Our History


The First Five Years: Organizational Highlights: 

Compiled by Falinda Geerlings in 2013 as part of GGRWHC's 25-year anniversary. 

1987—Twink Frey was doing research for a paper on the role of women in the history of Grand Rapids.  She found little or nothing, either at the local or state levels about the many women who had helped found and shape the city and its surrounding area. Knowing that women had played an enormous role in the development of the region, Frey began to contact others who had a similar interest in systematic research, documentation, and preservation of the lives and contributions of  former Grand Rapids and West Michigan women.


1988 – early 1991—During this period of time, a steering committee of six was formed and added to almost monthly. Members, in the order of appearance were:

  • Twink Frey
  • Sue Conklin
  • Mary Meade Fuger
  • Jane Henderson
  • Gwen Hibbard
  • Jane Idema
  • Bunny Voss
  • Mary Alice Williams
  • Gordon Olson
  • Lillian Sigal
  • Jinny DeJong
  • Carolyn Grin
  • Kyle Irwin
  • Bessie Ward
  • Jackie Johnson
  • Jean Hainer
  • Vernis Schad


1990—In January 1990, the Articles of Incorporation (i.e., bylaws) were submitted to the Michigan Department of Commerce. Thus, the Greater Grand Rapids Women’s History Council, a nonprofit, was formed. Sue Conklin researched and shaped this necessary and important document. It represented the link between Twink Frey’s feelings about the lack of documented local women’s history and the steering committee members’ concrete ideas and aims for accomplishing her vision. 


1991—The steering committee was now referred to as the “board.” The first executive committee members were:

  • President—Bunny Voss
  • Vice President/Secretary—Sue Conklin
  • Treasurer—Jane Henderson


The committee chairs were: Jackie Johnson, bibliography; Jinny De Jong, education; Joan Garety, finance; Mary Alice Williams, Hall of Fame nominations; Vernis Schad, membership; Carolyn Grin, oral history/research.


Board members included:  Margo Anderson, Lola Baez, Diane Casey, Margaret Cook, Mary Meade Fuger, Jean Hainer, Gwen Hibbard, Jane Idema, Kyle Irwin, Shirley Kleiman, Gordon Olson, Shelley Pew, Vernis Schad, and Bessie Ward.


1992—The board membership was essentially the same, except MargEd Kwapil had joined (her first of three discrete terms). The executive committee included:

  • President—Mary Alice Williams
  • Vice President—Vernis Schad
  • Secretary—Bessie Ward
  • Treasurer—Jinny De Jong

The committee chairs remained the same, except that Kyle Irwin replaced Jinny DeJong  as education chair.


1993—Vernis Schad replaced Mary Alice Williams as president; Jo Ellyn Clarey came onto the board as secretary (the first of two different terms over the years); Barbara Amberg joined the board as research chair; Laurie Chesley chaired Hall of Fame nominations; Linda Thompson joined as membership chair; and Marg Ed Kwapil became  newsletter chair.


Highlights of Twenty-Five Years of Research and Programming

1989—In November 1989, steering committee members held a conference on women’s history at Aquinas College. Its title was “An Ear to the Past, an Eye to the Future.”


1989— Chair Mary Alice Williams and a nominations committee researched and wrote their first recommendation to the Michigan Women’s Hall of Fame. Anna Sutherland Bissell (1846-1934) was inducted and joined Pearl Kendrick, Grace Eldering, Helen Claytor, Madeleine LaFramboise, and Betty Ford on the list. Throughout the 1990s the other Grand Rapids women added were: Dorothy Leonard Judd, Roberta Griffith, Joan Wolfe, and Emily Burton Ketcham.


1991—Publication of the booklet, Seven Women Who Made a Difference, featuring the seven women from Grand Rapids to date in the Michigan Women’s Hall of Fame.


