Betty Penson-Ward (May 15, 1914 - Sept. 5, 2002) was a third-generation Idahoan who literally wrote the book on women in Idaho. She was born to H.B. Butler and Maybelle Tingley Butler and had one brother, Eddy. She grew up in south Boise and attended St. Teresa’s Academy, Garfield Grade School, and graduated from Boise High School. Betty married three times in her life: Clyde Matthews, George H. Penson who died in 1946, and Judge Theron W. Ward who died in 1988.
She started her career in journalism when she landed a position proofreading for the Boise Capital News. According to an article in the Idaho Statesmen written for her 80th birthday, by the end of the first week of work she’d already made a place for herself. Bye the end of week one as a journalist with Boise Capital News she was church editor, weather editor, society editor, and editor of country correspondence. In 1937 she took her next step in her career when she moved over to the Idaho Statesman working as a police and courts reporter. Penson tells the story of her first encounter with the policemen she would be working with:
The first thing the policemen said was ‘come look at our quarters.’ They asked me if I’d ever been in a cell. Then they locked me in and laughed at me. When I got out, one of them had tied knots in every finger of my new kid gloves... That was the standard attitude toward women in business then. We never got close to the glass ceiling. We never knew it was there.
She spent two years working as a police reporter and then she moved into the women’s department of the Statesman. She stayed in the women’s department (later renamed the Arts of Living and Features department) for 25 years. She says it was when she saw the light, and found a home. Most of her time in the department was spent as its editor, but she never stopped writing articles that would leave a lasting influence in Boise.
As She Says:
Working for The Idaho Statesman for 37 years, Penson covered article topics ranging from Idaho trivia to meetings with Gamal Abdel Nasser Hussein, second President of Egypt. Her article, As She Says, was widely popular among Boiseans and earned her numerous awards and commendations. She travelled around the world visiting heads of states, ambassadors, and people from all different cultures. Despite her glamorous career, Penson described herself as, “Just as an historian of Idaho trivia, the inquiring reporter on a moving sidewalk trying to provide a quick enjoyable read for THEM, the elusive readers.”
Idaho Women in History:
Besides her journalist career, Penson wrote Idaho Women in History. This biographical book includes over 500 Idaho women and their biographical stories. Wanting to save Idaho women from falling into obscurity, Penson contacted family members, friends, and colleagues, and searched through books, archives, and personal letters to find the details of these women’s lives. She tells the stories of freed slaves, Chinese immigrants, Native American women, and Boise socialites who made their lives in Idaho. Not meant to be a comprehensive history of women in Idaho, Penson gave just enough information on the women to hopefully pique the interest of another party who could take her work even further. Pearson was quoted, “The reason I did this book is because I had to do it. Nobody else had all this information, and it had never been compiled. It had to be compiled before it gets away.”
She credits the inspiration to write her book to her experience with the International Woman’s Year. The Idaho Commission on Women’s Programs wanted a small project and asked Penson to compile a “Who’s Who of Idaho Women of the Past” booklet. The short booklet was published in directory form in 1981 and served as the springboard and inspiration for her book.
The booklet that finally pushed her to write her book was not her only inspiration, however. Penson spent her life and career talking with women from all parts of the world and she knew that most would never have the time to sit down and read a comprehensive history of women in Idaho. “I wanted to present Idaho history to those who wouldn’t be caught dead reading history,” she says, “It’s important for women to know what we were like in the past... The average woman today isn’t going to take time to read a long history. Life is so frighteningly fast.” Many of the women in the book were either known by Penson personally or described by close friends or family. She describes meeting Mary Ridenbaugh personally when the socialite discovered Penson stealing lilacs from the garden attached to The Mill, Ridenbaugh’s home. Penson was instructed by her mother to look away from the socially unacceptable bar owner Peg-Leg Annie Morrow when she was 6 years old. Penson had a personal connection to not only Idaho history, but with the women she carefully preserved in her biographical history book.
While doing what she could to immortalize Idaho women in her work, Penson became an influential and important figure in Boise and Idaho history. When asked to comment on the current Idaho history curriculum and more specifically what she thought about women’s inclusion in that curriculum she said “she couldn’t comment on something that didn’t exist.” Penson was contacted by Vigil Young in the 1990’s by about updating the Idaho History text for the elementary level history courses. This update never occurred, however, because when asked how long he wanted the update to be he said “Oh, about 500 words.” Penson was appalled and he never called her back.
She gave a voice to women originally unheard and helped lead the way for the Women’s movement in Idaho. She was the first women president of the Idaho Press Club and was honored in 1971 by the National Federation of Press women. With her featured column in the Statesman, Penson often lent her voice to important matters and supported the women’s movement in every way she could. “As She Says” influenced plans for the Morrison Center, Music Week, the public library, and of course local women’s organizations.[i]
Penson considered her work necessary to continue the legacy of the women who paved the way for women’s liberty in the United States, “Women today don’t know how hard women fought for the rights we have now,” Penson lamented in an interview with Idaho Statesman’s Kathy Mulady, “They don’t know and they don’t care.” This book and her career was driven by the need to remind future generations about the battles and sacrifices their foremothers had to fight in order to create the freedoms often taken for granted today.
Betty Penson-Ward was the first woman inducted into Boise High School’s Hall of Fame and she won the National Federation of Press Women’s national sweepstakes award in 1971. She says of all her years working that writing her book was the toughest and took nearly ten years off her life.
Despite having traveled the world, her home and heart was always in Boise where she was born and raised. She passed away in 2002, leaving behind a son, Kelly Matthews, a daughter, Mali Krivor, and numerous grandchildren and great grandchildren.
All information was discovered through the Special Collections and Archives at Boise State University. For more information visit their online collection or their offices located in the Albertson's Library on BSU's campus.