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21 Women Who Made History in San Diego

Our city wouldn't be what it is today without these professionals, philanthropists, and pioneers

By Carly Shihadeh

21 Women Who Made History in San Diego

women who made history in San Diego

Ellen Browning Scripps (1836–1932)

Scripps was a college graduate, journalist, and investor in her brother’s newspapers. She helped fund and support Scripps Memorial Hospital, Scripps Institution of Oceanography, the San Diego Zoo, La Jolla Children’s Pool, Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve, and other local institutions. Scripps also once appeared on the cover of Time magazine.

Clara Shortridge Foltz (1849–1934)

Foltz became the first female attorney in California after she wrote the Woman Lawyer’s Bill and saw that it passed in the state legislature. She founded and edited the San Diego Bee newspaper, was crucial in securing California women the right to vote in 1911, and popularized the idea of a public defender, all while she was a single mother of five.

21 Women Who Made History in San Diego

women who made history in San Diego

Dr. Martha Dunn Corey (1852–1927)

Dr. Corey was the first female doctor in La Jolla. She practiced medicine out of her house, which can still be seen on Draper Avenue.

Dr. Charlotte Baker (1855–1937)

Dr. Baker was San Diego’s first female obstetrician and, out of concern for women’s health, helped close downtown’s Stingaree red-light district. Baker also served as president of San Diego Equal Suffrage Association.

21 Women Who Made History in San Diego

women who made history in San Diego Kate Sessions

Kate Sessions (1857–1940)

Sessions was a teacher and vice principal at Russ School (now San Diego High) before becoming a horticulturalist and the “Mother of Balboa Park.” Sessions’s work cultivating Balboa Park and cofounding the San Diego Floral Association introduced new plant types to our landscape.

Dr. Mary Elizabeth Bennett Ritter (1860–1949)

Dr. Ritter was a physician and advocate for women’s rights and public health issues. She helped start free health clinics for those in need, at a time when women were largely excluded from the medical profession.

Mother Rosalie Clifton Hill (1878–1964)

Mother Rosalie Hill cofounded the University of San Diego, originally the San Diego College for Women.

21 Women Who Made History in San Diego

21 Women Who Made History in San Diego

Louise Balmer (1886–1968)

Balmer was a pioneer in the nursery school field. In 1926, the single mother of four opened the Balmer School, now known as La Jolla Country Day School.

Lilian Jeannette Rice (1889–1938)

Rice was chosen as the lead planner on the Rancho Santa Fe development in 1921. She was one of only a few women during her time to be admitted to the San Diego Chapter of the American Institute of Architecture. The Lilian J. Rice Elementary School in Chula Vista is named in her honor.

Madge Bradley (1904–2000)

An Oceanside High School graduate, Bradley became the first female judge in San Diego County. She has since been inducted into the Women’s Museum of California Hall of Fame.

21 Women Who Made History in San Diego

21 Women Who Made History in San Diego

Mabel Bell (1913–2007)

Bell and her husband David were the first African Americans to purchase property in La Jolla. She founded Strongly Oriented For Action, a nonprofit that lobbied for affordable housing in La Jolla. Mabel Bell Lane, between Eads and Draper avenues, is named for her.

Florence Chadwick (1918–1995)

Chadwick was the youngest person, at age 10, to swim the mouth of San Diego Bay. The Point Loma grad later became the first woman to swim the English Channel in both directions, setting a record each way. Chadwick was also the first woman to swim the Catalina Channel, the Straits of Gibraltar, the Bosporus, and the Dardanelles.

Audrey Geisel (1921–2018)

Geisel founded Dr. Seuss Enterprises to keep her husband’s legacy alive, and for 25 years she oversaw every new adaptation of his work into movies, plays, and other media. She was also a prominent philanthropist; UC San Diego’s Geisel Library was named for her and her husband after she donated $20 million and thousands of his original drawings to the school.

Lucy Killea (1922–2017)

Killea earned both her master’s degree and doctorate at USD and became a women’s rights activitst and state senator. Killea was firm in her support for a woman’s right to an abortion, even after she was banned from receiving communion by the Catholic bishop of San Diego.

21 Women Who Made History in San Diego

women who made history in San Diego Joan Kroc

Joan Kroc (1928–2003)

Kroc was the wife of McDonald’s founder Ray Kroc and known for her philanthropy. Her donations funded San Diego Hospice, The Institute for Palliative Medicine, and the Kroc Center. The Joan B. Kroc School of Peace Studies at USD is named after her.

Judy Keep (1944–2004)

Keep taught English at The Bishop’s School in La Jolla before going to law school at USD. Keep not only became the first female federal judge in her district, she was also the first female chief judge of the United States District Court for the Southern District of California.

Sally Ride (1951–2012)

Ride was the first American woman in space in 1983. She is still the youngest American astronaut to have been to space, at the age of 32. After flying twice on the space shuttle Challenger and working at Stanford University, Ride became a professor of physics at UCSD.

Maureen O’Connor (1946– )

O’Connor was born, raised, and educated in San Diego. The SDSU graduate was elected San Diego’s first female mayor in 1986.

Bonnie Dumanis (1951– )

Dumanis became the first openly gay district attorney in the country in 2003 when she was elected DA of San Diego County. She was also San Diego’s first female district attorney.

Christine Kehoe (1950– )

Kehoe became the city’s first openly gay elected official when she won a city council seat in 1993. She was elected to the state Assembly in 2000 and the state Senate in 2004.

Debra L. Reed (1957– )

Reed was San Diego’s first and, to date, only female CEO of a Fortune 500 company. The chairman, president, and CEO of Sempra Energy took on the role in 2011 and retired last December.

Photos courtesy of the La Jolla Historical Society

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