Clara M. Schell was born in Chicago, Illinois in 1872. She and her husband moved in Arizona in 1898 where he practiced optometry. In 1900 Clara enrolled in Northern Illinois College of Ophthalmology and Optometry. When she graduated in 1902 she returned to Arizona to practice optometry with her husband in their Tucson firm of Schnell and Schnell. At age 30 she became the first female optometrist in Arizona Territory at a time when Arizona’s optometric and general medical care was still in a relatively undeveloped professional state. Her career lasted 44 years.
The Schells traveled widely throughout southern Arizona and Sonora, Mexico to provide optometric care in rural areas lacking such medical resources. Clara was a charter member of the Arizona Optometric Association, served as the first female State President in 1926 and worked in this capacity to improve the optometry profession in Arizona.
I addition to her pioneering work in optometry, Clara’s work for women’s rights and for animal rights endures. She was a co-founder of the Equal Suffrage Club of Pima County and worked hard for the right for the right for women to vote through the organization. She was one of Tucson’s suffrage leader, helped organize suffrage rallies and events in Tucson and southern Arizona. In a suffrage speech in Clifton in March 1912 she said, “You and I, my dear women, have home, school and property interests. We have the best interests of the community and our fellow women at heart. Hoodlums—the worst type of men—are allowed to vote. You, my fellow women, you and I have not. Is it right? Let us prepare ourselves for the proper use of the franchise which will be ours soon.” Passage of the suffrage initiative in November 1912 gave Arizona women the right to vote, a freedom they still retain.
As a charter member of Tucson Business and Professional Women (BPW) and later President, she continued to work for women’s issues such as the Equal Rights Amendment and equal pay for women. She helped organize the Tucson YWCA in 1908, an institution which continues to provide community support for women. She was one of the founders of the Arizona Children’s Home (today known as the Arizona Children’s Association) and served as its first secretary of this institution which has provided support for children since 1917. She also helped reorganize the Arizona Human Society in Tucson in 1905 and served as its secretary for seventeen years.
As Arizona’s first female optometrist, Clara opened new frontiers for women in the optometry profession in our state and helped elevate the status of women.