Celebrating Women's History

In the Community and Beyond

Link to information about previous GGRWHC programs and news here.
Membership or membership renewal:  Use this link now!


The Second Line of Defense:  Grand Rapids Women and the Great War

Melissa Fox, Greater Grand Rapids Women’s History Council

November 9, 2017, Ryerson Auditorium, Grand Rapids Public Library

Co-sponsored by the GGRWHC, the Grand Rapids Public Library, and the Grand Rapids Historical Society


Her title honoring a new book examining World War I’s “surprising impact on women and, in turn, women’s impact on the war,” Melissa Fox’s presentation will introduce the second line of defense in Grand Rapids a hundred years ago. Local and academic historians are only beginning to tell the stories of American women as citizens during the largest wartime mobilization of a young country, dispelling myths that women led lives only in their homes. When invited in because of military needs, diverse groups of women made contributions to the nation that ranged far beyond the war and their traditional gender roles.  


In the same way that a century ago Grand Rapids women tailored their knowledge and talents to suit the war effort, local women’s historians are currently learning how their own work on the reform movements of community foremothers needs to be extended and reinvested in the larger context. When American women were granted a federal mandate by the Council of National Defense, when the government establishing the CND’s Woman’s Committee in Washington, woman’s committees were also formed on state and local levels all over the nation. That this history has been so long neglected remains astonishing.


On November 9 Melissa Fox, the new president of the Greater Grand Rapids Women’s History Council, will provide an overview of recent work bringing this period to life. Leading with the local, she will illustrate how hundreds of American women's groups transformed their organizational structures upon U.S. entry into World War I. They addressed the nation’s failure to assess serious health problems that suddenly compromised national security when huge percentages of American men failed their military physicals. Long-time efforts to establish exercise on playgrounds for children, to get fresh food into the city through farmers markets and school gardens, and to find employment for women in factories and business took off.


Highlighting examples of Grand Rapids women serving on state- and city-level woman’s committees, Fox will share some familiar names of women activists in new positions. On the state level, educator Josephine Ahnefeldt Goss was the chair of “propaganda,” in charge of convincing recent immigrants that they, too, should participate in food programs benefitting their children as well as the war effort.


As contemporary local researchers are hailing the historical efforts of women, they are also studying public pressures levied by Hoover’s Food Administration to force them to sign food pledges and register for war work. Still, as a result of the registration campaign, during one week of May 1918 over half the female adult population of Grand Rapids completed what we celebrate today as the most comprehensive census of women’s life at the time. You will be hearing more about this over the next year!


The wartime efforts of pioneering Grand Rapids, midwestern, and national women’s leaders have been too long neglected. Even professional women’s historians have not until recently understood the scale of accomplishment. Join us on November 9th for a look at history-making in process--to see how in a new century nineteenth-century women’s efforts were newly understood, energized, and reframed by an invitation from the federal government. And see where it led—for starters, to universal suffrage, the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920.

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The Grand Rapids local history community originally met Melissa Fox when she worked in the Local History and Special Collections Department of the Grand Rapids Public Library and served as coordinator of History Detectives programming. Currently, she bridges life as a freelance writer, researcher and homemaker with life in her new role as president of the Greater Grand Rapids Women’s History Council. Women activists and volunteers from a hundred years ago would recognize her juggling act!


Women Go to War: Furniture Factory Work During World War I: GRPL Exhibit, 4th Floor in the Grand Rapids History & Special Collections Department

"Women Go To War" highlights the wartime furniture factory life of local women during the Great War. The multi-panel exhibit is replete with historical photographs, newspaper articles, labor statistics, and profiles of individual women.  
Stop in to see how the Woman's Committee of the Council of National Defense harnessed the working power, as well as the social and civic relief aims, of more than 20,000 women through voluntary registration.    
Learn what working life was like for the women who worked at the Sligh Furniture Company and Berkey &  Gay--two of the most prominent furniture makers employing women during the war--as they moved into roles traditionally held by their male counterparts.  
This exhibit illustrates the contributions of women, including the city's immigrant populations, and the power of community during a tumultuous time.  
It can be viewed whenever the library is open.  
This exhibit was made possible with the support of the Grand Rapids Public Library Foundation through a grant from the Furniture Manufacturers' Heritage Fund, a Donor Advised Fund of the Grand Rapids Community Foundation. 

Watch for more information: GGRWHC to Celebrate 30 Years!
During 2018 the GGRWHC will celebrate thirty years of existence and register afresh how past women’s experiences relate to present and to future goals. Among the Council's first projects were research workshops and a conference, which showed off how much had been uncovered in the early years. Soon city-wide celebrations called Legacy involved dozens of local organizations, representing the arts, education, health care, business, labor, and religion, to help uncover data and  highlight what had already been found.


