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Column: Women who stand beside, not behind, state leaders

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As a new bride, Ann Jennings rode horseback 17 days to get to Washington, D.C. Her husband, Jonathan Jennings, had been re-elected to Congress as a delegate from the Indiana Territory.

When Indiana gained statehood in 1816, Jonathan was elected governor. Ann returned with him to the capital of Corydon to serve as the state’s first “first lady.”

March is National Women’s History Month. It seems a good time to shed a little light on some of the courageous women who helped their husbands make Indiana history.

Ann Jennings was only 24 when Jonathan took office. By all accounts, she represented the new state very well. She was a guest of Dolly Madison at the White House, and back home in Indiana she entertained President James Monroe and Gen. Andrew Jackson.

Traveling through the thick forest of early Indiana was not for the faint of heart. Ann Hendricks and husband William were living in Madison when he was elected governor. To get to Corydon, they had to go by flatboat and stagecoach.

James Brown Ray was the first governor to serve in the newly created capital of Indianapolis. His wife, Esther, was not impressed with the new governor’s mansion built in the middle of what we now call “Monument Circle.” The home consisted of four large drafty rooms on each of two floors. There was no kitchen. Esther refused to move in, saying that she did not want everybody in town inspecting her washing Monday morning.

No governor ever lived in the house in the middle of the circle.

When David Wallace was elected Indiana’s chief executive in 1836, he and his wife, Zelda, were provided a new governor’s home at the northwest corner of Illinois and Ohio Streets. As first lady, Zelda worked hard to accomplish reform. She was active in the Women’s Christian Temperance Union and founded the Indiana Women’s Suffrage Association.

Over the years, Indiana’s first ladies supported their husbands far beyond keeping home fires burning and raising children. Oliver P. Morton, governor during the crucial years of the Civil War, worked in partnership with his wife, Lucinda. When President Andrew Johnson asked Morton to represent him at a conference in Paris, Lucinda went in his place to a reception for Napoleon Bonaparte.

Charlotte Baker served during the Civil War as a nurse, and when her husband, Conrad, became governor they worked together to encourage the state to build the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Home in Knightstown, Boys’ School in Plainfield and the Home for the Friendless in Indianapolis.

Rhoda Chase was also a nurse in the war. When her husband, Ira became sick in camp, she went into the field to aid him and his comrades. Serving tirelessly, she contracted smallpox, which left her blind and crippled the rest of her life. Nevertheless, she helped Ira through one term in Congress and his years at the Statehouse.

The marriage of Thomas and Lois Marshall was legendary in the early years of the 20th century. They were devoted to each other. It is said that they were never separated overnight, even through his four years as governor and eight years as vice president of the United States.

Gov. Robert Orr’s wife already had proved her mettle by the time she became first lady. “Josie” Orr was in the Women’s Air Force Service during World War II and piloted bombers and cargo planes all over the country.

Roger Branigin was attending Franklin College when he met his future wife, Josephine. They spent their lives together as he became an attorney and governor.

“I tried my best to represent Indiana and the governor,” Josephine once said, “to be ready and able to serve as needed. Although we lived in the governor’s residence, we tried to continue our usual routine. Roger liked to answer the phone and the door and often did just that. Callers were surprised to hear his voice and meet him at the door.”

In the Statehouse today, first lady Karen Pence works side by side with her husband, Mike. She is using her many years of experience as a teacher to reach out to schools. Student artwork adorns the walls of her office. One of her special interests is art therapy for children at Riley Hospital for Children.

Her big job now is serving as bicentennial ambassador for Indiana as the state prepares to celebrate its 200th birthday.

For nearly two centuries, governors’ wives have been the women behind the men, or more correctly, the women beside the men who have taken on the top job in the state.

James H. Johnson is a retired teacher who lives in Greenwood. Send comments to letters@dailyjournal.net.

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