1991—Start up of Legacy series: The Council inaugurated tri-annual, month-long, area-wide observations of Women’s History Month. Legacy was intended to encourage area women’s and community groups to present programs drawing attention to women and their contributions and resulted in increased awareness among organizations and the general public of the importance of women’s history.  In addition, a remarkable unification among women’s groups, from social and business organizations to academic and governmental institutions, occurred. The collaborative planning and presentation of diverse programs throughout the month of March became a grand public celebration of the achievements of women, young and old, past and present, famous and ordinary. The first Legacy was managed by the Council itself. Chairs of the following Legacies were:

  • Legacy 1994: Jean Enright and Leann Arkema
  • Legacy 1997: Cecile Fehsenfeld and Terri Handlin
  • Legacy 2000: Susan Shannon and Toni Turner
  • Legacy 2003: Jackie Taylor
  • Legacy 2006: Debra Muller and Fran Pepper
  • Legacy 2010: Falinda Geerling


1994—Just one example from Legacy 1994:  Jean Reed Bahle was commissioned to write and produce a play for the city’s fifth graders featuring four local women.


1995—First publication of Women in Grand Rapids History: A Guide to Resources in the Local History Department of the Grand Rapids Public Library, a bibliography of holdings on local women’s history. A special issue of the Grand River Valley History based on materials from Legacy 1994 was also published, featuring more substantive articles than had generally appeared to date on area women’s history.


1997—For Legacy 1997, the Council created a traveling photographic exhibit, Twelve Outstanding Women, for display at programs, conferences, and other events.


1998—With the Grand Rapids Cantata Choir, we oversaw the Midwest premiere of the first mass composed by a woman, Amy Beach, and honored local women composers.


1999—The GGRWHC filled the St. Cecilia auditorium with a centennial re-enactment of the national convention of the National American Woman Suffrage Association meeting there in 1899 with Susan B. Anthony.



  • Ongoing programs about specific individuals or organizations that have made their mark on the area’s history and a series of workshops on how to research and write women’s history. Annual joint programs with other women’s and historical groups such as the Grand Rapids Historical Society (Ford Presidential Museum) and the Grand Rapids Public Library (e.g., January History Detectives.)
  • Continuing conference papers and panels in statewide and academic settings, including the annual GVSU’s Great Lakes History Conference.
  • Month-long March series in local schools and institutions such as Central High School and Clark's Retirement Home. 
  • Co-sponsorship of the Legacy Landmarks Walking Tour with the Grand Rapids Public Library. This downtown guided tour highlights spots important to women’s history.  
  • Participation in local July 4th parades, carrying GGRWHC’s marching banner and handing out women’s history information with candy along the way.
  • 50 tapes and transcripts of oral history interviews have been digitized and stored in the Grand Rapids Public Library’s archive. These documents have aided historians in their research and publications.  Most recently, Todd Robinson (2013) used them for his book, A City within a City: The Black Freedom Struggle in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Soon these digitized materials will be uploaded onto the World Wide Web and will be accessible from a link on the Council’s website.
  • Gathering and disseminating oral histories for the purpose of research and education continues to be important to the Council.  Recent oral histories have included some of the founding members.


Board Leaders over the Years

President: Bunny Voss (1991 – 1992)

President: Mary Alice Williams (1992 – 1993)

President: Vernis Schad (1993 – 2000)

President: Mary Seeger (2000 – 2010)

President: Falinda Geerling (2010 – 2011)

President: Jo Ellyn Clarey (2011 – 2013)

Ongoing Mission

The Greater Grand Rapids Women’s History Council is dedicated to educating the community and celebrating the legacies of local women, preserving knowledge of their past and inspiring visions for their future.

(This highlighted history was compiled by Falinda Geerling in 2013 as part of GGRWHC's 25-year anniversary.)


Board Leaders

Presidet: Falinda Geerling (2013 - 2015)

Co-presidents: Jo Ellyn Clarey and Mary Seeger (2015 - 2017)