Celebrating Women's History

In the Community and Beyond

Link to information about previous GGRWHC programs and news here.

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Midwestern History Conference: Finding the Lost Region
GVSU Hauenstein Center, Grand Valley State University
Charles W. Loosemore Auditorium, 401 Fulton Street West

Admission to this day-long conference is free, including a complimentary lunch, and is open to the public. Plan to attend!  But you must RESERVE at this link:  (scroll down the page for the MHA event)  Or, you may call 616-331-2770.

The Midwestern History Association is dedicated to rebuilding a field neglected in recent decades and for the third time will gather specialists here in June, when the Greater Grand Rapids Women’s History Council will introduce 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.

The Woman’s Committee of the WWI Council of National Defense in the Midwest

Wednesday, June 7th, 2:00 – 3:30 pm

The GGRWHC has pioneered work on Woman’s Committee activities on the national, state, and local levels and is pleased to provide an overview of the role of midwestern women in national-level wartime food programs and to feature fascinating on-the-ground reports about urban Grand Rapids and rural Jasper County, Indiana. Finally, this women’s war story has begun making its way into accounts of American history. See our panel description and background story below.



Creating 'An Army of Housewives': Woman's Committee Food Programs of World War I by Anita Anthony-VanOrsdal will address how demand for midwestern farm products provided women reformers opportunities to shape federal wartime policies and state laws.Powerful coalitions of women in the Midwest directed initial food programs, guiding grassroots efforts throughout the nation by nearly fourteen million American women. Midwestern women remained a vital component of wartime food program successes.



Hooverizing and Managing the Nation’s Women: The Example of Jasper County, Indiana by Sue Caldwell will provide rich illustration of top-down management problems in one CND local committee (out of 17,000 nationwide). Her study of Jasper County, Indiana analyzes aspects of women’s experiences with food conservation programs when set in a rural county and the role of food in newspaper propaganda campaigns aiming negative rhetoric specifically at women. The participation of women as wartime enforcers of regulations they did not initiate nevertheless increased their representation on county-level defense councils, opening an eventual wedge into government.


Schoolyard Patriots: Municipal Housekeepers and Government in Grand Rapids, Michigan by Jayson Otto will illustrate how well-organized women’s reform movements and clubs were  already primed for engagement in official governmental roles. Their early connections to civic agriculture provided models for WWI projects, and their pre-war public gardening programs for school children transformed into full-blown wartime gardening and preservation projects. The civic work of women reformers in Grand Rapids can complicate our understanding of wartime “municipal housework” and build a fuller picture of the political economy their work supported.


The Agricultural History Society, a long-time national organization, will meet in Grand Rapids from June 8-10, immediately following the MHA conference. Elaborating on his work for our MHA panel, on Friday, June 9th, at 10:30am Jayson Otto will present “Saving the ‘Defective’ Child and the Poor Housewife: Public Gardening Programs of Women’s Clubs During the Progressive Era in Grand Rapids, Michigan” for a panel on women’s responses to the challenges of industrialization in the early twentieth century. Complete program and registration information can be found at http://www.aghistorysociety.org/meetings/.


Background: Our education in Grand Rapids began in 2006 when a treasure trove of 23,000 war registration cards for women was rediscovered in the public library. They include genealogical, sociological, and historical data on half the city’s female adult population in 1918, an astonishing census using well over 100 fields. The cards were identified as one wartime effort by the virtually unknown Woman’s Committee of the CND. Michigan enrolled 900,000 women overall, more than any other state, and the Grand Rapids collection is the largest of the very few so far discovered throughout the United States. Its discovery has prompted research beyond the card collection itself, including the 2017 MHA panel and early work by Jayson Otto.


In 2011 Indiana genealogist Sue Caldwell uncovered a complete card collection in rural Jasper County--3,200 of the 626,292 completed statewide. 
In contrast to the urban data from Grand Rapids, the Indiana collection provides a detailed portrait of an entire county’s rural women; and the Indiana material is more extensive. They have an original storage cabinet custom designed by the CND, filled with masses of data.  

Prompted by the 2006 discovery in Grand Rapids and early work by Diana Barrett, Anita Anthony-VanOrsdal began research resulting in her 2015 MSU dissertation on the formation and functioning of the federally mandated Woman’s Committee of the CND, and on the social and political ramifications of its existence. Before her work, virtually no attention had been paid this group arising out of decades-long women’s reform movements. Anthony-VanOrsdal illuminates the link between its past in social reform and women’s new formal position as citizens with a federal mandate.


GGRWHC is pledged to highlight our area’s women’s history for the benefit of professional historians both to learn even more from them and to model how local history experts can promote important exchanges in the field. Stay tuned at www.ggrwhc.org!


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.