National Women’s History Month has as its theme this year, “Women’s Education—Women’s Empowerment,” which presumably indicates that women are empowered through education. While that is undoubtedly true, it is also true that women have long played a powerful role to educate and empower others.
While many successful men and women are quick to give their mother credit for providing much of the education and empowerment that led to their success, that only scratches the surface.
Women have consistently taught us lessons which empower. While women in any society often lead with lessons of courage, fairness, respect and perseverance, that leadership role is heightened in the matrilineal society of the Chickasaw people.
For example, in 1837 Betsy Love had the courage to defend her property rights in a Mississippi courtroom. Because she was able to teach the judge about Chickasaw law and traditions she not only won her case, she also laid the foundation for the property rights married women enjoy to this day.
In that same year, Chickasaws were removed from their homelands and made an arduous journey to Indian Territory. Facing adversity, Chickasaw people continued to hold fast to their culture and tradition.
Chickasaw people continued to place a high value on the role of women in society. Schools for women were established in a time and place where the education of women was not always a high priority.
One of these schools, Bloomfield Academy, was known as “the Bryn Mawr of the West,” and later helped serve as a model for the education system in Oklahoma. Female teachers there were charged with educating and empowering their students to become leaders. Distinguished graduates of the school were known as “Bloomfield Blossoms.”
One of those “Bloomfield Blossoms,” Alice Hearrell, married William H. Murray, who later became governor of Oklahoma. Mrs. Murray was also involved with the education department of the Chickasaw Nation, and an article in the Chronicles of Oklahoma stated that she “had a noble share in shaping the destiny of Oklahoma.”
She was so widely respected that upon her death in 1938 she became the first woman to lie in state at the Oklahoma Capitol.
Another Chickasaw woman, Te Ata Fisher spent decades educating people across the United States and around the world with her stories of the beauty and wisdom of American Indian culture. In 1958, Te Ata was inducted into the Oklahoma Hall of Fame. In 1987 she was named the first Oklahoma treasure.
There is little doubt that countless young people were inspired and empowered because of the impact she had as a storyteller and role model.
Her niece, Helen Te Ata Gale Cole, served more than nine years in the Oklahoma Senate and six years in the Oklahoma House of Representatives. Mrs. Cole, who also served as Mayor of Moore, is the mother of U.S. Representative Tom Cole.
Rep. Cole is quick to acknowledge the many lessons he learned from the example set by his mother.
For many years, Chickasaw leaders have greeted people to the “unconquered and unconquerable Chickasaw Nation… a nation known for its intrepid warriors and its dynamic women.” Chickasaw women have historically been an integral part of our warrior society, serving as guards and coming to the aid of warriors in battle. While there is not space to name all the dynamic Chickasaw women who play a role in educating and empowering others, it is only fitting that we take time this month to acknowledge the very real difference women make as they teach and empower us to reach for even greater heights.
Bill Anoatubby is the governor of Chickasaw Nation.