From technological advances to equality and women’s rights, there are many women who have played a significant role in Wichita. To this day, influential women in Wichita’s history are honored and remembered, and the women of Wichita today have gained inspiration from them. They have shaped the city in many ways and continue to be an invaluable part of why Wichita is the heart of the country.
There are so many amazing female changemakers in Wichita – past and present – it’s difficult to list them all but we’ve complied a hefty list to capture a number of the women who’ve made their mark on the city.
Influential Women in Wichita’s History
First on our list is Catherine Greiffenstein, a previous landowner who helped run the frontier trading post along with her husband in Wichita’s early days.
Credit: Wichita-Sedgwick County Historical Museum
One of the city’s first female entrepreneurs was Catherine McCarty. She purchased land and began a laundry service. Additionally, she was the only woman to sign Wichita’s founding charter in 1870. Also noteworthy, she is the mother of the famous outlaw, Billy the Kid.
Although she was not born in Kansas, this list wouldn’t be complete without prohibitionist Carry Nation. Nation brought Wichita to national attention after destroying the Eaton hotel bar with a hatchet in 1900. After watching her husband suffer and die from an alcohol addiction, she took it upon herself to crusade against alcohol. The Eaton bar was Wichita’s fanciest and most prominent at the time, making it the perfect target for Nation and her hatchet.
Olive Ann Beech
Credit: Wichita-Sedgwick County Historical Museum
Olive Ann Beech was the co-founder, president and chairwoman of the Beech Aircraft Corporation. She founded the company in 1932 with her husband, Walter Beech, and three others. She has earned more awards than any other woman in aviation and is often referred to as the “First Lady of Aviation.” Learn more about Beech and other women aviators through the Women of Aviation exhibit at the Kansas Aviation Museum.
Olive Ann Garvey, a philanthropist and businesswoman, co-founded Music Theatre Wichita and created The Center for the Improvement of Human Functioning, now the Riordan Clinic. Garvey and Beech were the first women members of the Chamber of Commerce.
Born in Wichita in 1919, Mary Chance VanScyoc was one of the country’s first recognized female civilian air traffic controllers in the United States.
Mark Arts, the regional arts hub that started in November 1920 as the Wichita Art Association, was influenced heavily by many women: Maude Gowen Schollenberger, an arts supporter and long-time president of the Wichita Art Association from the 1930s into the 1960s; Olive Ann Beech, Gladys Wiedemann and Mary Robinson Koch, three philanthropists who were influential to the organization beginning in the 1960s.
The Wichita Art Museum, which celebrated its 85th anniversary in 2020, was started by two women. Louise Caldwell Murdock, owner of an interior design company and widow of Wichita Eagle business manager and part-owner Roland P. Murdock, provided the seed money to start WAM’s collection when she died in 1915.
Credit: The Kansas African American Museum
Hattie McDaniel, a Wichita-born film actress, became the first African American to be nominated for, as well as the first African American to win an Oscar. In 1940, McDaniel received the award for Best Actress in a Supporting Role for her portrayal of Mammy in “Gone with the Wind.” She was honored with a star on the Walk of Fame in 1960.
Be sure to visit the colorful Hattie McDaniel Memorial in Wichita, which showcases her life and career. Visitors can find it at 925 N. Wichita St., near 9th and Waco, across the street where she once lived.
Former President Barack Obama’s mother, Ann Dunham, was born in Wichita in 1942.
Actress Kirstie Alley, best known for her role as Rebecca Howe in "Cheers," was born in Wichita on Jan. 12, 1951.
Doris Kerr Larkins
Credit: The Kansas African American Museum
Parishioner Doris Kerr Larkins led the effort to protect the Calvary Baptist Church, now The Kansas African American Museum (TKAAM), from urban renewal’s wrecking ball. Larkins and many others went on to launch the First National Black Historical Society in 1973.
Learn about Larkin and other influential African American women by visiting TKAAM, a regional arts and cultural museum dedicated to the collection, exhibition and preservation of art reflective of African-American life and culture.
Professional basketball player Lynette Woodard was the first woman in history to play for the Harlem Globetrotters. She was added to the team’s roster in 1985 and played on the team for two seasons. Woodard went on to play overseas and, in the WNBA, (Women’s National Basketball Association).
Joanna Gaines of HGTV’s “Fixer Upper” was born in Wichita in 1978.
