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Hidden History: Cleora Clark Wheeler

Today, roughly 1.1 million businesses in the United States are owned by women — making up just 19.9% of companies in the country. HistoryIT is proud to be one of them. We are keenly aware that many female entrepreneurs throughout history have paved the way by pushing boundaries and defying their era’s gender roles. Most of us have heard of and been inspired by the stories of Madam C.J. Walker, Kate Gleason and the like, but today we’d like to introduce you to the hidden history of Cleora Clark Wheeler, an alumnae of our partner Kappa Kappa Gamma.

Cleora Clark Wheeler was born in 1882 and grew up in St. Paul, Minnesota, where her father was a lawyer and real estate investor. She proved to be a tenacious spirit throughout her life. As perhaps best stated in her college yearbook, “[She] first opened her dreamy blue eyes … and immediately gave evidence of her executive ability by demanding the date of the nurse’s birth and recording it in a note book.”

Not one to follow the norms, Cleora made the decision to attend the University of Minnesota in 1899. While she was privileged to have the opportunity to attend college, she was also bold enough to follow through with it. Only 2% of women at the time went to university and the small number of women who did often became members of fraternal organizations for support and community. Cleora joined the Chi Chapter of Kappa Kappa Gamma and quickly became an enthusiastically active member. Her involvement with and dedication to Kappa Kappa Gamma was a lifelong pursuit. 

After she studied design and drafting at the University of Minnesota, Cleora went on to attend the New York School of Fine & Applied Art. She then returned to the twin cities to set up her studio. In the early 1900s, a time when only 20% of all women were employed let alone business owners, Cleora capitalized on her artistic abilities and started out on her own to create bookplates, stationery, invitations, greeting cards and other personalized designs. 

Cleora was very generous with her time and talents when it came to Kappa Kappa Gamma, for which she created a bookplate in 1910 featuring an iris, the organization’s symbolic flower. She also photographed members during National Conventions, composed poetry about Kappa Kappa Gamma and its members, wrote lyrics for Kappa songs, contributed prolifically to The Key and — perhaps our favorite — took detailed records about anything and everything. 

When it came to her desire to preserve the history of Kappa Kappa Gamma, she was a force to be reckoned with. If you do a quick search in the digital museum we created in partnership with Kappa Kappa Gamma, you’ll find a long list of papers Cleora either wrote to document all the details of an occasion or items she annotated with corrections. In a National Convention historical pageant program, Cleora simply wrote, “Corrections and additions … as sent to headquarters,” and proceeded to mark up nearly every line. One alumnae recalled that Cleora once wrote to all members of the Chi Chapter at the University of Minnesota to ensure she had all their husbands names accurately recorded. She even once wrote a pamphlet titled “On Behalf of Accuracy,” to ensure her professional training and methods were properly remembered.

In 1952 Cleora was awarded the Kappa Kappa Gamma Alumnae Achievement Award, which recognized her personal and professional accomplishments. She continued to support the women’s fraternity and produce creative works until her death in 1980. While Cleora Clark Wheeler may not be a household name, it’s the lesser-known individuals like her who not only make history, but save it. 

Explore more about her past at Kappa Kappa Gamma’s digital museum and discover even more hidden history moments for yourself.

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