Writing Ourselves Back Into the Story
The history and ongoing legacy of the New Mexico Historic Women Marker Program
By Emily Withnall
Photographs by Alanna Romero
When Patricia French saw Big Bird building an horno on Sesame Street in 1975, she knew she wanted to live in New Mexico.
In 1978, she moved to the state with her husband and two-year-old son in tow. As they drove across the country from New York, French remembers singing Buffy Sainte-Marie’s refrain from the series: “Sunny day, on my way to Santa Fe.”
French is the mind behind the New Mexico Historic Women Marker Program, which launched as a 2005 initiative to commemorate women’s contributions to the state’s history. And although she didn’t know it at the time, Buffy Sainte-Marie’s influence on Sesame Street’s New Mexico series proved to be an auspicious beginning to a project that honors women from many cultures in New Mexico.
In 2005, there were over 500 historic markers on roadsides across New Mexico. Many of the markers provided information about the landscape, events, or people that contributed significantly to the state’s history. Upon her arrival to New Mexico, French says, “All I did with my family was travel the state. I look everything up, and I looked at those markers.” What she noticed, however, was that of the hundreds of markers she read, very few markers mentioned women—and when they did, the women were mentioned in passing as someone’s mother or wife. At San Ildefonso Pueblo, one marker mentioned internationally renowned potter Maria Martinez. But she was the only one.
Historic roadside markers began to be installed in New Mexico in 1935, at the same time as many other states in the country. The passage of the 1935 Historic Sites Act, signed into law by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, signaled a commitment to the preservation of sites, buildings, and objects of national significance. With the expansion of American highways, historic markers were seen as a way to promote local history and tourism and to inspire Americans taking to the open road.
Although French noticed the absence of women on the roadside markers in her early travels around New Mexico, she mostly kept her observation to herself—until she met likeminded friends Beverly Duran and Alexis Girard. French and Girard met while they were both raising their young children, and later both women met Duran through the New Mexico Women’s Forum.
French, Duran, and Girard all have personal histories filled with activism and a commitment to equity. French began her career creating an early childhood center in Brooklyn that now is fifty years old—an experience that fueled her dedication to supporting educational opportunities in New Mexico. Duran is a fifteenth-generation New Mexican with a long activist
history, including her notable success in addressing systemic disparities in graduate student housing in the early ’70s. Girard, a fifth-generation New Mexican, recalls marching against the Vietnam War and says she is the first woman to lead her family’s real estate company.
In 1988, French co-founded the New Mexico Women’s Forum, which is now known as the International Women’s Forum-New Mexico. The purpose of the Forum was to provide mutual support and mentorship to empower and elevate women in positions of leadership. French and Duran were both early members, and Girard later joined them. Then, in 1996, at the Forum’s first overnight retreat on the CS Cattle Company ranch, the three women walked the ruts of the Santa Fe Trail and stopped to read a historic marker there.
“Pat was reading that sign and she remarked that many women had traveled the trail, but none had been acknowledged,” Duran says. “And she wondered how the Forum could honor these women. That’s when I thought, ‘Oh, yeah, the Santa Fe Trail, but also, what about the women that came over on the Camino Real?’”
French frequently commented on the absence of women on historic markers, but it took nearly ten years from that day walking the ruts of the Santa Fe Trail to begin to remedy the exclusion of women from the state’s history. On July 9, 2005, the IWF-NM president asked for project proposals from members. Women’s markers were still very much on French’s mind.
“I was sitting next to Bev and Alexis,” French says. “And Bev said, ‘Tell them about your idea! We’ll get behind it and work on it together.’”
The IWF-NM agreed to take on the Women Marker Initiative with French, Duran, and Girard leading the charge. French contacted New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson and spoke with him first about the idea. He was interested. “His wife, Barbara, always used to say to him, ‘If someone wants something from you for the state, take a look at it,’” says Rosemary Molnar, who became one of the Initiative’s executive administrators.
Duran, Girard, and other members of the Women’s Forum then began lobbying state legislators. They describe the process as complicated and educational, but legislators were receptive and Senator Ingle and his staff were especially helpful. Through the guidance they received from Anne Green-Romig in the Department of Cultural Affairs and Paula Tackett from Legislative Council Service, they pushed for a capital outlay appropriation from proceeds from severance tax bonds. Governor Richardson signed the bill on International Women’s Day in 2006.
“What I love about New Mexico is that it is a state where you can actually go into the legislature and lobby on something,” says French. “That was not true in New York. But here it was so open and accessible.”
When the bill for the Women Marker Initiative passed, the New Mexico Department of Transportation became the fiscal agent and entered into a Memorandum of Understanding with the New Mexico Department of Cultural Affairs. It was at this juncture that the Historic Preservation Department, a division of Cultural Affairs, put out a request for proposals to contract out the actual work needed to solicit nominations, conduct research, and write the text for the women’s historic markers.
