A New Year with Unfinished Business

In the wake of 2020, the GGRWHC celebrates the new year for its possibilities. Beginning with our first board meeting of 2021, we will take an entirely appropriate backward glance and rededicate ourselves to remembering and acting on the lessons of the past year.

Anti-Racism Statement of the Board of Directors of the Greater Grand Rapids Women’s History Council:  Several tragedies throughout 2020 clearly exposed the effects of systemic racism in American society. Minorities have endured disproportionately the unequal effects of COVID-19, unemployment, poverty, and incidents of police brutality and injustice. This is especially true for African American communities. We recognize that the Black Lives Matter movement has led the way in bringing attention to these inequities, and we stand with them.

We, the Greater Grand Rapids Women’s History Council (GGRWHC), condemn the killing of George Floyd, and we mourn the many other lives that have been lost as a result of individual and systemic racism. We support and stand with Black Lives Matter and the protest of those who demonstrate to call out systemic racism and unjust practices in our communities. We denounce white supremacy and all forms of racism, discrimination and injustice.

GGRWHC commits to enabling diversity and equity, and we welcome people of all backgrounds who want to share the impact of women in our history. We will recruit and support people of color on our board. We will continue to research and share the stories of people of color in our community. We commit to continuous learning to advance our knowledge of personal biases while also learning ways to build anti-racist systems.

Initiating Women’s History Wednesdays!

Although GGRWHC’s programming to honor the 19th Amendment centennial has been interrupted by the coronavirus outbreak, we invite you to stick with us virtually into the foreseeable future. During the rest of 2020, we will not forget the centennial celebration; but we will widen our focus. Please stay tuned about August 26th’s HER VOICE HER VOTE! But, likely, we will persist with centennial celebration past the end of this year–when we sincerely hope to see you again in person!

For now, watch for Women’s History Wednesdays via our electronic newsletter (sign up here) and follow us on Facebook. We will offer a panoply of women’s history in bite-size pieces as well as fuller offerings in our monthly features in Women’s Lifestyle Magazine as well as in our hard-copy newsletter! Make sure our newsletter lands in your mailbox – click here to become a supporting member of GGRWHC!

Here’s a taste of Women’s History Wednesdays, which hit inboxes yesterday.

Union Benevolent Association Training School for Nurses

GGRWHC salutes health workers during our current crisis and gives a nod to the shoulders they stand on, the pioneering women of the past who took the lead in organizing institutions to care for the sick, the elderly, and the orphaned. Balancing benevolence and business sense, they undertook the development of local hospitals and nursing schools, here represented by the first graduating class in 1888 of the Union Benevolent Association Training School for Nurses. The UBA turned into Blodgett Hospital. Hats off!


From Managerial Void to the Medical Mile:  The Evolving Roles of Women and the Enduring Presence of History 

Join us on Thursday, October 10, 2019 at 7:00pm at the Grand Rapids Public Library where Julia Bouwkamp will present From Managerial Void to the Medical Mile: The Evolving Roles of Women and the Enduring Presence of History. 

Known for its thriving medical institutions, Grand Rapids today soars above its past, having forgotten whole chapters of an early medical history where government played virtually no role in providing civil services. Early “managerial voids” were commonly filled by the efforts of voluntary associations–associations most often led by women.

On October 10th,  Bouwkamp will unfold the history of Grand Rapids medical institutions growing out of the efforts of hard-working, charitable nineteenth-century women. Early women citizens are rarely heralded as community builders, and Bouwkamp will reveal a story often obscured by sentimentalized assumptions that women were not seriously involved in “public” works, even in the organization of institutions that cared for the sick, the elderly, and orphaned children.

In fact, these early citizens impacted our community to a remarkable degree. Fleshing out the specific history of women founders of early Grand Rapids medical institutions, Bouwkamp will reveal a pattern where they were pushed from the centers of organizations they had created into the more feminine realm of nursing–where once again their hard work and creativity revolutionized a struggling profession by “raising standards and giving scientific value to the business of being a woman.”

Balancing benevolence and business sense, they understood that the “intelligent saints” in the caring professions should be honored for their skills and with a living wage.

