3 Indiana women honored with portraits in governor's office

This February 2019 file photo shows a portrait of Madam C.J. Walker hanging in Gov. Eric Holcomb's office at the Statehouse in Indianapolis. Walker was an entrepreneur and the first American woman to be a self-made millionaire. (provided photo)

INDIANAPOLIS (WTHR) - Many women weren't given their proper due in history despite making significant contributions to society.

Some have been getting that credit posthumously, like in the case of the West Computers profiled in the book and movie "Hidden Figures." In honor of International Women's Day on Friday, we want to look at some of the Indiana women who made their mark.

Three such women are currently being honored by having their portraits hung in the governor's office at the Statehouse.

Governor's office portraits are often swapped out, but the only one - male or female - Gov. Eric Holcomb has said he will never take down is that of Madam C.J. Walker.

Born Sara Breedlove, Walker is considered the first American woman to become a self-made millionaire. Two years before her death, she said she hoped to become a millionaire "not that she wanted the money for herself, but for the good she could do with it," according to her New York Times obituary.

The daughter of a former slave, she was married at age 14 and widowed at 20 with a little girl to support. She did service jobs until she was 37 when she started a hair tonic business in Denver specifically for black women. She took her initial investment of $1.25 and turned it into a fortune developing and marketing an entire line of beauty and hair products through her own manufacturing company. Five years in, she was in Indianapolis for a visit and decided to make it her permanent headquarters.

She used her money to benefit others as a philanthropist and activist, including spending $10,000 every year ($145,000 in today's money) for the education of young black men and women. When she passed away, she left the bulk of her estate to charity, including the Tuskegee Institute. One of her enduring local legacies is the Madam Walker Theater on Indiana Avenue.

Opha Mae Johnson
Opha Mae Johnson, a Kokomo native and the first female U.S. Marine, seen here shortly after enlisting in the summer of 1918. (photo courtesy U.S. Marine Corps)

The first female U.S. Marine, Opha May Jacob Johnson, was from Kokomo, earning her another spot on the governor's wall. She was the first in line at the office in Washington, D.C. when the government announced they would allow women to enlist for non-combat positions in the summer of 1918. The decision was made to free up men from those positions so they could head to the front in World War I. Johnson worked her was up to Sergeant before the Marine Corps, like all branches of the military, began disenrolling all women from active service. She stayed on, in a way, becoming a clerk for the War Department, working for the Marine Corps as a civil servant until retiring in 1943, according to TIME.

Johnson and the more than 300 other women who signed up for active duty proved they could perform their jobs as well as the men who previously held them, and are considered to be the first step toward gaining women equal status in the United States military. Her funeral in 1955 was held on the anniversary of the day she stood in line to enlist.

Helen Purviance wanted to do her part during the war effort, as well. The Huntington native became the first "Doughnut Girl," cooking doughnuts to serve to troops on the front lines in France. They used shell casings and wine bottles as rolling pins on excess rations of dough to make the doughnuts as a way of reminding servicemen of home, according to the Smithsonian. They even filled a soldier's helmet with lard to fry braided crullers.

Purviance herself wrote in a letter home that she and her partner, Margaret Sheldon, made "in one day, 2,500 doughnuts, eight dozen cupcakes, fifty pies, 800 pan cakes and 255 gallons of cocoa...That is a day's work."