So it was that French, Duran, and Girard found themselves bidding for the very project they had championed. The
attorney who helped them was none other than current U.S. Congresswoman Teresa Leger Fernández.
“Teresa Leger Fernández. Oh, my God. Her legal expertise at the time helped us tremendously,” Molnar says. “She was in the Forum, too, and it was tremendous how important her input was to help us with the contract. I became a friend of hers through Pat, also. So it all started from friendship.”
With the contract secured, the New Mexico Historic Women Marker Initiative was given three years, between 2007 and 2010, to install sixty-four markers. Early on, French knew she didn’t want to only commemorate the most famous women in New Mexico’s history.
“I researched what other states had done, and found that while some mentioned women in markers, there weren’t many states that included women and if they did, it was only women of prominence,” French says. “Our project was to discover not just the women who were well-known, but the unknown, unsung women and to make it more comprehensive, including the Pueblos and tribes. That had never been done anywhere else.”
French learned that Virginia had solicited historic marker nominations through county governments, so the Forum decided to do the same. They reached out to Benito Martinez, who was the president of the New Mexico Association of Counties, to get him on board.
Duran remembers attending numerous county commission meetings across New Mexico. “I traveled all over the state presenting, usually at a moment’s notice,” says Duran.
County commissioners solicited nominations from people in their counties by radio, newspaper ads, and more. Criteria for the nominations included that the nominee must be deceased and either born in New Mexico or having done the body of their work in New Mexico. Photographer Marcia Keegan, who had decades of experience documenting the history of New Mexico Pueblos, solicited nominations from the tribes. While some individuals from tribes went on to be commemorated on markers, the criteria singling out one woman did not align with many Pueblos’ beliefs. Instead, marker nominations from Pueblos often honored groups of women.
“Only one letter of nomination was from a man,” Molnar says. “And sometimes if there wasn’t any interest from a county commissioner, a commissioner’s secretary would do it herself and write me a letter or call. It was just amazing.”
From the beginning, Duran was focused on ensuring a balanced representation of Hispanic women on the markers, and because women were not often mentioned in traditional historical texts, she found other ways to learn about the women who travelled the Camino Real.
“Henrietta Christmas, a genealogist, was able to learn the history of women who came over on the Camino Real by reading their wills,” Duran says. “In that time, Hispanic women could own land, they could trade the land, they could sell it. They did not have to leave land to their husbands. Women fared much better and they could dispense of their wills as they saw fit.”
The selection committee that reviewed nominations was chaired by French and consisted of representatives from the New Mexico Association of Counties, the Commission on the Status of Women, the Historic Preservation Division, the Women’s Forum, the NMDOT, and members of the general public. Historians and researchers, including Tom Chavez, Kim Suina Melwani of Cochiti Pueblo, Lillian Apodaca, and David Pike, among many others, helped the committee with researching the nominations as they came in from the counties and tribes, and with writing the texts. Researchers also assisted in completing the application forms that were submitted to the Cultural Properties Review Committee. Once CPRC approved a marker, NMDOT could proceed with the planning and installing.
“Everybody complains about state government, including me, but I never knew what was involved,” says Karren Sahler, one of the Initiative’s other executive administrators. “When I got into this project, I was very impressed. Yeah, there’s a lot of pork-belly spending, but there’s also an amazingly well-oiled machine that manages to get together and take care of the people of this state.”
According to Sahler, editing the text down to the required fifty-word maximum was challenging. The goal in the writing was to identify each woman’s most significant contribution to New Mexico state history—a tall order for the many women with numerous contributions. Some markers commemorated a different woman on each side, and others had text on one side explaining the importance of the Women Marker Initiative.
Once the text was ready and NMDOT had what it needed, Rhonda Faught took charge. She was, and remains even after her retirement, the first and only woman cabinet secretary for NMDOT, and in 2007, she was one of only three or four other women serving as the head of a state department of transportation in the United States. Faught came to the position having served in many NMDOT roles, including the first female district engineer in her hometown of Deming, New Mexico, and first female adjutant cabinet secretary in Santa Fe. She was used to being the only woman in the room, but for the Women Marker Initiative, she wanted to change that.
“I appointed women engineers in my department to help select finalists for the markers and identify appropriate locations,” Faught says. “Dee Beingessner and Rhonda Lopez shepherded the project, from sign location to sign manufacturing to installation.”
Faught says there was a lot of behind-the-scenes work that went into negotiating marker placement. Markers had to be installed in places where vehicles could safely pull over, pull-outs had to be designed, and maintenance agreements had to be negotiated if the proposed location was not on a state highway, but rather the property of a university, tribe, city, or private citizen.