The national impact of one Grand Rapids reformer:  Minnie Cumnock Blodgett

Upon U.S. entry into World War I in 1917, a nursing shortage loomed. A prominent local advocate of health public reform, Minnie Cumnock Blodgett, proposed an intensive training camp at her alma mater Vassar College, where the theoretical education of nurses could be undertaken outside a hospital setting. Bouwkamp will elaborate the long-term national effect of this successful experiment from the summer of 1918 on the nation’s nursing education and the betterment of the nursing profession.


Julia Bouwkamp

Julia Bouwkamp has put her degree in history from Calvin College to work ever since her graduation in 2015. She has worked as a historical interpreter at Fort Michilimackinac in Mackinaw City, for AmeriCorps VISTA in historic preservation, and as a researcher, speaker, and archivist with the Greater Grand Rapids Women’s History Council and Froebel USA. Besides having recently finished curating a digital exhibit on women’s suffrage for the GGRWHC, she has published entries on local historical women in Women’s Lifestyle Magazine and a substantive article on Dutch women during World War I in Origins, Calvin College’s historical magazine. Bouwkamp is currently applying to graduate programs in material culture and public history. 


During 2019 the Greater Grand Rapids Women’s History Council celebrated over thirty years of recruiting and training researchers, encouraging donations to local archives, distributing bibliographies on area women’s history, digitizing materials for broader dissemination, and developing creative programming to spread information about the early accomplishments of female scientists, politicians, journalists, even reformed courtesans. Six years ago at a quarter century, it took stock and published a brief summary history, which you can find on its website:  https://www.ggrwhc.org/our-history

In January 2020 the GGRWHC will launch a year’s celebration of the certification of the Nineteenth Amendment, culminating on August 26th at St. Cecilia Society, the site in 1899 of the only meeting in Michigan of the National American Woman Suffrage Association.

Co-sponsored by the Greater Grand Rapids Women’s History Council, the Grand Rapids Historical Society, and the Grand Rapids Public Library

Learn About Grand Rapids Architect Marion Blood and Other Women Architects at Ottawa Hills Tour on October 5!

Grand Rapids architect and engineer, Marion Frances Blood, had an extraordinary talent that was spotted early by her mentor Architect Kenneth Welch who was Grand Rapids first official City Planner. After graduating from the University of Michigan in 1924, Blood won the coveted UM Booth Graduate Prize in Architecture and traveled in Europe for eight months. When she returned to Grand Rapids, she began designing homes for popular architect Alexander McColl, a career that lasted until 1939. By 1942 Marion Blood was working as an Engineering draftswoman, designing defense guns and tools, and much later she was drafting plans for the American Bridge Company including Michigan’s own Mackinac Bridge.

Learn more about Marion Blood and other Grand Rapids women architects working from 1920 through the 1970’s on Saturday, October 5 at 1 pm at the Klise Chapel at East Congregational church. GGRWHC is excited to partner with architectural historian Pamela VanderPloeg for this presentation and walking tour of 1920s women-designed homes in the Ottawa Hills and the adjacent East Grand Rapids neighborhood. Registration is required for this free event. Click here to register today!



GGRWHC Reception & the 2019 Candidates for the Board of Directors

Join us on Wednesday, March 27 at 5pm for our Reception & Annual meeting! Enjoy a glass of wine, light appetizers, and catching up with friends! Then, settle in to hear our year-in-review, elect new directors (read more about each of them below), and learn about and celebrate the work behind the now-digitized Kent County collection of WWI Council of National Defense women’s registration cards. Let us know you plan to come! Click here to RSVP! 

Here are 2019 Slate of Candidates for the Board of Directors:


Susan Coombes

Grand Rapids native Susan Johnson Coombes majored in Communications at Michigan State University before working in local radio and moving abroad to spend time in Europe, Africa and Asia. While resident in Nigeria, she was a member, then president, of the International Women’s Association. During two years in the Netherlands, she worked as an information specialist on the Eastern Scheld Works (a storm surge barrier on an artificial island); and her fourteen years in Asia were divided between Singapore and Hong Kong, where she worked in the international public relations/communications industry. Back in the US, Coombes lived for thirteen years near Seattle and served two terms as an Arts Commissioner for the of City of Issaquah. Currently, she is retail manager for the Grand Rapids Art Museum. Coombes was first elected to the GGRWHS board in 2013 and served for four years in communications and special projects.


