GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — As Michigan residents across the state visit the polls Tuesday, women can look back at a long history that brought them there.
The state’s first constitution, written in 1835, only afforded the right to vote to white male citizens over the age of 21, according to the Library of Michigan.
Women’s suffrage efforts started in the late 1840s and early 1850s. The Library of Michigan says it was in that period that married women were granted the right to remain the owners of their property, including things like clothes, after marriage They still couldn’t vote, though.
“The effort to win women’s suffrage in Michigan was a very long struggle,” Wayne State University history professor and 19th Amendment expert Liette Gidlow, Ph.D., said. “It was like a 70-year struggle and ultimately Michigan ended up enacting women’s suffrage before the 19th Amendment was ratified, bringing it to the full nation.”
The state revised its constitution in 1850, but efforts to add women’s suffrage and African American suffrage failed, she said. Native American men who were at least 21 years old and did not belong to a tribe were granted suffrage in the revised constitution. A push to grant Black men the right to vote in the revision failed and they did not gain suffrage until the passage of the 15th Amendment in 1870.
OPPONENTS INCLUDED LIQUOR MANUFACTURERS
Opponents of women’s suffrage in Michigan had similar arguments as those across the country. They argued men would be left with the housework, while women would be allowed into the workplace.
“One of the most common of those (arguments) was the idea that women’s suffrage would throw into chaos gender roles within the home, that it would disrupt marriages and it would disrupt families, that it would feminize men and masculinize women,” Gidlow said.
Liquor manufacturers were also against women’s suffrage. The women’s suffrage movement was associated with the temperance movement, which pushed for sobriety, and the manufacturers were afraid women getting the right to vote could impact their business.
Other opponents argued against women’s suffrage on racial grounds or based on business interests, Gidlow said. Others were concerned about immigrant women specifically being granted the right to vote.
The Michigan State Suffrage Association in Battle Creek was founded in 1870, holding rallies and lobbying for women’s suffrage. It hosted a convention in 1871 during a legislative session, according to the Library of Michigan. Lawmakers introduced and failed a women’s suffrage amendment, but agreed to let women use the Chamber in the evening to talk about the issue. A woman from Kalamazoo was the first to speak, opposing women’s suffrage. Three suffragists spoke in the chambers the next evening.
‘LOTS OF FAILURE’
A women’s suffrage ballot measure failed three times, in 1874, 1912 and 1913.
“So lots of failure. Lots of failure. In Michigan, as in many places, suffrage for women was granted in a piecemeal fashion,” Gidlow explained.
Women slowly gained the rights to vote in certain elections. In 1881, women gained school suffrage and could vote on issues like school bonds. In 1908, they gained taxpayer suffrage and could vote on local bond issues.
Finally, in a Nov. 5, 1918, election, a referendum was successful and Michigan women gained the right to vote in all elections.
“It was a very long-fought battle, many defeats before that, but ultimately the passage of a referendum vote by the people to extend suffrage to women was really the highlight of women’s suffrage organizing in Michigan,” Gidlow said.
The federal 19th Amendment, also known as the Susan B. Anthony Amendment, was passed by Congress in June 1919. Michigan ratified it on June 10, 1919, becoming the third state to do so.
“Michigan was one of the first states to ratify and ratified within a week of it being sent to the states,” Gidlow said. “So Michigan helped to bring women’s suffrage to other parts of the nation after it was achieved here.”
The 19th Amendment was officially ratified on Aug. 18, 1920.
“The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.”The 19th Amendment
MICHIGAN’S MANY IMPORTANT SUFFRAGISTS
There were several key suffragists from Michigan, including Lucinda Hinsdale Stone. Gidlow said the educator helped found Kalamazoo College and helped establish one of the first women’s clubs in the state.
“The first of these was a literary society where women would get together to talk about books or invite in speakers,” Gidlow said. “This was very important at a time when most colleges did not admit women.”
