The women stood tall, determined and eager to make an impact.
You could even see it in the black and white photos of San Luis Obispo’s “founding mothers,” displayed on the walls of City Hall in celebration of Women’s History Month. It was the last stop on a walking tour organized through the History Center of San Luis Obispo County this past Tuesday.
There, the group stopped to ask questions and look at photos of old San Luis Obispo, as well as the hard-working, fundamental and notable women who helped transform the town into what it is today.
Jean Martin, life member of the History Center and daughter of the first female banker in San Luis Obispo, Pauline Bray Martin, was there to answer some questions. Though her mother had long passed, memory of her was kept alive every day. In fact, Jean has lived in her childhood home for the past 81 years.
“I have not found anyone to beat that,” she said.
Martin and her mother were both founding women, but in different spaces. Jean was one of 200 women admitted to a newly co-ed Cal Poly in the fall of 1956. Pauline was the very first woman to work in any bank in San Luis Obispo.
Both set a precedent of their own kind.
This undying drive, separate from the timeless constraint of what it means to be an independent woman in the 1950s, never faded for the Martin women. It showed in the strength of their achievements as women who were first to change the name of the game. Before Jean was admitted to Cal Poly, she spent some time at Cuesta College. In between, she and her mother spent an entire year rebuilding and remodeling their house.
It was an arduous and seemingly unwarranted task for women at that time.
“In that time, we could not get a steamer to take the wallpaper off,” Jean recalled. “We would have to get hot water and a sponge to get every little bit off, and scrape, scrape and scrape. We went through eight or 10 layers of wallpaper.”
The Martin women did it all, and saw it all too.
Jean, reflecting on the impending industrializing of San Luis Obispo and its drastic change through the years, talked about a six-page letter she wrote “politely protesting” the plans to expand. It mentioned the renovation of the historic Warden Building, located at 770 Higuera, which is now a major retail space.
According to Jean, the real old-timers are few and far between.
“If they’re not careful, they’re going to wreck the charm of San Luis,” Martin said. “If you bring in all these huge buildings, it’ll be like LA — the air doesn’t circulate.”
And clean air is just one of the reasons Jean has stayed put for so long. The beauty of the mountains and the gorgeous, scenic views the city offers foster a sense of clarity Martin hasn’t seemed to find elsewhere.
“It’s a certain quality of life,” she said. “San Luis Obispo is friendly. It’s always been known as very friendly.”
Martin spent 39 years teaching young children within the district, and doesn’t plan to leave San Luis Obispo anytime soon.
It’s her home, and she helped create it.