Jayson Otto

Jayson Otto is a professor of anthropology and food studies at Aquinas College and Grand Valley State University. He became active in local history with the Neighborhood Improvement Committee of the Midtown Neighborhood Association and while managing the Fulton Street Farmers Markets for three seasons between 2005 and 2007. His research continued during graduate work on Ecological Food and Farming Systems at Michigan State University. There, Otto dug deeper into the origins of the Fulton Street Farmers Market, and he uncovered the prominent roles played by Progressive Era women in Grand Rapids food politics. Jayson has represented the Greater Grand Rapids Women’s History Council with programming in women’s history, farmers markets, and urban farming at the national Agricultural History Society, the Midwestern History Association, GVSU’s Great Lakes History Conference, GRPL’s History Detectives and at the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum. Some of his research on Grand Rapids women, farmers markets, and school gardens can be read in a chapter of the book Cities of Farmers: Problems, Possibilities, and Processes of Producing Food in Cities from the University of Iowa Press. Jayson hopes to extend his research on the civic work of Progressive Era women around food production to other cities and towns across the state.


Kelly Otto

Kelly Otto is a genealogical researcher who, between 2001 and 2015, was employed as  executive director of Grand Rapids’s Midtown Neighborhood Association. During her fourteen years working alongside neighbors and local businesses promoting community engagement, she emphasized their investment in the neighborhood’s local history. She advocated for the creation of two historic preservation study groups to investigate the potential designation of historic districts within the Ashby Row and Brikyaat areas of Midtown. With for-profit and non-profit stakeholders she worked to ensure a historically sensitive renovation of Houseman Field. To  encourage Midtown residents to investigate their own “house histories,” she took residents to the Grand Rapids Public Library and Grand Rapids City Archive to teach them how to utilize resources available there. We endorse Otto’s belief in “building connections between the past to better understand the present and how we arrived here.”

History Detectives 2019: All History! All Day!

Join us on Saturday, January 19 from 9:30am – 4:00pm for History Detectives!

GGRWHC is proud to sponsor Sophia Ward Brewer’s presentation:

Undercurrent: African American Women in Turn-of-the-20th-Century Grand Rapids

Still an undercurrent in accounts of reform movements coming out of the nineteenth century, the cultural and political contributions of African American women have received little attention. Sophia Brewer will bringing this story home by recounting how a small community of African American women in Grand Rapids made their mark on local history. Introducing these local movers and shakers, she will uncover who they were, reveal where they came from, and describe how they impacted their period’s fight for civil and women’s rights. Just beneath the surface, these African American Grand Rapidians made local waves that swelled into national consequence.
Come for Sophia’s presentation at 10:30am, or stay for the whole day of local history programming featuring:

9:30am – Lawrence C. Earle Is Grand Rapids’ First Artist
Don Bryant – Sponsored by the Western Michigan Genealogical Society
For over five decades Grand Rapids’ first artist dedicated his fascinating life to art and to motivating others.

10:30am – Undercurrent: African American Women in Turn-of-the-20th-Century Grand Rapids
Sophia Ward Brewer – Sponsored by the Greater Grand Rapids Women’s History Council
How a small community of African American women in Grand Rapids made waves in history, waves that swelled into national consequence.

11:30am – What Did They Know and When Did They Know It? Grand Rapidians and the Holocaust
Rob Franciosi – Sponsored by Kutsche Office of Local History at Grand Valley State University & Grand
Rapids Public Library
Contrary to popular myth, average Americans including Grand Rapidians read a lot of Holocaust history reported in their daily papers as it was happening.

1:00pm – Hot Spots in a Cool City: Evening Entertainment in Grand Rapids, 1940-1970
M. Christine Byron – Sponsored by the Grand Rapids Historical Commission
In the mid-twentieth century Grand Rapids already offered a “cool” range of evening entertainment at cocktail lounges, music venues, dining-and-dancing spots, and movie theaters.

2:00pm – Fresh Air, Thrift, Exercise and Innocent Delight: School Gardening Programs in Progressive Era Grand Rapids
Jayson Otto – Sponsored by the Grand Rapids City Archives
In the early 20th century, Grand Rapids became a model for school gardening programs when every grade school had its own.

