Local women who made history celebrated in Monroe

MONROE — Many women were the backbone of their communities, yet it’s mostly the men who are recognized in the history books.

Gail Dillaway wants to change that. She is spearheading an effort to write the stories of Skykomish Valley’s most influential women for the Monroe Historical Society.

“There’s a famous quote: ‘Well-behaved women seldom make history,’” said Dillaway, 68. “That was true for a long time.”

Former Monroe Mayor Donnetta Walser made a little history herself.

“I’ve watched the role of women completely change in politics,” Walser said. “We’ve come a long way, but it has taken forever.”

Dillaway and a handful of volunteers are making sure the hard work of ordinary women is remembered. Walser and two others are scheduled to answer questions this week at a celebration of Women’s History Month. The program is part of a Historical Society presentation at 7 p.m. Thursday at the Monroe Library.

One of the women who will appear is Mabel Neisinger, 98. She has lived in Monroe most of her life. She endured the Great Depression. Her husband and brothers served in World War II, and her son was in the Vietnam War.

“Perhaps the most striking characteristic of Mabel is that in spite of having to deal with tremendous adversity, she was able to change and adapt to the times to be successful,” Dillaway said. “Throughout her life, she has embraced hard work and active living, something she still does today.”

Neisinger was valedictorian at Monroe High School in 1936 and worked her way through college by picking berries on a farm. Her later employers included a state agency and what is now the Monroe Correctional Complex, where she screened inmate mail. All while raising two children.

Neisinger lives on her own and cooks for her grandchildren. She said her secret to keeping well is walking at least a mile a day. She goes to Denny’s for breakfast on Wednesdays and walks across U.S. 2 — no easy task for older folks — to do her grocery shopping.

“She’s not a person who’s going to sit there and wait for someone to take her somewhere,” Dillaway said. “Nothing is going to stop her, she’s going to go. You have to admire that.”

Another woman who left her mark on Monroe is Walser, the former mayor.

Walser first was appointed to the City Council in 1974. The men on the council, she recalled, questioned her ability to make decisions as a young woman. And they wondered whether she could be a reliable council member with two young children at home.

“They were sure that because I had two kids in diapers, I’d have a hard time. To them, it was a valid concern. But I hardly ever missed a meeting and I made sure to read everything. … There was nothing I could say to change their minds. I wanted to contribute so that’s what I did.”

Walser served on the council until 1983. During her busy life, she also taught in the Monroe School District for almost 30 years.

In 1999, Walser was again appointed to the council. And she served eight years as the city’s mayor, treating the part-time position like a full-time job and spending her own money on travel to promote local causes. After she lost her bid for a third term as mayor in 2009, Walser continued to volunteer for local groups.

Margaret Ohlsen, 68, also will share her perspective on women in Monroe’s history Thursday. Pioneers on both sides of her family helped establish the city. Ohlsen lived for years on her family’s homestead, a dairy farm on Ben Howard Road.

After her husband returned from the Vietnam War, they opened Ohlsen Electric. Ohlsen wired houses alongside her husband while they raised two children. She’s also been active in the Tualco Grange for more than half a century.

“We’ve seen a lot of changes in Monroe,” Ohlsen said. “Women certainly have a bigger role.”

The Monroe Historical Society is documenting that evolution by expanding the Snohomish County Women’s Legacy Project, a website that includes articles about women who have left their mark.

Dillaway and other volunteers have more articles in the works. Once those are completed, they plan to do more, eventually creating a book about Monroe women.

“I’m committed to the idea of women’s history and making sure women get their due,” Dillaway said. “They may not have done the most exceptional things, but they worked hard and received very little recognition.”

Amy Nile: 425-339-3192; anile@heraldnet.com. Twitter: @AmyNileReports.

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