Women’s rights fight underway in 19th century in Lansing

Copied from the Lansing State Journal – MI – Sunday, May 20, 1984

Women’s rights fight underway in 19th century
By Gladys Beckwith

Striving for equal rights and opportunities for women, influencing legislation, organizing protests, founding women’s club, preaching sermons and speaking out for fundamental social, economic, and political change – a feminist agenda for the 1980s?

No, just some of the activities of Lansing area women in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when women were deemed mere helpless and homebodies.

UNFORTUNATELY, the history of Lansing and Ingham County women has yet to be written. The history books that have been published – usually by male historians – instead have focused almost exclusively on the interests and accomplishments of men; the contributions of women have been given little or no though or attention.

On the other hand, even a brief study of Lansing history reveals a number of creative dedicated and strong-willed women who were able to exert a substantial influence of the community’s development and thus to make lasting contributions to both the state and the society.

Opening up higher education to the working classes, for example, became a major social goal during the mid to late 19th century. But such advances as the establishment of Michigan Agricultural College (later Michigan State University) were made without regard to the needs and aspirations of women. Today, when women students in many educational institutions outnumber males, it is perhaps difficult to comprehend the extent of the opposition to bring this change about.

LANSING MAY lay claim to a true educational pioneer: Abigail Rogers, who came to Lansing from a position as preceptress at the new State Normal School in Ypsilanti (Eastern Michigan University) had a vision of establishing a school which would provide the same opportunity in higher education for women as the University of Michigan then provided for men.

With her sister, Delia Rogers worked to create the Michigan Female College on what is now the site of the Michigan School for the Blind. It was at first a school for all grades, but as time passed it attracted increasing numbers of students and became more selective and focused on advanced education for young women.

The curriculum included mathematics and foreign languages and the “womanly” arts of needlework and conversation. The school was for 14 years of its existence a recognizable social and educational force in the community. But obtaining adequate funding was always a struggle, and when Abigail Rogers died in 1869 her sister was unable to sustain the effort alone and the school closed its doors.

OTHER AREA women later took up the struggle for equal educational opportunity. Mary Mayo of Coldwater worked through the State Grange organization to establish a women’s committee of the State Board of Agriculture, the governing body of the Agricultural College. She was instrumental in finally creating a Women’s Department within the college. Dora Stockman, who became the first woman member of the State Board of Agriculture, worked to improve the lot of rural women through education. She helped to persuade the Legislature to pay for a separate building on the college campus to house women’s programs. The present Human Ecology building at Michigan State University bears witness to her accomplishment.

Marie Dye, who was later to become dean of the School of Home Economics, joined the MAC facility in 1922, and gained national recognition as a scholar, researcher, teacher and administrator. She transformed the very foundations of women’s programs, not only at what was to become Michigan State University, but elsewhere in the nation. Under her direction Home Economics moved from the gentle arts of homemaking to a professional concern for both home and family, encompassing the research field of nutritional science, child development and others.

TWO LANSING women, Harriet Tenny and Mary Spencer, made outstanding contributions to the Michigan State Library. Tenny was named State Librarian in 1869, the first woman to hold this position. Tenny played an important role in educational and historical associations, including the Michigan Pioneer and Historical Society. She was also a founder and charter member of the Lansing Women’s Club, an organization which was to become a force in the lives of many women and in the community.

Mary Spencer, who directed the State Library from 1893 to 1923, managed to build the library collection from some 60,000 volumes in locked cases to more than a quarter of a million volumes, open to all. Under Spencer’s direction Michigan became the second state in the nation to adopt the concept of traveling libraries. In addition, small collections of books were loaned to individuals and organizations in parts of the state without libraries. In the process the State Library became a major cultural and educational influence as well a resource for research and a depository of state records. Spencer, always persuasive, also played a role in winning financial aid from Andrew Carnegie to establish a Carnegie Library in Lansing.