3:00pm – WWII: When Patriotism Was the Norm
Sandra Warren – Sponsored by the Grand Rapids Historical Society and the Grand Rapids Public Museum
How Grand Rapids South High students bought a B-17 Bomber to aid the war effort during World War II.

For more information about the day, including reserving a boxed lunch, visit https://www.grpl.org/historydetectives/

GGRWHC Fall 2018 Slate of Candidates for the Board of Directors

On Thursday, November 8 at 6:15pm in the Vander Veen Center at the Main Library (before Janet Sheeres’s program at 7:00 pm), the Board of Directors of the Greater Grand Rapids Women’s History Council asks that dues-paying members meet to conduct the agreeable business of electing new directors.

Here are 2018 Slate of Candidates for the Board of Directors:


A Master of Library and Information Science from Wayne State University,Sophia Ward Brewer began as a page at the Grand Rapids Public Library in 1991 and by 2014 had become Head of Programming. Her career trajectory at GRPL now includes its Board of Library Commissioners, for which she ran in 2016 and on which she still serves, securing her place in our elective history of women in Grand Rapids! Currently, Sophia is the Collections Development Librarian at Grand Rapids Community College, where she also teaches information literacy and works on MI-ACE, Campus Climate, and Equality and Inclusion. She is researching the early history of African American women in Grand Rapids and for GGRWHC will present in January at History Detectives.



Since graduation from Aquinas College in 2015, Matthew Ellis has been Assistant Archivist for the City of Grand Rapids, where he does conservation work and document repair when he is not indexing municipal records and retrieving materials for researchers and city departments. He has also organized archival materials for Mary Free Bed, created a finding aid for their use, and helped plan a wall of history for display at the hospital. Outside work duties, Matt has exercised his planning and promotional skills by volunteering for the Event Committee of the Eastown Community Association and developing programming for History Detectives, a consortium of local historical groups. Also as a Trustee of the Grand Rapids Historical Society, Matt will become an important local history liaison.



Libby VanderPloeg is a Michigan-based artist and illustrator willing to jazz up our image! Clients for Libby’s mixed-media paintings, animations, and digital illustrations range from The New Yorker toKazoo Magazine , and from Netflix and Penguin Books to Farrar, Straus & Giroux. Since finishing her BFA at the University of Illinois at Chicago, Libby has worked to “inspire young women to be smart, dream big, and pursue their goals.” Click here for her “Lift Each Other Up” animation, which went viral on social media on International Women’s Day in 2016:https://www.libbyvanderploeg.com/lifteachotherup/ . GGRWHC is eager for Libby to practice her penchant for highlighting strong female figures in historical contexts using Grand Rapids subject matter.
Photo Credit: Leigh Ann Cobb



Katelyn Bosch VerMerris steeped herself in local history during undergraduate work at Calvin College, when she interned with the Lowell Area Historical Museum and Fallasburg Historical Society. Then she met the GGRWHC during her study for a master’s degree in Public History at West Virginia University, where she focused her thesis research on the home front work of Grand Rapids women during World War I, supplementing GGRWHC projects in this area. Katelyn will also coordinate with us to develop the website presentation of this important work. Building on her undergraduate study of history and strategic communications at Calvin College, Katelyn has been undertaking projects with historical museums in Saugatuck-Douglas and Holland.


CHANGE of Program for November 8th!

Our program by Tom Dilley planned for Thursday, November 8th, will be rescheduled on a future date!
But! Keep November 8 at 7pm at the Main Library on your calendar and join us for Janet Sheeres’s serious-yet-light-hearted presentation on one set of unheralded women community builders: clergy wives. Based on her book For Better, For Worse, the stories of the wives of the first Dutch pastors in West Michigan will offer a fresh glimpse of early Grand Rapids history.
For Better, For Worse is Sheeres’s fourth book. She has also published 70 articles in national and international journals on Dutch emigration/immigration history and is the editor of Origins , the historical magazine of Calvin College’s Heritage Hall Archives.
After her program Sheeres’s book will be available for sale as will a 2018 special issue of Origins magazine focusing on women’s history!

