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A Brief history of Women-led Movements in Grand Rapids: Part I – The Women’s Suffrage Movement

March 7, 2022

(Editor’s Note: During the month of March, GRIID will highlight three Social Movements that were led by women in Grand Rapids. These three posts will be part of a chapter that will be included in the book, A People’s History of Grand Rapids.)

International Women’s Day

International Women’s Day evolved out of a growing effort amongst women’s and socialist groups to fight for more equality for women at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century.

In 1908, 15,000 women marched in New York City demanding shorter work hours, better wages and the right to vote. In 1909, the Socialist Party of America designated February 28 as the first National Women’s Day, which was to be celebrated on the last Sunday of every February.

In 1910, at the Second International Conference for Working Women, there was a proposal to have an international women’s day, where women around the world would press for their demands on the same day. The proposal was not adopted until the following year and International Women’s Day (IWD) was celebrated in several countries around the world. However, something happened just one week later that would galvanize this new international movement.

On March 25, a fire began at the Triangle factory in New York City. It was common practice for factory owners to lock the workers inside until the work day ended and because of that practice 140 women, most Jewish and Italian immigrants, burned to death in that fire. The international women’s movement, labor and socialist movements mobilized around the world to mourn these women and to organize for worker and women’s rights.

For years after the first, the Triangle factory fire became the focus of International Women’s Day and gave birth to the Bread and Roses Campaign. The Bread and Roses Campaign was begun by workers (mostly women) who went on strike at a textile factory in Lawrence, Massachusetts. This strike was organized by the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) with the slogan, “We want Bread, but we want Roses too!

The Grand Rapids Women’s Suffrage Movement

Just two years before Grand Rapids officially became a city, there was a large gathering of women being held in Seneca Falls, New York. Some historians identify the 1848 Women’s Convention as the beginning of the Women’s Suffrage Movement in the US.

However, abolitionist feminist Lucretia Mott suggests that the first women’s conference was held in 1837. The focus of the 1837 conference, also held in New York, was an Anti-Slavery Convention. The historian and author Helen LaKelly Hunt, argues that the 1837 Anti-Slavery Convention was the real origin of the modern Women’s Rights Movement, since those early suffragettes were equally committed to the end of chattel slavery as they were to women’s liberation.

In 1874, there was a campaign by the Michigan State Woman Suffrage Association (MSWSA) to get the Michigan legislature to adopt a referendum to allow women the right to vote. 1874, was also the year that the Grand Rapids Women’s Suffrage Association (GRWSA) was founded. The president of GRWSA was Judge Solomon L. Whitney, although some women did play a role on the leadership team. 

A few months after their founding, the Grand Rapids Women’s Suffrage Association brought to town Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who spoke to an audience of 1,000 people at the Pearl Street Universalist Church on Pearl St. 

In order to continue to build capacity to get Michigan to support the right of women to vote, local communities needed to increase their numbers. In 1880, Grand Rapids held its first Suffrage Convention, with delegates attending from across the state. Within the next year, the efforts of those fighting for suffrage was beginning to pay off, with the State Legislature granting some women the right to vote in local school board elections. However, this did not apply in communities with larger school districts, like Grand Rapids, which did not allow women to vote in school elections until 1885. In addition, women also won the right to run as candidates for school board.

The 20th Century began and women had still not won the right to vote in all elections. However, there was continued persistence, continued organization and fighting against the male-dominated political landscape. In 1908, at the State Constitutional Convention, women won the right to vote on bond measures and local taxation proposals. 

In 1909, there was a major push to put women’s suffrage on the national stage, with Michigan Suffrage organizers vowing to collect 100,000 signatures from Michigan residents. Michigan women fighting for suffrage did not get the 100,000 signatures they had hoped, but they did secure 30,000, and sent delegates to Washington, DC to participate in a parade, which ended with a half a million signatures being presented to the US Congress. 

In January of 1911, another attempt to win the right for women to vote was defeated in Michigan. A few months later, thousands of Grand Rapids Furniture workers went on strike, demanding better wages, better working conditions and the right to organize. In the midst of the strike, the Women’s Suffrage Movement invited English activist Sylvia Pankhurst. Pankhurst and many of the English women who were park of the Suffrage Movement, did not limit themselves to acceptable channels to make change. Even the news coverage of Pankhurst’s lecture, reported that she and others had engaged in various forms of direct action to force the British Parliament to deal with the issue of Women’s Suffrage. Diane Atkinson vividly documents the tactics and strategies used by the British Suffrage Movement in her powerful book, Rise Up Women! Other tactics that were employed were smashing windows at the British Parliament, fasting, hounding the liberal members of Parliament to take a stance on the issue, marches, and using targeted arson to force the issue. It is worth noting that the British Suffrage Movement won the right to vote in 1918, two years prior to their US counterparts.

The Grand Rapids-based Suffrage Movement didn’t seem to embrace the more direct action approach to winning the right to vote, but they did eventually realize that they needed to build allies in the fight. 

The Labor Day parade in Grand Rapids in 1911, involved 10,000 participants, with thousands more as spectators. The Labor Day parade was on the heels of a furniture workers strike, demonstrating there was substantial support for worker rights. Some of those in the Grand Rapids Suffrage Movement took notice of this and decided it would be a smart move to participate in the 1912 Labor Day march. 

The Equal Franchise Club did indeed participate in the 1912 Labor Day parade, with a a float, that was fully decorated, with a banner that hung from the side, which said, “A Square Deal,” advocating fair wages for workers. In addition, about 40 women involved in the Suffrage Movement, handed out 20,000 tags to those in attendance, with one side saying “Votes for Women” and the other side with the same message as the banner on the float. The newspaper reported. “The suffragists met with a most encouraging reception from the men.”

As the Grand Rapids Suffrage Movement was growing in numbers and getting their message out, not everyone was welcoming to the idea that women should vote. Some Grand Rapids officials verbally opposed Women’s Suffrage, which included the City Attorney. In November of 1912, there was an election to allow women to vote in City elections, but more men voted against the giving women the right to vote over those that opposed. One of the leading sectors of men who voted against Women’s Suffrage, were men who were members of the Grand Rapids Christian Reformed Church.

Organizing continued in the following years, but in 1913, the Suffrage Movement was dealt a blow at the state level. There was also a major push for vote verification, which resulted in numerous counties, including Kent County, which saw a reduction of votes for Women’s Suffrage. 

The US then entered WWI and many of the Women’s Suffrage groups, including those in West Michigan, decided to support the war effort and take an active part, particularly in the area of encouraging people to buy war bonds.There were some Women’s Suffrage groups that did not jump to aid in the US entry to WWI. The National Women’s Party came out against the war, which was met by a strong denunciation from the Grand Rapids Equal Franchise Club. 

As WWI was winding down, the fight for Women’s Suffrage again took center stage, with a new vote in Grand Rapids in November of 1918. This time voters for Woman’s Suffrage won out. At the national level, the 19th Amendment was finally ratified in 1920. However, the ratification of the 19th Amendment did not mean all women could vote, just white women. As was mentioned earlier, had the National Women’s Suffrage Movement kept their original commitment to racial equality, along with gender equality, all women would have benefited. This has always been a major criticism of the Women’s Suffrage Movement in the US, which was essential a movement that benefited white women and created long-standing tensions between white women and women of color who did not trust that white women would have their back in all gender justice fights.

For more details on the Grand Rapids Women’s Suffrage Movement go to 

Next week, in Part II, we will take a look at the Reproductive Justice Movement in Grand Rapids.

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