For nearly thirty years the Council has recruited and trained researchers, encouraged donations to local archives, distributed bibliographies on area women’s history, digitized materials for broader dissemination, and developed creative programming to spread information about the early accomplishments of female scientists, attorneys, journalists, even reformed courtesans. Five years ago at a quarter century, it took stock and published a brief summary history, which you can find on this website. 

Learn more abut the history of the GGRWHC here.


Michigan Women's Hall of Fame Awards Dinner & Induction Ceremony

Held on October 18, 2017

More information about those inducted at this link.

Among the Historical Inductees is Ella Mae Backus (1863 - 1938)
Ella Mae Backus was nominated by GGRWHC board member, Ruth Stevens. Ruth has also written a peer reviewed article which appeared in the Fall 2016 Michigan Historicl Review, "Assistant US Attorney Ella Mae Backus: 'A most important figure in the legal profession in the Western District of Michigan.'
It is available at this link. 


In 1903 Ella Mae Backus was the first woman appointed Clerk of the U.S. Attorney's Office in the Western District of Michigan. Twenty years later she again made history as the first woman appointed Assistant U.S. Attorney, one of only six in the nation. Through her 35 years in the district office, Backus inspired later women to step from the governmental position into higher office and other legal fields. 



Women's Equality Day Celebration

Grand Rapids Art Museum

On August 26, 1920, women in the United States won the right to vote with the ratification of the 19th Amendment. Women’s Equality Day is celebrated each year on August 26 to commemorate the passage of the 19th Amendment and to call attention to women’s continuing efforts toward full equality.

GGRWHC celebrated Equality Day with women around the nation as they distributed information on Thursday, August 24.



Rescued from a 21st-century garage sale by Richard Harms, this photo was identified as his wife Joan's great-grandmother. Family had so thoroughly forgotten this divorced and remarried woman that they guessed at her name as "Grace Kelly Freehouse." The search for her personal history and actual name--Minnie R. Mickel--illustrates how easily women have been lost to the past and how difficult it can be to find them again. When Minnie posed for her photo as a suffragist, probably between 1912 and 1914, little did she know how long a life it would have in the world--or that it would become an iconic image of the suffrage effort in Grand Rapids, Michigan!



Hollyhock Lane: Tuesday, July 4, 2017, 8:00 A.M.

Before the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment granting full suffrage to women in 1920, public demonstrations demanding the vote included parading. This year on Tuesday, July 4, the GGRWHC honored the 72-year women's rights movement beginning in 1848 by marching the annual Hollyhock Lane Parade. More . . . 




Midwestern History Conference: Finding the Lost Region
GVSU Hauenstein Center, Grand Valley State University

The Midwestern History Association is dedicated to rebuilding a field neglected in recent decades and for the third time gathered specialists at GVSU, when the Greater Grand Rapids Women’s History Council introduced a little-known adjunct to the Council of National Defense. The CND’s Woman’s Committee was organized in 1917 when the U.S. entered the Great War and was charged with organizing the nation’s women for the war effort.

Scroll down this page for more information.


Greater Grand Rapids Women's History Council
Annual Reception and Program Held on March 29, 2017

Before and Beyond the Bricks and Mortar:
The 1908 Blodgett Home for Children and the Programs It Has Housed
Presented by: Cindy Laug & Diana Barrett


ICCF Assembly Hall (the former Blodgett Home for Children)
920 Cherry Street SE

Learn more about the program in this interview with WGVU's Shelley Irwin: Link to it here.


On Wednesday, March 29, members of the Greater Grand Rapids Women's History Council walked through the Corinthian columns of the most significant building in Fairmount Square for GGRWHC’s celebration of Women’s History Month 2017. A reception and brief annual meeting preceded a program honoring nineteenth-century women who organized the children’s programs behind the 1908 construction of the D. A. Blodgett Home for Children—currently the ICCF and the host building for the meeting. New board members, Michelle DeRose and Melissa Fox were welcomed.

Beginning with the identification of the needs of orphaned children in 1887, Cindy Laug presented an early history of nineteenth-century children’s aid groups into the twentieth century. In 1908 the Children's Home Society moved into the building we know on Cherry Street, courtesy of Delos Blodgett. 

 Diana Barrett shared the story of the Mary Free Bed Guild which used a portion of the building for the rehabilitation of children during the polio epidemic of the 1940s and mid-'50s. By 1948, Mary Free Bed owned the entire buiilding and remained there until it moved to its present site in 1976.  As the need for its use declined, the building fell into disrepair and demolition was recommended. The building was restored by the ICCF in 2006. 

