsley Elementary School were dedicated in Tinsley’s honor.

Barbara Jordan (1936-1996): The first Black woman in American history to preside over a state legislative body

U.S. Rep. Barbara Jordan of Texas responds to plaudits of the Democratic National Convention before starting her keynote speech in New York City on July 12, 1976. (AP Photo) (Copyright 1976 AP. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

Barbara Jordan grew up in Houston’s Fourth Ward and graduated magna cum laude from Texas State University with a degree in political science. She received a law degree at Boston University Law School.

Later, she became the first Black person to be elected to the Texas Senate in the 20th century, according to TSHA. In 1972, she was named President Pro Tempore of the Texas Senate, making her the first Black woman in American history to preside over a state legislative body. During her political career, she also became the first Black woman elected to the U.S. Congress from a former Confederate state, and subsequently the first to deliver the keynote address at a national party convention.

Among her many honors were induction into the Texas Women’s Hall of Fame in 1984 and the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 1990. She received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1994.

Jordan died in Austin, Texas, on January 17, 1996. She was laid to rest at the Texas State Cemetery, making her the first African American woman to be buried there.

Martha Wong (1939–): The first Asian American woman elected to the Texas House of Representatives

Wong began her career in education as a first grade teacher with HISD. While with the school district, she rose through the ranks to become the first Asian American school principal in the state.

Wong became the first Asian American ever elected to Houston City Council in 1993 and in 2002, she defeated a 22-year incumbent to become the first Asian American woman elected to the Texas House of Representatives.

“Martha J. Wong is a unique woman who has truly exemplified the best of two cultures,” James S. Hogg Middle School writes of its distinguished alumnus. “She has made Houston and Texas a better place to live through her service in civic organizations and on Houston’s City Council and Texas House of Representatives. In her education service, she has made Texas education better for students and educators. Martha has been a key player in bringing people together and providing leadership in untouched areas.”

In 1994, Wong became the first Asian American woman inducted into the Texas Women’s Hall of Fame.

Marcelite J. Harris (1943-2018): First Black female general officer of the United States Air Force

Marcelite J. Harris (Image courtesy of the U.S. Air Force)

Marcelite J. Harris was the first Black female general officer of the United States Air Force.

Born on Jan. 16, 1943 in Houston, Harris graduated from Kashmere High School before enrolling at Spelman College where she earned a bachelors in speech and drama.

After graduating from Spelman, Harris joined the U.S. Air Force. She was sent to Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas, where she entered Officer Training School. While in the Air Force she held a variety of assignments, many of which resulted in “firsts” for women in that service branch. She was the first woman aircraft maintenance officer, one of the first two women air officers commanding at the U.S. Air Force Academy, and the first woman deputy commander for maintenance. She also served as a White House social aide during the Carter administration. Harris retired from the U.S. Air Force in 1997.

Harris died on Sept. 7, 2018 at 75. She was buried in Arlington National Cemetery with full military honors. She was laid to rest alongside her husband, Lt. Col. Maurice Harris.

Is there a woman in Houston history you want to recognize? Share her legacy in the comment section below.

About the Author:

Briana Zamora-Nipper joined the KPRC 2 digital team in 2019. When she’s not hard at work in the KPRC 2 newsroom, you can find Bri drinking away her hard earned wages at JuiceLand, running around Hermann Park, listening to crime podcasts or ransacking the magazine stand at Barnes & Noble.