‘A Legacy of Courage’ Honors County Women

Have you heard the story of the state’s first woman doctor, who waited until she was 40 years old and the mother of five to enter medical school in 1876?

How about the pioneering woman film maker who addressed such issues as infidelity, back-alley abortions and equal pay for women in more than 75 films produced in 1913-33?

Or the former gold miner who carried bucket after bucket from the well to water the 1,000 orange trees she planted in the days before irrigation and faucets? The Fullerton woman whose 1953 award-winning autobiography was titled “It’s Good to Be Black”?

Those are just a few of the stories that were uncovered when the county’s three chapters of the Young Women’s Christian Assn. decided to delve into local women’s history as part of the yearlong Orange County Centennial celebration.


And if those tales aren’t familiar ones, don’t worry. They will be, thanks to a display sponsored by the YWCAs and Newport Beach-based Pacific Mutual Life Insurance Co. that will be exhibited for a year at malls and other county locations, beginning Sept. 26 at Fashion Island in Newport Beach.

Titled “Women of Distinction in Orange County History: A Legacy of Courage,” the modular display uses photographs and videotape to spotlight 30 outstanding women who helped shape the county.

Mary Douglas, executive director of the South Orange County YWCA, says she hopes the project will inspire today’s young women to strive for higher goals, even though the pressures of raising a family and earning a living may at times seem overwhelming.

“For me it was an energizer,” Douglas says. “We can certainly look to the legacy that those women have given us and just never feel that we can’t do it. If they experienced such adversity, certainly we can carry the torch and go forward with what we’re doing.


“These were all women who could have chosen to take care of their families, period. But instead of merely taking responsibility for their own lives, each of them had a vision of something they might be able to contribute by reaching out to others.”

Nancy Robbins of Pacific Mutual, who put together the exhibit’s video featuring 14 of the women, says: “These were the type of women somebody could look at and say, ‘If they could do that, maybe I could do something too. Everyone involved in the project found it inspirational.”

The 30 women, selected from among nearly 100 nominated by the three organizations, include such prominent names as Yorba Linda writer Jessamyn West, author of “Friendly Persuasion” and cousin of former President Richard M. Nixon, and actress Madame Helena Modjeska, for whom Modjeska Canyon is named.

There are some “firsts” on the list also, from Dr. Bessica Raiche, “the nation’s first aviatrix,” to the county’s first felon, Modesta Avila, who died at 23 while imprisoned at San Quentin Prison. Her crime: She protested the coming of the railroad by hanging her laundry across the tracks.


Famous names and “firsts” are important, Douglas says, but adds: “I think we really wanted to present a variety. There were so many women doing so many things that made this county what it is today.”

Douglas says she also hopes the display can be a “consciousness-raiser” for men as well as women: “This is an opportunity to showcase what we’ve done historically, and hopefully the male leadership will look to those of us who look forward to participate in additional ways.”

The honorees, in chronological order, are:

Vincente Sepulveda Yorba Carrillo (1816-1907), who took over the family rancho in what is now Anaheim after her first husband’s death, for her achievements as a businesswoman and in land management.


Dr. Alice Boyle Higgins (1836-86) of Anaheim, who decided at age 40 to become a doctor and was the first woman to graduate from a California medical school.

Persis Ainsworth (1837-1933), who lived with her husband in the California gold camps, building sluice boxes and panning alongside the men, before moving to what is now Orange and planting her orange grove.

Madame Helena Modjeska (1840-1909), who fled Russian oppression in her native Poland and learned English so she could continue her acting career here.

Frances Plum Irvine (?-1909), first wife of pioneer county landowner James Irvine II.


Mary Teagarden Clark (1846-1909), who established the children’s department at the Orange Public Library.

Alice Taylor Armor (1848-1917), a teacher-turned-newspaperwoman who published the Orange Post for 20 years.

Maria Oxarart Bastanchury (1848-1943) of Fullerton, who came from the Pyrenees to marry rancher Domingo Bastanchury, and later managed 200 acres on her own after his death.

Dr. Willella Howe-Waffle (1854-1924), Santa Ana’s first woman physician, who traveled in her horse and buggy to deliver hundreds of babies and took young mothers into her home when there was no room at the hospital.


Modesta Avila (1869-92) of San Juan Capistrano, who protested the railroad that came through her property because she believed her mother had not been paid enough for the land that was taken and because the trains made so much noise her chickens wouldn’t lay eggs.

Dr. Ida Parker (1869-1917), of Orange, who was the first woman admitted into the Orange County Medical Society in 1895.

Mrs. Hiram Clay Kellogg (1870-1965), a descendant of a prominent pioneer family who was active in Santa Ana civic affairs.

Dr. Bessica Raiche (1875-1932) of Santa Ana, an obstetrician/gynecologist who designed her own biplane, supervised its construction and varnished the China silk that covered the wings herself before flying it in 1910.


Nellie Gail Moulton (1879-1932) of South Laguna, a teacher, artist and co-manager of the Moulton-Niguel Ranch.

Marguerite M. O’Neill (1879-1981), matriarch of Rancho Santa Margarita y Flores.

Jennie Lasby Tessman (1882-1959) of Santa Ana, a researcher, astronomer and author.

Lois Weber (1883-1939) of Fullerton, who, according to the YWCA’s research, was the first woman film maker in the United States and one of just two women directors in the world at the time. Her films dealt with controversial social issues.


Lulu Convis Launer (1888-1985) of Fullerton, a civic leader and organizer.

Mrs. W.O. (Elsie) Clough Hart (1889-1978), a civic leader whose home in Orange was a converted barn once featured in the Ladies Home Journal.

Irma Ferris (1889-1980) of Fullerton, twice-widowed mother of two who founded the Pillowry department store in 1929 and was active in its operation until her death.

Cordelia Knott (1890-1974) of Buena Park, who, with her husband Walter, founded Knott’s Berry Farm.


Florence Danner Flippin Smiley (1893-1979) of Orange, who helped create that city’s community historical society.

Zola Maag Fletcher (1896-1980) of Orange, an oil field worker and tax collector who managed the Santa Ana Girls Bloomer Baseball Club.

Ruth Thomas Segerstrom (1898-present) of Santa Ana, partner in C.J. Segerstrom & Sons; wife of pioneer landowner Anton Segerstrom.

Jessamyn West (1902-1984) of Yorba Linda, who began writing as a young woman after she was told she would soon be dead of tuberculosis. She died 50 years later.


Ruby Berkley Goodwin (1903-61) of Fullerton, an actress and press agent whose autobiography, “It’s Good to Be Black,” won the 1953 Gold Medal for best nonfiction book in California.

Alice Wilber Chapman (1903-81) of Fullerton, who introduced nursing classes at Fullerton high school and college and founded several civic organizations.

Mildred Yorba Serrano (1903-87) of Fullerton, a law student, author and philanthropist.

Ramona Wheatley (1909-82) of Fullerton, founder of the Orange County Visiting Nurses Assn., who raised more than $40,000 for a refugee and orphan home in Korea with her lectures.


Sister Jane Frances Power (1913-present) of Orange, founding administrator of St. Jude Hospital in Fullerton.