Women In Public Service: Role Models and Opportunities
by U.S. Senator Chuck Hagel November 22nd, 2004 - Public service is an honorable and important undertaking. Grace
Abbott, Congresswoman Virginia Smith, Governor Kay Orr, and Mayor Helen Boosalis were four of Nebraska's most prominent public servants who demonstrated a commitment to their profession and communicated their vision of the future through their achievements. They serve as role models for women to become active in their community, state, country and government.
Grace Abbott, born in Grand Island, Nebraska in 1878, was a leading social reformer during the early 20th Century. As a director in the Children's Bureau at the U.S. Department of Labor in 1917, she advocated for federal legislation to regulate the labor of children under the age of 16 and was responsible for enforcing the first child labor law passed by Congress in 1916. In 1921, President Warren Harding appointed Abbott to head the Children's Bureau at the Department of Labor. Grace Abbott was a visionary leader who addressed the changing needs in American society.
Former Congresswoman Virginia Dodd Smith represented Nebraska's 3rd Congressional District in the U.S. House of Representatives for 16 years, from 1975-1991. Her commitment to public service was demonstrated throughout her life not only as a congresswoman but also as a 20-year board member of the American Farm Bureau Federation and as a 1960 delegate to the White House Conference on Children and Youth. Upon her retirement from Congress, she moved to Sun City West, Arizona where she was elected to the board of directors for the Property Owners and Renters Association, which serves as the community's City Council.
In 1986, Nebraska elected Kay Orr to be America's first female Republican Governor in the nation's first two-woman governor's race against Lincoln Mayor Helen Boosalis. Before Orr was elected governor, she was the first woman to be elected to a statewide, constitutional office as Nebraska's State Treasurer. She was named chairwoman of the platform committee at the 1988 Republican National Convention and remains active in her community today with many roles in public service. Kay Orr has been a strong and positive symbol of progress for women and a role model to those whose goal it is to be a public servant.
Helen Boosalis, Lincoln's first woman mayor from 1975 to 1983, enjoyed a long and prominent career in public service. During her eight years as mayor, she served as the President of the U.S. Conference of Mayors from 1981-1982, successfully reorganized Lincoln's police department and revitalized and beautified Lincoln's downtown area. She spent 16 years on the Lincoln City Council before defeating an incumbent seeking his third term as mayor. Months after being defeated by Kay Orr in Nebraska's 1986 gubernatorial race, Boosalis joined the American Association of Retired Persons and later became the group's national board chairwoman, one of the top two positions in the organization.
There are a multitude of opportunities in Nebraska for individuals of all ages and backgrounds to prepare for and become engaged in public service. An excellent way to get involved is to attend meetings of your local, district, county or state government. Information about The League of Women Voters of Nebraska, an organization that encourages active and informed citizen participation in government, can be found on the web at
Public servants like Grace Abbott, Virginia Smith, Kay Orr and Helen Boosalis not only demonstrated a commitment to public service throughout their careers, but also pioneered the way for women of future generations. Nebraska and America owe them a great debt.