LANSING HAD women physicians at a time when women were discouraged from taking up scientific pursuits. Anna Ballard is perhaps the best known. Ballard attended the Misses Rogers Female College in Lansing and went on to graduate from the Medical School of the University of Michigan and from the University of Chicago. She later returned to open a private practice and became one of the organizers of the Lansing Medical Society in 1882. She also became a political activist, leading efforts in the Legislature to raise the age of consent from 10 to 14 years. Ballard, too, was an early member of the Lansing Women’s Club, a supporter of the YWCA and a member of the Methodist-Episcopal Church where she argued for the admission of women to the Methodist General Conference.

Although women still seem to struggle for admission to the ministry, Lansing had an ordained women minister as early as 1862. In December of that year Augusta Jane Chapin was formally ordained in Lansing as an Universalist minister. Augusta was described as “an effective preacher whose sermons were thoroughly developed and delivered in a straight-forward manner.” She became the first woman in the United States to earn a Doctor of Divinity Degree, received from Lombard College, and is credited with playing an important role in establishing women in the Universalist ministry. She also was an extension lecturer at the University of Chicago and a leader in the World Parliament of Religions.

LANSING PRODUCED a woman whose economic theories gained national attention. Sarah E. VanDeVoort Emery was a writer and lecturer on economic, social and political issues and helped to develop and form the basis of the American Populist movement in the late 19th century. Her popular work, “Seven Financial Conspiracies Which Have Enslaved the American People” sold more than 400,000 copies in her lifetime. She also published, edited and contributed to “The Corner Stone,” which originated in Lansing from 1893-1895.

Emery was one of the original members of the Michigan Division of the National Women’s Suffrage Association, a delegate to the Greenback Labor Party National Convention in 1884, and an early member of the the Knights of Labor, and an Associate of the Farmers’ Alliance and the Peoples’ Party in the 1880s and 1890s. She also was a co-founder of the Union Labor Party in 1887. In spite of these accomplishments, Emery’s work has largely faded from history until reclaimed in recent years through the scholarly effort of MSU researchers Pauline Adams and Emma Thornton.

No overview of the history of Lansing area women would not be complete without mention of two prominent early officeholders, Frieda Schneider (1882-1946) is recognized as the first woman to gain elective office in Lansing. In 1920, just weeks before final approval of the 19th amendment, Freida was overwhelmingly elected to the office of city treasurer. Subsequently she also ran successfully for county treasurer, becoming the first woman in history to hold that position as well.

SCHNEIDER, A Democrat, lost her 1924 bid for re-election in the Coolidge landslide. But she led the way for other women to follow in local elections, women such as city Clerk Bertha Ray, city Treasurer Lois Chase, and Susan B. Leonard, who in 1926 succeeded her husband as Ingham County register of deeds.

Lansing women in 1936 passed another political milestone when Elizabeth Belen became the second woman in history to be elected to the Michigan House of Representatives. Belen had supervised the student training program of the Army Corps at MAC and in the 1920s started the visiting nursing program in Lansing.

While in the Legislature, Belen sponsored and achieved passage of the state’s first Occupational Health Act and its first Elevator Inspection Act. She went on to become the vice chair of the State Democratic Party. As a member of the first Commission on Aging, she also helped to produce the first state report drawing attention to the problems of senior citizens and in many other ways helped to improve the social consciousness of the city and the state.

AS THE CITY now prepares to celebrate its 125th birthday, and the state its 150th, its important to recall Abigail Adams’ entreaty to her husband, John, then engaged with drafting the constitution: “I pray you, remember the ladies, John,” she is reported to have said.

John didn’t but Lansing and Michigan shall through women’s history week programs and activities, through women’s studies, and through the establishment, in Lansing, of the Michigan Women’s Historical Center and Hall of Fame.

Gladys Beckwith is professor of American thought and language, Michigan State University.

Note: The Michigan Women’s Historical Center and Hall of Fame did open on June 10, 1987 and is scheduled to move to the Meridian Mall in Okemos in this upcoming April 2017.


original article


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