Reprise: GGRWHC Annual Reception & Program

Reprise: GGRWHC Annual Reception & Program

In keeping with the theme of the evening, the GGRWHC was pleased to welcome local women  holding elective office as well as those running for office. Guests had an opportunity to greet Grand Rapids' first woman mayor, Rosalynn Bliss. Other elected officials included Ruth Kelly, city commissioner, Joe Jones, recently appointed to replace Bliss, County commissioners, Carol Hennessy and Mandy Bolter, and State Representative for the 76th House District, Winnie Brinks.  (left, Winnie Brinks, Vernis Schad, Klaas Kwant, videographer).


Deirdre Toeller-Novak (right) presented Shattering Glass Ceilings--Women's Elective History in Grand Rapids, 1988-2015, relating the stories of  five "firsts," Grand Rapids women who were elected to office beginning in 1888: Harriet Cook, Eva McCall Hamilton, Grace Ames Van Hoesen, Evangeline Lamberts, and Rosalynn Bliss.


In a brief business meeting at the historic Women’s City Club in Grand Rapids, the following were approved:

  • Kristin DuMez was added to the board of directors. Kristin is an associate professor in History and Gender Studies at Calvin College. Her areas of specialty are women’s history and American religious history. Her first book, A New Gospel for Women: Katharine Bushnell and the Challenge of Christian Feminism, was published with Oxford University Press in 2015. Her next book is a religious history of Hillary Rodham Clinton. In collaboration with her students, Du Mez has helped create local history walking tours with GR Walks, including a tour of East Grand Rapids’ Ramona Park, a Riverwalk tour, a history of beer in Grand Rapids, and neighborhood tours on Roosevelt Park and Garfield Park. No stranger to the GGRWHC, Kristin has done several talk-backs after sponsored viewings of Iron-Jawed Angels.
  • Amy Dunham Strand was added to the board of Directors. Amy is Director of the Jane Hibbard Idema Women's Studies Center and Assistant Professor of Women's Studies at Aquinas College. She has taught courses in composition, literature, women and environment, and women's political rhetoric and has co-directed the "Sister Story" oral history project on the lives of women living in religious community. Her first book, Language, Gender, and Citizenship in American Literature, 1789-1919 (Routledge 2009) was the result of her research in the intersection of ideas about gender and language in American literature and culture.  Always using historical context in her study of literature, language, and gender, she has published and presented on the the rhetoric of 19th century women's petitioning in the U.S., women's writing instruction in U.S. settlement houses, American dialect, and Catharine Sedgwick's writings. 
  • Jo Ellyn Clarey and Susan Johnson Coombes were returned to the board.

The evening's program was presented by Deirdre Toeller-Novak

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


Between 1888 and 2015, Harriet Cook, Eva McCall Hamilton, Grace Ames Van Hoesen, Evangeline Lamberts, and Rosalynn Bliss each shattered another of the glass ceilings impeding the full participation of women in the process of governing our schools, the city, county, and the State of Michigan. Their stories are laced with perseverance in the face of scorn, personal sacrifice, fraud, and high adventure. Tthese women’s stories formed the backdrop of the presentation which focused on the importance of having an accurate record of women’s elective history and how it has shaped our community in 2016. 


Through years of effort on the part of the Greater Grand Rapids Women’s History Council, Grand Rapids is one of a few, if not the only, American city to have a complete history of women running for and elected to office since the opportunity was first extended to them. This unique set of data proves that Grand Rapids women ran for office beginning in 1888—much earlier than had been known, in fact, decades before second-wave feminists believed that they were running for the first time. Women in the mid-to-late 19th century were among the earliest to vigorously push the national movement toward suffrage even while lobbying from outside of the established system for changes in education and government.  


In her summary of the first 50 years of the League of Women Voters of Grand Rapids, Dorothy Leonard Judd wrote that in its beginning the League had “one immediate and overriding purpose: to awaken the nation’s women to their new responsibilities as voting citizens and to their new opportunities to work for legislation on social problems proverbially neglected by men” (The First Fifty Years, League of Women Voters of Grand Rapids). Through the stories of women who were first to be elected to their respective offices, we will examine the remarkable strategies and accomplishments of trailblazers whose work is far from complete. Their methodologies provide valuable tools in today’s political arena which continues to be dominated by a struggle for justice between groups of disparate economic, social, and cultural backgrounds. 


Deirdre Toeller-Novak is proofing a compilation of Grand Rapids women’s elective history, in whose pages she can be found. Her election to the boards of the Grand Rapids Public Schools and Grand Rapids Community College in the 1980s places her in the line of women elected to local school boards begun in 1888. She will share data from the Greater Grand Rapids Women’s History Council’s unique electoral history and illustrate its importance in 2016. Deirdre’s historical and political efforts overlap in work promoting involvement of women in the elective process and consequent systemic change. Her professional career was directed by her early training in criminal justice and legal systems, including the leadership of municipal and non-profit organizations such as district court probation departments, the Grand Rapids Bar Association, and the Children’s Assessment Center. In retirement she stretched her experience to include a master’s degree in English Literature.