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A Proud Moment for Our State: The Arkansas Women’s Hall of Fame

5 min read

(Editor’s Note: This is an opinion column.)

Eleven women and one organization were inducted into the inaugural class of the Arkansas Women’s Hall of Fame on Thursday evening in a fanciful gathering at the Statehouse Convention Center in downtown Little Rock.

Having moved back to Arkansas, my home state, two months ago after a decade on the East Coast, it was an honor for me to celebrate the accomplishments of the inductees, particularly in the company of so many wonderful women and men who are bolstering Arkansas in their many ways today. I was particularly touched because many of the women inducted this year have had a tangible impact on my life, as well as the lives of so many Arkansans and Americans.

At the ceremony, I learned that the Women’s Hall of Fame was founded after a group of leaders realized that few women have received the widespread recognition that men have enjoyed in various halls of fame. The Arkansas Business Hall of Fame, for example, only has three female members among 70 inductees (just over 4 percent representation), while less than 10 percent and around 30 percent of the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame and Arkansas Black Hall of Fame inductees are women, respectively, by my rough count. That’s why I’m proud to say that we now have an institution that will hopefully outlive those of us in attendance to its inauguration, so that we may honor the women of Arkansas who have contributed so much to our state and nation.

Inductees this year were: Civil rights crusader Daisy Bates, political trailblazer Hattie Caraway, archaeological activist Hester Davis, people’s advocate Roberta W. Fulbright, business and community leader Mary Ann Ritter Arnold, champion for change Betty Bumpers, public servant Hillary Rodham Clinton, standout in science Dr. Mary Good, innovator Johnelle Hunt, medical pioneer Dr. Edith Irby Jones, patron of the arts Alice Walton, and fighters for the right to learn, the Women’s Emergency Committee.

Sitting in the audience, looking on as these women were honored, I was struck by just how much they had made a difference in my life as a child growing up in northeast Arkansas, whether I was aware at the time or not.

Hunt, co-founder of trucking company J.B. Hunt Transport Services Inc. of Lowell, employed my step-father, a life-long truck driver, enabling my family to keep food on the table. Hearing her story and how she and her late husband Johnnie Bryan Hunt met, fell in love and built the company together showed me a new side to what I knew. I remember the incredible pride my step-dad felt when he was hired by J.B. Hunt. Even then, I knew it was one of the top transportation companies in the nation. 

But I didn’t know of its humble beginnings and that it was an Arkansas business, co-founded by a tenacious woman whose greatest childhood memories were riding stick horses and playing in the Natural State’s great outdoors, waterfalls and all. These new stories have renewed in me a sense of bootstrap Arkansas pride. The Hunt’s story is analogous to that of the Waltons’; it is a deep honor to know that Arkansas is not a one-hit-business-wonder state. We are innovators in many areas.

At the induction, I also learned about Arkansas’s first state archaeologist, Hester Davis. She served as state archaeologist from the inception of the role in 1967 to her retirement in 1999, which started with her love of excavating with her siblings. 

As a child, I loved playing outside with my brother, too. In fact, my first dream career was to be an archaeologist. Had I known about this trailblazer when I was digging up porcelain doll hands and rusted belt buckles in my backyard, I would have been elated that there was a female archaeologist in our state who shared my love for history and discovery. We must do more to educate our children about Arkansas’s female leaders.

Finally, it was with great respect and humility that I rose to salute late civil rights activist Daisy Lee Gatson Bates. 

I have a growing love for the work and impact of Mrs. Bates. A leader in the Little Rock Central High School Desegregation Crisis of 1957 and president of the Arkansas chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) at that time, Bates was unstoppable in her efforts to organize and integrate the Little Rock Nine into Central High School against the will of the governor, as well as many hateful citizens. 

Bates and her husband also advocated in the pages of their newspaper, Arkansas State Press, for the rights of black Americans. It is unspeakable, unimaginable, likely incalculable, the change Bates has brought to our world. I only hope my generation, particularly those of us standing up for further social and racial equity, can follow in her strength.

It is institutions like the newfound Arkansas Women’s Hall of Fame that show women and girls around the state that anything is possible. A budding archeologist, a social justice advocate, a truck driver’s daughter — all can be inspired when looking to these inductees for guidance, as models of greatness. 

The evening celebrated so many firsts, too — Dr. Edith Irby Jones may have topped the festivities with the sheer number of her firsts, as the first African-American student at the University of Arkansas School of Medicine, the first female president of the National Medical Association, the first African-American woman resident at Baylor College of Medicine Affiliated Hospitals, and the only female founding member of the Association of Black Cardiologists.

From medicine to politics and chemistry to the arts, this first class of inductees has made marks on so many sectors. As an Arkansan, I am grateful that the founders of the Arkansas Women’s Hall of Fame had the vision and foresight to create such an important organization for paying tribute to Arkansas’ outstanding women leaders. It is indeed a proud moment for our state.

Erica Swallow is vice president of product at Noble Impact of Little Rock, a social enterprise that aims to provide every student with a relevant and purpose-driven education. An Arkansas native, Erica is a first generation college student, alumna of MIT and NYU, and has written for Forbes, Fortune, and The Wall Street Journal, among other publications. You can follow her on Twitter, LinkedIn and Instagram, and you can email her here.
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