Susan McKnight, longtime owner of Susan's Inc. at Douglas and Oliver is known for her phenomenal creative designs that were featured in many Wichita businesses and households. Her shop appears to be a small floral shop; however, it has become one of the top 500 shops in the country with one location and owner. Her work on Botanica Wichita, along with the work of Ruth McClymonds of Remembrance Flowers, made a huge impact on this popular Wichita attraction.
Raised in of Hutchinson, KS, Elizabeth Anna Mabry (McLean) is known for taking on and winning a fight against the Kansas State Legislature. The legislature had plans to build the Interstate 235 through a newly developed residential area. McLean demonstrated to the governor, with her artwork, how the state could save money by building the highway along a riverbed instead of through a residential community. The northwest section of I-235 was thus constructed, and many families’ homes were saved. Mclean was recognized by the mayor in November of 1997 and awarded with the “Medal of the City” at her art exhibit at the Wichita Art Museum. To this day, Mclean is known and honored with a brick in the Plaza of Heroines at Wichita State University.
Influential Women in Wichita Today
Janelle King | The Workroom
Today, Wichita has many women-owned businesses, including some of its most beloved eateries. If you are visiting Wichita and are looking to support restaurants and specialty food and beverage shops owned by women, here are several to choose from:
Sarah Leslie | Leslie Coffee Co.
The Anchor, Argentina's Empanadas, Artichoke Sandwichbar, Bagatelle Bakery, Brickyard, The Donut Whole, Jimmie’s Diner (North Rock and South locations), The Kitchen, Leslie Coffee Co., Monarch, Mort’s Martini & Cigar Bar, Public, Sweet Allie B’s, Tanya’s Soup Kitchen, Viola's Pantry and Olive Tree Catering.
Other tasty Wichita establishments with women co-owners are 1400 by Elderslie, Bella Vita Bistro, Espresso To Go Go, Elderslie Farm, Everyday by Elderslie, Hopping Gnome Brewing Company, Kookaburra Coffee, Monica’s Bundt Cake, Nortons Brewing Co., Old Mill Tasty Shop, The Popcorner (East & West locations), Prost and Ziggy’s Pizza (Clifton Square, East & West).
Kelsey Metzinger | Bungalow 26
It’s not just the dining scene that is bursting with talented women. Local shops and unique businesses across the city are owned and co-owned by women: American Fun Food Company, A. Jay Health and Wellness, Bash Booking Agency, Bungalow 26, Bohemia Healing Spa, Cocoa Dolce (Bradley Fair, New Market Square and Old Town), Drone-tography, LLC, Xclusive Events, Generations Antiques and Artisans, Lucinda’s, Paramount Antique Mall, Sunflower Travel Corp., The Selfie Spot on Douglas, Uniquities Home, The Health Connection, The Workroom, GROW Giesen Plant Shop/Botanica and more!
Museums and Attractions with Women at the Helm:
- CityArts: Offers year-round art classes in digital arts, photography, fiber, silversmithing, glass fusing, glass blowing, painting, pottery and drawing
- Dave & Buster's: Play hundreds of the hottest new arcade games at this American restaurant and sports bar
- Frank Lloyd Wright's Allen House: One of iconic architect Frank Lloyd Wright’s prairie style masterpieces
- Mid-America All-Indian Museum: Just steps from the Keeper of the Plains, the museum preserves the heritage of the American Indian and houses an impressive collection of art from the Keeper’s designer, Blackbear Bosin
- Mama.Film: Showcases films to unite nurturers of all kinds, to reflect and ignite conversation
- Mark Arts: Wichita's oldest cultural institution; a vibrant regional arts hub that provides opportunities to appreciate and create art
- Old Cowtown Museum: A living history museum that immerses you in the sights, sounds and activities common to a Midwestern cattle town like Wichita
- Orpheum Theatre: Opened in 1922 and hosts world-class entertainment from its historic stage
- Paint the Towne: Offers guided painting experiences
- The Kansas African American Museum: Celebrates the richness of the African American experience and its indelible influence on American culture, tradition, language, music and art
- Wichita Art Museum: Home to an outstanding collection of American art from artist like Edward Hopper, Mary Cassatt, John Steuart Curry and Dale Chihuly.
Check out even more women-owned businesses in Wichita in this blog.