When no one else spoke against inequality, Joan Uebelhoer did. Uebelhoer, longtime activist for the rights of women and the poor, died Saturday at 83 years old. Formerly a petite woman who did not appear as one to stir up debate, Uebelhoer often marched herself into battle for the rights of others.
Uebelhoer grew up in Fort Wayne as Joan Daley, the daughter of a union organizer. After graduating from Central Catholic High School, she studied at Mount Mary College in Milwaukee, where she majored in math and biology. After Uebelhoer moved back to Fort Wayne, there was no shortage to her ensuing history of political campaigns and feminist movements.
Some of Uebelhoer’s platforms included advocating a woman’s right to have an abortion, legalizing birth-control pills, and fighting for equal pay among men and women.
Uebelhoer helped found Fort Wayne Feminists in the 1960s and the women’s studies department at IPFW in the 1970s, where she taught part-time for 30 years. She served as Allen County auditor, executive director of Planned Parenthood of Northeast Indiana and director of the Allen County office of the Division of Family and Children. Uebelhoer was director of the Division of Family and Children for northeast Indiana from 1989-1995. She is credited with helping found SCAN (Stop Child Abuse & Neglect).
Some of her role models were the late feminist theologian Mary Daly and Victoria Woodhull, the first American woman to run for president in 1872.
With all of Uebelhoer’s positions and responsibilities she still managed to keep a strong sense of compassion and emotion in her work for the underprivileged. Ken Watson, executive director of the Youth Services Center and former chief juvenile probation officer, who has known Uebelhoer for more than 30 years, said in a 1995 interview, “They (the poor) weren’t figures and food stamps to her, they were people.”
Before Roe vs. Wade, the 1973 court decision that legalized abortion, she and other feminists helped transport pregnant women to other states for abortions. After an abortion clinic opened in Fort Wayne in 1978, it became the site of protests. She and other members of the Fort Wayne Feminists trained escorts to guard women entering and leaving the clinic at 827 Webster St.
On March 4, 2010, Uebelhoer received the Torchbearer Award from the Indiana Commission for Women, which recognizes Hoosier women who have overcome or removed barriers to equality or who have contributed to making Indiana a better place to live, work and raise a family.
In a 1997 interview, Uebelhoer said, “I remember the first time I was interviewed by somebody on television, and they asked me if I was a feminist…I didn’t recall ever hearing the word before, so I had to think about if that’s what I was or not.” Of course, she eventually answered yes. Later in the interview Uebelhoer said, “Once when I was campaigning someone called and said women shouldn’t be running for public office, they should know where their children are. My son had answered the phone and he said, “No, the problem is we’re all here; we just don’t know where our mother is.’ ”
Uebelhoer is survived by a daughter, Carol Uebelhoer of Otisco; a daughter, Laura Uebelhoer of Charleston, S.C.; a daughter, Martha Uebelhoer of Bloomington; a daughter, Patty Uebelhoer of Fort Wayne; a son, Jim Jr. of Grabill; a sister, Dorothy Rudek of Fort Wayne; 10 grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.