We are honored to celebrate Women’s History Month by recognizing some of the most influential women who called Berks County home. To usher in March for 2022, the Berks History Center will host the Second Saturday Program - First Females in Berks County: Past and Present documentary. The event is scheduled to start on March 12th, running from 10am - 12pm.
The documentary recognizes Berks County women who are first in their occupational fields. Among the women being honored in the documentary are: Dr. Courtney McKay Stevens, the first elected President of the Berks County Commission for Women; Karen Miller, the first woman Mayor of Reading; Rosa Julia Parra, Founder, CEO, and Editor of PALO Magazine; and many more!
While some of the incredible women below may be recognized in greater detail in the documentary, below are just a few of the amazing women whose influences continue to shape Berks County today. Without their contributions, the Berks region wouldn’t be the same welcoming, productive, and inclusive place it is today.
Lilith Martin Wilson
Lilith Martin Wilson was born out of state on September 13, 1886 in Dublin, Indiana. She eventually became the first woman elected to the Pennsylvania State Legislature from Berks County, and in 1922 she also was the first woman to run for Governor of Pennsylvania. She moved to Reading only a few years after women earned the right to vote, and Wilson was already an established member of the Socialist Party in the United States. After settling in the county, she started supporting Socialist campaigns in Reading itself and greater Pennsylvania.
In 1928, Lilith Wilson was named the chair of the Socialist Party’s new National Women’s Committee. According to historical author William C. Pratt, around the late 1920s, the Socialist Party in Reading was having trouble getting both men and women to vote. A special effort was made, though, to appeal to working-class women. A tax assessment and increase in 1927 hit a nerve with Reading women, and Wilson’s presence helped attendance at the regular meetings of the Women’s Socialist League increase.
After a few unsuccessful local election runs, Wilson ran for the Pennsylvania State Legislature in 1930 and won. She became the first woman elected to a state office from Berks County, as well as the first Socialist woman elected to any legislative body in the United States. She also earned reelections in 1932 and 1934.
Karen Miller was the first woman ever elected to the Reading City Council and also the first woman who ran for mayor and won, serving the city from 1980 to 1987. Earlier in life, Karen Miller earned a Bachelor of Arts degree from Indiana University (Bloomington) and later an honorary Doctor of Laws degree from Albright College. She is an honored graduate of Harvard University’s Program for Senior Executives in State and Local Government and also an elected Fellow of the National Academy of Public Administration.
After serving the public from City Hall, she transitioned to the halls of the state capitol in Harrisburg. She was appointed to serve as the secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Community Affairs, now called the Department of Community and Economic Development. Miller also worked for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and served as the executive director of the Pennsylvania Economy League.
Karen Miller continues to be honored for her work in her home community. She recently earned the Eugene Shirk Community Builder Award at Berks Community Television's annual reception at the Stirling Guest Hotel in Centre Park and now volunteers as a senior fellow with the Berks County Community Foundation.
Elizabeth (Coles) Dawson
A native of Lynchburg, Virginia born to formerly enslaved parents, Elizabeth relocated to Reading, Pennsylvania in the early 1900’s before marrying in 1903. She is famous for marketing her “tourist home” at 441 Buttonwood Street as an inviting, safe place for African American travelers. In the majority of Green Book volumes, Elizabeth was Berks County’s only advertiser.
Elizabeth and her husband settled in Reading before the start of a movement known as the Great Migration – a time when approximately 6 million African Americans left the rural south to find or establish better opportunities in northern industrial communities. Reading was substantially impacted by this demographic shift, and the region’s local Black population increased from 390 in 1890 to 1,964 by 1930.
In addition to owning and running a tourist home at her residence, Elizabeth Dawson was an important member of Reading’s African American community. For 50 years, she volunteered with the Reading Hospital Auxiliary Association. She sang soprano in the choir of the Washington Street Presbyterian Church, and in 1971, the congregation recognized her as their oldest and honored living member.