In 1890, a Detroit daily reported that the “lady newspaper men” of Michigan met to organize “an association of their own.” Indeed, the new Michigan Women’s Press Association was surprised by the number of responses from women engaged in every aspect of newspaper work: editors, reporters, proofers, etc. Of the two Grand Rapids women attending, Etta Smith Wilson from the Grand Rapids Telegram/Herald would found women’s pages all across the state, and writer Claudia Murphy became the first secretary of the MWPA. During the 1890s, the association held annual conventions, selected delegates for national congresses and grew from 26 charter members to 100 in just six years. Over time, there were many members from Grand Rapids, including Helen Aston Williams who was elected president in 1919.
Aston Williams’ first publishing venture in 1908 Grand Rapids mentions that she moved to Grand Rapids from Duluth, Minnesota, where she had been a “brilliant writer” whom they hated to lose. From 1903 to 1906, Aston Williams worked for the Duluth News Tribute and eventually became the editor of its women’s pages. She also had an early career in suffrage work. As president of her Minnesota area’s suffrage association, Aston Williams made at least one incredible lecture to a resistant Women’s Christian Temperance Union audience that was reprinted in full in Labor World on March 3, 1906.
Helen Aston Williams first appears in grand Rapids history as a founder and managing editor of the astonishing 1908 Woman: A Weekly Newspaper Of the Women, for the Women, By the Women. Founded by local newspaper women, it ran for ten issues guided by the editorial view that “women can do everything as well as any man, and most things better.” It featured national news, social reform and consumer issues and gives us a good look at the concerns of early 20th-century Grand Rapids women.
After Woman, Williams officially reported for the Grand Rapids Herald, but on May 2nd, 1914, she joined twelve other suffragists to take over the Grand Rapids Press. She served as editorial and feature editor for the “Suffrage Edition” that highlighted the fight for equal rights that had dragged on for decades. In 1916, she was elected president of the Grand Rapids Equal Franchise Club and oversaw the state suffrage convention that year in grand Rapids, where they focused on good organization over good oratory. Afterwards, Aston Williams helped to organize suffrage groups all over Kent County.
At this point in her career with the Grand Rapids Herald, she wrote a weekly column titled “Woman and the Ballot” and was a featured speaker for many local suffrage clubs. After the success of universal suffrage, Williams lost a race for the city commission in 1922 but was on slates of delegates to county and state Republican conventions.
Aston Williams remained serious about her profession and served in its organization in leadership positions: first, as a director for the Michigan Press Association as its president, after overseeing its 1919 state convention in Grand Rapids.
This biography can also be found in the December 2020 issue of the Grand Rapids Women’s LifeStyle magazine.