Mary Ruthsdotter

Mary Ruthsdotter, an influential feminist activist who played a prominent role in convincing President Ronald Reagan to establish March as National Women's History Month, died Jan. 8 in Santa Rosa. She was 65.

The Sebastopol woman, who had battled multiple myeloma following her retirement in 2004, collapsed and died at Kaiser Medical Center as she was preparing to be released from the hospital.

Ruthsdotter and three other Sonoma County women started the National Women's History Project in 1980 as a way of acknowledging women who have been ignored by history.

Ruthsdotter was the primary researcher and writer on women of historical importance and traveled around the country making presentations, training teachers and lobbying for the inclusion of women's accomplishments in the nation's history.

She co-produced a video series, "Women in American Life," as well as the first video documenting the role of Latino women, "Adelante, Mujeres." Publishers across the nation submitted thousands of books on women in history as Ruthsdotter coordinated book reviews. Later, she indexed all the selections and donated them to Sonoma State University.

Her work and that of the project's other founding members led to the official designation of National Women's History Month in 1987, and to Ruthsdotter becoming a national resource on the subject. She relished the role.

"My dear mother was an amazing gal, kick-ass activist, friend, maker of fun, spreader of wisdom — a truly remarkable, rare bird indeed," her daughter, Alice Crawford, said via e-mail from her home in Sydney, Australia.

Born on Oct. 14, 1944 in Fairfield, Iowa, Mary Pegau seemed genetically pre-disposed to become an advocate for women.

Her grandmother, Esther, once told Mary that some men thought women "belonged to them like their cows and pigs," while her mother, Ruth, helped start new schools on two military bases and drove a Red Cross relief truck.

Pegau took Dave Crawford's last name after the pair were married. But in 1978, she legally changed it to Ruthsdotter, telling a columnist, "First I was my father's property and then my husband's."

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