She was a founder of Michigan Federation of Women’s Clubs and founded the Women’s Suffrage Association of Michigan in 1870.
“She very much believed in women organizing and working together,” Gidlow said.
She was also friends with other notable women’s suffrage activists, like Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Frederick Douglass.
“She was in constant correspondence with them, visiting with them and the rest. So she was very much part of this important circle of leading suffragists,” Gidlow said.
Lucy Thurman, of Jackson, advocated for women’s suffrage, along with African American suffrage, improved sanitation, equity and education. She began as a temperance advocate, Gidlow explained, helping start a Michigan Women’s Christian Temperance Union and the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs Michigan branch. She was a “very active figure in voting rights and in many other causes,” Gidlow said.
Another important suffragist was Charlotte Berry Sherrard of Grosse Pointe Farms. The philanthropist helped fund the movement, Gidlow explained, and chaired the publicity committee for the Michigan Equal Suffrage Association.
The first woman to become ordained as a Methodist minister, Dr. Anna Howard Shaw, grew up in the state. She was the president of the National American Woman Association, according to National Park Service.
Mary McCoy was a Detroit activist who worked in issues like women’s suffrage and child welfare. In 1913, McCoy attended the Women’s Suffrage Parade at Washington, D.C. around Woodrow Wilson’s inauguration.
“Like many Black women of the period, she for this parade had been asked to march in the back of the parade,” Gidlow said. “They wanted to segregate the parade. And she refused and instead she marched with her state delegation from Michigan.”
“There were many important suffragists — African American women in particular — who were from Michigan and made important contributions to the movement,” she added.
She said Black women saw voting as crucial to improving their communities and for compensating for other parts of the country where Black women faced worse disenfranchisement.
GRAND RAPIDS ‘NATIONAL LEADER’ AFTER 19TH AMENDMENT
The work of suffragists was not done after the ratification of the 19th Amendment. The next step was rallying people to the polls and Grand Rapids played a key role in that effort, Gidlow said.
“Women who were suffragists in Grand Rapids were not done when the suffrage movement was over. They then took it upon themselves to work to promote voting, getting people to actually turn out at the polls, working to educate voters and encourage them to fulfill their civic responsibilities by voting,” Gidlow said.
In the 1920s, the country saw a Get Out the Vote movement, and Gidlow said Grand Rapids was a “national leader” in that work.
“In Grand Rapids, that work took place in 1924 and 1928, and it included things like a mass meeting that was organized at what was then the Pantlind Hotel — now it’s the Amway Grand — and this was a meeting at which League of Women Voters and business leaders in the city worked out their plans for trying to boost voter turnout in the upcoming election,” she said.
Leaders in the movement organized a parade, put up voter registration tables at department stores like Herpolsheimer’s downtown, gave out thousands of flyers and put posters in windows.
“Grand Rapids played an important part in the women’s suffrage movement and in activism afterwards to get citizens to use their votes and to try to boost civic participation,” Gidlow said. “There is a long and storied history of that in Grand Rapids. And that’s a legacy that we can build on.”
PROFESSOR: ‘DOESN’T MEAN THE WORK IS DONE’
Gidlow said the work of suffragists has continued into modern day.
“One thing we can learn from the suffragists is that voting rights is an ongoing issue. It wasn’t resolved with passage of the 19th Amendment or passage of the 15th Amendment before it or with passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965,” she said. “Voting rights access continues to be an issue, even today.”
“There are people whose votes are being stripped away from them through a range of issues,” Gidlow said. “Sometimes it’s efforts to try to intimidate voters, as we saw in Detroit in the 2020 election, and the efforts to intimidate … the ballot counters and election workers that took place. Sometimes it takes the form of electoral violence, like we see detailed in the, in one of the Trump indictments that just was handed down.”
She added that “there are all kinds of ways to restrict the power of the ballot. And just because we have these amendments on the books doesn’t mean that the work is done.”