Many of the marker installations were celebrated with a ceremony or party. Others have been celebrated more quietly, or treated almost like gravestones with offerings of flowers. Sahler remembers over fifty family members coming together to celebrate the marker honoring Feliciana Tapia Villarial of Pojoaque Pueblo for her role in restoring the Pueblo’s cultural legacy.
“People were really excited about it. I went on a couple of occasions to watch them install the markers,” Sahler says. “One time, there were men digging the hole and one of the guys jumped up out of the hole and said, ‘This is my great aunt, this is my family.’”
French, Girard, and Duran were committed to finding the history of Black women’s contributions to the state. One such woman was Cathay Williams, who disguised herself as a man and joined the Buffalo Soldiers in Deming after being released from her forced role in the Union Army. And French, upon learning that Dr. Meta Christy was the first Black woman osteopath in the United States, travelled to Las Vegas, New Mexico, where Christy had practiced and taught.
“I went there and knocked on doors to find out where she had lived, and some people in the community remembered her because she died in 1968,” French says. “The Historical Society in Las Vegas got behind it and Ancestry.com came in and helped in the process. When we were done with the project, we sent Meta Christy’s information to the Osteopathic Association, and she’s now acknowledged as a part of Black History Month. This is one of the joys of doing it; this discovery is incredibly wonderful.”
All sixty-four of the original markers were installed by the end of 2010. Many from the Women’s Forum, including French and Girard, left the Initiative to pursue other projects, but Duran stayed on for several more years. After the IWF-NM approved funding for research on twenty-four more markers, Duran focused her energy on ensuring that more Hispanic women were represented in the state’s history.
Although the three original women are no longer involved with the Initiative, the IWF-NM has indeed carried it forward. During the 2022 state legislative session, the now-renamed New Mexico Historic Women Marker Program was granted additional funding for outreach, education, and publicity.
Faught, who retired from NMDOT in 2008, remained with the Initiative even following her retirement, and is a current member of its steering committee. “We have the markers now, but we need people to learn about it,” she says. “We have several walking tours in Santa Fe and they don’t even mention the markers. But I haven’t talked to a single person that hasn’t said, ‘That’s so cool!’ So it’s not like people don’t care, it’s that they don’t know it’s there.” Along with Faught and Tackett, the steering committee today includes chair Betty Downes, Celia Foy Castillo, Karen Abraham, Nicole Rassmuson, and Veronica Gonzales, who continue to work to ensure the success and lasting legacy of the program.
Plans for education and outreach include making maps and passports, using QR codes people can scan to pull up more information about each woman, creating an archive of research materials, revamping the website, and creating a speaking series that travels from county to county to educate the public about the women commemorated on local markers.
Curriculum planning is also in the works. Faught says Lisa Nordstrom of Santa Fe Prep is helping to develop curriculum for kindergarten through the twelfth grade to include more women in history lessons. Nordstrom has also already begun to integrate the Women Marker Program into her classrooms.
“Six of her seniors picked a person and did more research on them that we are going to include in our website. They followed Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party and decorated a plate and placemat about each woman so that when you sit at that place you learn a lot about the woman,” Faught says. “History was written by men, so we don’t hear about women, but the women made it possible for some of these things to happen, and in some cases were critical to the development of this area.”
As of 2022, over one hundred women are commemorated on markers in all thirty-three counties in New Mexico. Faught says more markers will be installed in the future, but for now, the focus will be on getting the word out and helping integrate more women into the state’s written history.
“For me, it just reaffirmed that when women are in charge it’s a good thing, and that they are not as well celebrated as their male counterparts,” says Girard, reflecting on her experience with the Initiative. “I’m hoping that more of that continues.”
French, Duran, and Girard all say they are glad, in retrospect, that they didn’t know what they were getting into and how much work it would be. In the process of developing the Women Marker Initiative, however, they became historians working to augment New Mexico’s full history and women’s contributions to their communities.
“If it is but one thing I have learned from our project, it’s that the first written word is history,” Duran says.
French credits her friends with helping her realize a dream. “I am a person who lives in the world of ideas. I’m so gratified to see something come of what I dreamt about twenty-six years ago. I mean, I was 50, and I’m now 76,” she says. “And I’m so thankful to the women who are continuing this.”
Although many of the women’s historic markers across the state honor individual women and incredible acts of heroism and bravery, the friendship between French, Duran, and Girard offers insight into the meaning of the Women Marker Initiative as a whole: When women dream and collaborate together, and when they persist in bringing those dreams to fruition, we can write a new history.
Emily Withnall lives and writes in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Her work can be read at emilywithnall.com.
Alanna Romero is a New Mexican artist. For the past 27 years she has been nurturing a passion in photography. Mostly self-taught, she has travelled through the United States and Europe capturing imagery focused on nature, culture, spirituality, and history. Her work has been displayed in the New Mexico Museum of Art and several New Mexico shops and galleries.