October 18, 2021

‘Got to keep fighting’

Elsie Gutchess to receive Woman of Achievement award from Zonta

Bob Ellis/file photo

Elsie Gutchess of Dryden is this year’s Woman of Achievement, an honor bestowed by the Zonta Club of Cortland.

DRYDEN — When Elsie Gutchess’ boys were little, they would read the Cortland Standard — particularly the “Ripley’s Believe it or Not” column and the “What Happened on This Day” article.

“It was all, guys and men, guys and men,” the Dryden woman said. “That’s OK, but what about the girls?”

That question led to a research project that lasted more than 30 years. She created a series of portraits, “Great Women of the U.S.A,” copyrighted them, and presented them to women’s groups and conferences across the country. Along the way, she started collecting buttons, books and political posters that highlight women’s history.

Now the 87-year-old is donating her women’s history collection to “The Opendore Project” a museum in the making to honor women, in Sherwood. She’ll have a room named after her, the Elsie Gutchess Library.

Gutchess will be recognized May 6 at a special Woman of Achievement luncheon at Tinelli’s Hathaway House in Solon.

“It’s a great honor, of course. I was in Zonta when they started,” Gutchess said, and served as treasurer for 15 years.

But being recognized by one’s peers is special, she said.

Gutchess was one of several women nominated for this year’s award, said Zonta Club member Diane Van Houten. Andrea Rankin of Cortlandville nominated Gutchess, her mentor.

If you go

What: Woman of Achievement luncheon

When: Noon, May 6.

Where: Tinelli’s Hathaway House, Solon

Details: Tickets are $30 and are available until May 1 by calling Deb Wines at 607-756-2681 or 607-423-2124. Proceeds go to programs that benefit women and children.

“I have been working with Elsie for the past couple of years as we organize her women’s history collection to go to the new museum, Opendore,” said Rankin, former director of the Jacobus Center for Reproductive Health. “Elsie can make history come alive, especially that of the Suffrage Movement, a glorious and heady time for women.”

Gutchess, a former owner of the Toy Peddler toy store in Skaneateles is also a founder and volunteer in the YWCA Aid to Victims of Violence. Volunteers started the program in the mid-70s, offering a hotline for battered women, which Gutchess staffed. She experienced domestic abuse herself, she said, and left her husband after an incident at their home in Skaneateles and moved to Cortland with her little boys.

“I have tremendous admiration for her,” said Amy Simrell, former director of the YWCA of Cortland. In the ‘70s, leaving a husband for domestic violence wasn’t easily done, especially with children, Simrell said.

“She understood that there was something happening in the household that was not just a family matter. She understood that what was happening in the household was not her fault,” Simrell said. “We didn’t have the ‘domestic violence’ words in 1970. It was a family matter. It wasn’t a criminal issue. It wasn’t assault and battery and it was blamed on the woman. She found the courage to leave.”

Gutchess joined with Rankin, Alice Walker, Jo Schaffer and Joan Vrooman, who were instrumental in this volunteer group, to open their homes to battered women, Simrell said.

Gutchess also owned an estate liquidation business for 20 years, “Victorian Sales.” She did stints as interim curator at the 1890 House and served as the historian for the village of Dryden.

Gutchess’ exploration into women’s history started at the SUNY Cortland library.

“They had a Dictionary of American Biography, a wonderful set of books,” Gutchess said. She began researching women in the books, and set them up on three-by-five cards to “get them figured out.”

“Half of the people in there are women. I thought: ‘Whoa. I have to know these women.’”

She filed them by their birthdate, writing their names on the day they were born. Some days, six names were listed. Other days, 12 to 15.

She wrote their histories and gathered photos, consulting also with historical societies and state libraries.

She presented the series to groups across the country: California, Texas, Florida, Cape Cod, Massachusetts.

“If you start hoarding, you hoard anything,” she said. She started collecting women’s history posters, buttons and historical books.

What really struck her was a biography about Margaret Mead, written by a man. “It was O.K. What did Margaret Mead do? She didn’t do anything important. I left it aside.”

Then she came across Mead’s autobiography, read it, and was amazed by her contributions to anthropology. In the biography, Mead’s accomplishments were dismissed, she said.

“I couldn’t believe they were the same person,” Gutchess said. “That was the last book I read written by a man.”

Young women today, she’d advise: “They’ve got to keep fighting, to get their half share … If there’s a women’s group, the stronger they can make it is the best thing they can do … If you are in an organization, you are there to improve it. To leave your mark.”