A series of photos were shown of the space in which the GGRWHC meeting was held as it had appeared when filled with children in wheel chairs, resting on rolling beds, wearing braces and celebrating holidays and birthdays. Diana followed the history of the space through its decline and into its current and outstanding restoration.

Appropriately, the GGRWHC event offered an opportunity to toast the recent 125th anniversary of the Mary Free Bed Guild. It was represented by Julie Ridenour, former chair of the Guild. The Guild's founding and current members were inducted into the Michigan Women’s Hall of Fame in 2016.



Mary Free Bed Guild members attend the October 19 Michigan Women's Hall of Fame Award Dinner at which the Guild was recognized. More here. 

The Mary Free Bed Guild was featured at the GGRWHC March 29, 2017 Annual Reception and Program.



GGRWHC in the Media and More

Link here for more headlines and stories.

March 28, 2017: Interview with WGVU's Shelley Irwin: The Greater Grand Rapids Women's History Council presents their annual reception and program Wednesday night, March 29, at the ICCF Assembly Hall. The program is titled, “Before and Beyond the Bricks and Mortar.”  We speak with Jo Ellyn Clarey. Link to the full interview here. 


Ruth Stevens, GGRWHC Board Member, has published an article, "Assistant US Attorney Ella Mae Backus: 'A most important figure in the legal profession in the Western District of Michigan.'" Ruth is an Associate Professor at GVSU where she is a Professor of Legal Studies and the Legal Studies Coordinator. Ruth received her BA from Harvard University and her JD from the University of Michigan Law School. Link to the full article here. 



WACs, WASPs, SPARs, and Marines: Nicknames, Recruiting, and the Wartime Experience of Servicewomen from Grand Rapids: presented by Will Miner on November 10, 2016

Link here for additional program notes and information on women in military service.

And listen to Will's interview with Shelley Irwin on the WGVU Morning Show: Women in the Armed Forces

The Greater Grand Rapids Women’s History Council was pleased to provide the November 10th program of the Grand Rapids Historical Society. The Grand Rapids Public Library’s Will Miner highlighted the WWII experiences of local women Marines to illustrate the first large-scale employment of women in the United States armed forces. 


WZZM takes a look back at the women's suffrage movement in Grand Rapids. Ruth Van Stee was interviewed by WZZM's Juliet Dragos earlier this year.   

Ruth is a board member of the GGRWHC and the publisher of the organization's newsletter. A graduate of Calvin College, Ruth retired from the Grand Rapids Public Library where she worked in the Children's Library, Local History, and Special Collections. She is also the newsletter editor for the Grand Rapids Historical Society.



GGRWHC board member, Julie Tabberer, recently named the Local History Department supervisor with the Grand Rapids Public Library, was interviewed as a part of C-SPAN's Cities Tour, Grand Rapids series. Julie presented an inside view into the library's furniture design and rare books collections. See the full interview here. The GRPL's Furniture Design Collection is the second largest in the country. From the late-19th century through the first half of the 20th century, Grand Rapids was a major center of U.S. furniture production. 

Look especially around minute four of the video for a segment on women's early role in the furniture industry!

Julie holds an MILS degree from Wayne State University and has worked as a librarian and library assistant in the Grand Rapids History and Special Collections Department at GRPL. She previousl worked in the archives of Steelcase, Frederick Meijer Gardens, and Davenport University.

Longtime friend and member of GGRWHC, WGVU's Shelley Irwin is named the 2016 Athena Recipient: "Now in its 27th year in the greater Grand Rapids community, the prestigious ATHENA Award honors an individual who has demonstrated leadership in their professional field, mentored and opened doors of opportunities for women, and contributed time and talent to the community." 



Congratulations to GGRWHC member, Dixie Anderson, West Michigan World Affairs Council direction, on receiving the Foreigh Policy Association Medal this month at the Harvard Club of New York. The medal recognizes individuals who demonstrate responsible internationalism and work to expand public knowledge of international affairs. See the full Mlive story here.

Reprise: GGRWHC Annual Reception & Program

March 30, 2016

Program: Shattering Glass Ceilings—Women’s Elective History in Grand Rapids, 1888-2015  

Special guest: Mayor Rosalynn Bliss

One hundred-twenty people attended our annual  reception and celebration of Women's History Month on March 30 at the Women's City Club. The large group enjoyed an evening with drinks and wonderful hors d'oeuvres, prepared by the Women's City Club chef.

A link to the full program is here.