Joan Uebelhoer may not have been the city’s first feminist, but for nearly half a century she was one of the most vocal, passionate and effective. Whether volunteering as a community activist or working as a government official, educator or non-profit agency head, she was an uncompromising voice for women’s rights and equality.
A math teacher and dean of students at Bishop Luers in 1968, she was an early critic of some Roman Catholic Church policies and beliefs regarding women’s roles. She became involved with a group of women who met to discuss women’s issues, a group that evolved into Fort Wayne Feminists. In the 1970s, she helped start the women’s studies program at IPFW and for a time taught the subject part time.
A staunch pro-choice advocate, when abortion was illegal in Indiana, Uebelhoer helped drive women to states where it was legal. Later, she continued to defend pro-choice rights, escorting women to the city’s downtown abortion clinic at a time when protesters challenged women going into the clinic.
In 1988, an abortion protester filed charges against her, accusing her of shoving a protester, but the charge was dismissed.
She also served as executive director of Planned Parenthood of Northeast Indiana.
She was an effective Democratic voice in Republican-nominated county government politics in the mid-1970s, scoring a rare Democratic win – for county auditor – and taking Republicans to task when she believed they erred. A decade after she left that office, Gov. Evan Bayh named her northeast area welfare director, an appointment that drew much protest. In between, she was controller of the Public Transportation Corp., the agency that now oversees CitiLink.
Much of her accomplishments came outside any formal job duty or volunteer position. For example, while teaching at IPFW she learned of a young woman from Guatemala who wanted to attend college but couldn’t afford it. Uebelhoer raised $1,200 from feminists across the county for tuition.
People who shared her position on an issue were glad to have such a strong voice on their side, but for opponents – or others who raised her ire – she was outspoken, direct and took no prisoners. Once, after a story in The Journal Gazette described her as feisty, she responded with a critical letter to the editor. Is feisty’ a word ever used to describe tall men? she asked. Only short men, animals, women and children are feisty.’
Never one to back down, she acknowledged taunting and egging on anti-abortion protesters, showing up at one protest wearing a witch’s hat. Even in her last weeks, she remained active, attending a protest against a new reality show and working to finish a local women’s history library.
As her friends and family gather in coming days to mourn her death last weekend at age 83, there will be no shortage of Joan Uebelhoer stories – nor a shortage of accomplishments.