GGRWHC at the Midwestern History Association Conference

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Fourth Annual Midwestern History Conference
Sponsored by the Midwestern History Association and
the Hauenstein Center at Grand Valley State University

For the fourth consecutive year the MHA will meet in Grand Rapids, giving locals the opportunity to stay on the cutting edge of the reviving field of Midwestern studies. This assemblage of scholars—including those from the Greater Grand Rapids Women’s History Council—is dedicated to re-energizing study of the role of the Midwest in American history. Attend all or just part of the day-long offerings—but don’t miss the GGRWHC’s presentation at 7:00 pm! Scroll down for more and stay tuned at www.ggrwhc.org!

Courtesy of GVSU’s Hauenstein Center, admission will be open to the public and free, including a complimentary lunch—if you RSVP! Also find the day’s complete schedule on the following: https://www.gvsu.edu/hc/module-events-view.htm?siteModuleId=2C5125A7-B7A9-5FEB-4D1655B86DF0EF04&eventId=20AB1F05-9F9A-DB93-67F2E838268D976A

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The Greater Grand Rapids Women’s History Council
at the MHA Conference
GVSU DeVos Campus Downtown
Wednesday, June 6th, 7:00 pm

When in 1917 the American wartime government established the Woman’s Committee of the Council of National Defense, 17,000 local organizations sprang up immediately. Invited in because of military needs, the nation’s women citizens made contributions ranging far beyond specific war needs and their traditional gender roles.

Midwestern Women and the Children’s Programs of the WWI Council of National Defense will be the second in GGRWHC’s three-year project illustrating the little-credited but incredibly important American women’s initiatives to create a home defense by guaranteeing healthy food sources, raising healthy children, and ensuring the health of women in the industrial work force. This year’s focus will be on how women’s programs benefited children, ensuring the future health of the nation in the wake of a public health disaster. When one third of American male draftees failed their physicals, the better care of American children became an important aspect of an ongoing home defense. Integrating local histories into the national story, Melissa Fox, Jayson Otto, and Sue Caldwell will report on a variety of 1918 “Children’s Year” initiatives in urban Grand Rapids, Michigan, and rural Jasper County, Indiana.

Riding the Rails on the Children’s Special: Weighing and Measuring Babies along Michigan’s Interurban Lines, Melissa Fox, Greater Grand Rapids Women’s History Council

Children’s Recreation as a Defense Measure: The Case of Grand Rapids, Michigan, Jayson Otto, Aquinas College

Schooling for War in Rural WWI Jasper County, Indiana, Sue Caldwell, Director-At-Large of the Indiana Genealogical Society & Jasper County Genealogist for the IGS

Who Was a “Single” Woman? Complicating the Concept!

The GGRWHC Annual Reception, Thursday, March 15, 5:00 – 7:00pm

John F. Donnelly Conference Center at Aquinas College

Join us for wine and hors d’oeuvres at our annual reception as we step off ideas discussed by author Rebecca Traister in All the Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation. (See p. 9 on her visit to Grand Rapids on March 13.)

GGRWHC will open up the conversation by complicating the relationship between singledom and progress for women. To Traister’s examples we will add vivid anecdotes about Grand Rapids’s own “single ladies”—single for so many different reasons. After local researchers present cameo portraits of women who, on the one hand, could be considered quintessentially “single,” they will also ask exactly what “single” means in terms of personal histories, various kinds of support networks, age, race, divorce, and widowhood.

Included will be a WWII Red Cross volunteer/second-wave feminist activist, a businesswoman/suffragist/politician, a renowned cultural historian, an educator/suffragist/club woman, a world-class botanist/real estate tycoon, and a little-known nineteenth-century African American women’s club, both staid and radical!

Honoring this sampling of women we will also honor our researchers who have brought them back into the light–and lift a glass to some favorite married ladies for their contributions to social reform and massive change in Grand Rapids’s history. One will be a GGRWHC founder, Jane Hibbard Idema, also namesake of our host Aquinas College’s Jane Hibbard Idema Women’s Studies Center.

Finally, State Representative Winnie Brinks will be on hand with a proclamation congratulating us on our 30th anniversary for the work we have done since 1988 uncovering, then covering, the history of local women!

We hope you will join us for this fun, annual event! Please RSVP via email at [email protected] or by phone at 616-574-7307