By: Tara Spencer
Being the first to do something isn’t easy. But being the first woman or person of color to do something comes with its own set of challenges. Those pioneers are often met with more vitriol than accolades—and that kind of contempt can be doubled, and often more dangerous, if they happen to be both.
While the ability to hide behind social media has made it excessively easier for people to voice their (often abhorrent) opinions on women in power, this is far from a new problem.
Betty Abbott, the first woman city council member of Omaha, acknowledged some of the obstacles faced by women in an interview with the Benson Sun in December 1970 when they named her their Woman of the Year.
“If you’re a woman, you don’t dare leave yourself in the open without the proper information on an item,” she said. “It might not matter if a man was uninformed…but you are singular and under the spotlight.”
Abbott’s friend and colleague, city clerk Mary Cornett, emphasized that point in the same article. “The first woman out is always sensitive. She has felt she would put every woman on the spot if she made a mistake.”
So, Abbott tried not to make any. She made the effort to fully understand an issue before making any decisions or even comments on it. In one Omaha World-Herald article, it was noted that she opposed raising property tax, but “would have to get more information” on a sewer-use fee.
A Republican before the party saw some major platform shifts in the ’70s, Abbott considered herself a moderate. Liberal on some issues, conservative on others, she acknowledged she couldn’t please everyone. A World-Herald article in September 1974 stated she was “Certainly not the darling of the women’s rights movement,” and Abbott admitted she was “probably not as aggressive” as they would have liked her to be.
Regardless of how others viewed her and her work, Abbott certainly did a lot to help prove that women did belong in politics.
When she was first elected, the Omaha City Council president at the time, H.F. Jacobberger, said his first thought was “having a woman in city government is going to be murder.” He later praised her for her competency, describing her as an excellent council member and saying he wished there were more women like her in government.
The same Benson Sun article stated that throughout her time on the council, she set an example for women’s equality, adding “Her accomplishments have helped erase the stereotypes and prejudices which perpetuate male dominance of civic affairs.”
One of Abbott’s primary passions while on the council was improving the quality of urban life. This included advocating for cleaner air and preserving city park land. She also fought to save and restore the Orpheum Theater.
The list of board memberships, committees served on, and accolades received during her career are almost too numerous to list. That informative Sun piece from 1970 said that at the time of their interview, she had 19 active affiliations and her resume of major projects and memberships exceeded 40.
Throughout the years, Abbott was a founding member of the Henry Doorly Zoo’s board of directors, served on the board of directors of the National League of Cities, was president of the Nebraska Environmental Control Council, and was appointed to the Defense Department’s commission on women by President Gerald Ford.
Before beginning her political career, Abbott’s interests were in music and radio. Born in Council Bluffs, Iowa, Betty Lorraine Condon was described as a musical and athletic child. She sang and played piano and cello, but she also pitched on the girls’ softball team. While attending Lincoln High School, she was captain of the debate team, a member of the national honor society, and president of the literacy society.
After graduation, Abbott attended Drake University for two years, where she played cello in the Des Moines Symphony. However, the piano was her preference, and it played a large role in her future career. At 10, she had played accompaniment over the radio. Later, she played the organ at KSO-KRNT while Steve Allen played the piano. (For those who don’t know, Allen later became a famed television and radio personality and was co-creator and host of the first iteration of The Tonight Show.)
Abbott worked at several radio stations across Iowa before getting hired at the Buchanan-Thomas Advertising Agency in Omaha. The head of the agency, Adam Reinemund, heard her on KSWI out of Council Bluffs. He said Abbott possessed “qualities you’d look for in a man.” What that means exactly was not in the Sun article in which that quote appeared, though it was noted that she had a “mild and warm delivery,” that made her popular. Most notably, she was the voice for Kimball Laundry and Dry Cleaning. The recognition she gained through broadcasting no doubt proved helpful during her run for Omaha City Council.
She was a member of the League of Women Voters (nonpartisan group) and the Republican Party. Later in life, she was an active member of the Omaha Musicians’ Association, where she worked on public relations for the union and served as labor representative to civic boards.
Abbott’s family did not share her political passions. Her husband Doug supported her, but preferred not to go on the campaign trail. Her two daughters, Diana and Gwen, also chose not to campaign, seeming to shy away from the spotlight their mother was in. Abbott did not act as if she minded, stressing in one article that she liked keeping her public and private life separate.
While Abbott may not have known the extent to which her legacy would reach, she certainly played a role in paving the way for other women. Her words and actions helped ensure she wasn’t the last.
“Betty Abbott Still Has ‘Something to Live up to.” Benson Sun. 21 March 1963. Center Section, page 1A.
“Betty Abbott Isn’t Far From Action.” Omaha World-Herald. 1 September 1985.
“Former Politician Prefers Eating.” Omaha World-Herald. 15 March 1982.
“Lagging Council Frustrates Abbott.” Omaha World-Herald. 30 September 1974.
“Doug Abbott: Politics Not My Kettle of Fish.” Omaha World-Herald. 2 May 1977.
“Betty Abbott’s hard work moves Omaha toward a better environment.” Benson Sun. 12 29 1970. Page 1A.