The legacy of Eva McCall Hamilton, Michigan’s 1st woman in state legislature

Michigan

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — This November will mark the 100th anniversary of Michigan electing its first woman to the state legislature, just a few months after women earned the right to vote in national elections through the 19th Amendment. 

Aug. 26 marks a century since the 19th was certified: a major victory in the suffrage movement, which first began in the 1800s.

“It’s easy for us today to look at suffrage and say, ‘Oh, it was inevitable. Of course, it was going to happen.’ They didn’t know that,” Michigan capitol historian and curator Valerie Marvin told News 8. 

Marvin, Greater Grand Rapids Women’s History Council Co-President Jo Ellyn Clarey and Michigan Democratic Sen. Winnie Brinks, as well as Julie Tabberer, Tim Gloege and their team at the Grand Rapids Public Library, helped News 8 commemorate the centennial by looking back on a local suffragist and Michigan’s first female senator: Eva McCall Hamilton.

“Something I appreciate about her is she argued for suffrage based on the idea that she believes it was a basic right. She said we need to be admitted to the human race,” Marvin added. 

Hamilton was a teacher in Grand Rapids when she joined the revival of the suffrage movement, most notably steering the horse-drawn homecoming float for the Equal Franchise Club in 1910. 

“We talk about that era, that last decade (of the movement]) as one full of flash and spectacle,” Clarey told News 8. 

Hamilton also served her city in other roles before making the leap to Lansing as the first woman ever appointed to a city board – serving as the chair of a committee on markets and worked to establish the city’s first farmers market.

“The retail market will become a permanent institution in Grand Rapids,” Hamilton told a reporter in 1917 in an article archived by the Grand Rapids Public Library. 

What today is the Fulton Street Farmers Market is the permanent institution Hamilton worked toward.

In November 1918, Michigan suffragists succeeded in convincing male voters to enfranchise the state’s women, meaning women could vote and run for elected office at the state level, despite the federal amendment not passing for another two years. 

That’s what set up Hamilton for a run at the Michigan Senate seat in 1920.

“She already had a high profile in media. She was known as a good campaigner and she was otherwise kind of a foot soldier in all of these movements, which is really important for us to remember today,” Clarey explained.

Hamilton defeated three men for the Republican nomination and went on to win the 16th district election, which includes Grand Rapids, by beating former State Sen. Harry C. White by a 2-to-1 margin.

“There’s discussion about what they’re going to call her,” Marvin shared. “Is she Mrs. Senator? Is she the lady senator? That’s what she’s often termed in the press. They, of course, talk about what she’s wearing. If feathers are on her hat, her complexion, her figure.”

HAMILTON’S ELECTION GAINS NATIONAL ATTENTION

“She was trying to walk a fine line,” Clarey said of Hamilton’s move to Lansing. “There were a lot of men who were very unhappy that she was in the state Senate and she had to initially say things like, ‘I’m not here to start a revolution. I want to get things done.'”

And that she did, before being defeated in a three-way primary in 1922.

Seven of the 12 bills Hamilton introduced passed. Many of the initiatives would be considered progressive by today’s standards. For instance, a change to the Mother’s Pension Act.

“This act provided county assistance for single mothers,” Marvin explained. “So mothers who were widowed. Mothers who had dependent children.”

Despite her one-term tenure, Hamilton earned the respect of her colleagues. A portrait of her still sits on the wall in the Michigan Senate chamber. It’s in direct view of Sen. Winnie Brinks’ desk – the only other woman to represent the Grand Rapids area in the state Senate. 

Their respective elections are separated by nearly 100 years. 

“I’m really proud that I get to work with Eva, in a way, still every single day when I walk in here. I always kind of look over there and give her a nod. She was such a trailblazer. Everything from just the fact that she won an election in that year, the first year that women could vote, to the issues she championed,” Brinks told News 8. 

The centennial of the 19th Amendment and Hamilton’s election spark reflection for Brinks. 

“We’ve come so far when it comes to voting rights, but I think the big lesson for me is we have to remain vigilant,” Brinks said. “We have to make sure that every single group, person, no matter their profile or who they are, has the right to vote.”

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