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.

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!