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Join the 25th birthday party of the Greater Grand Rapids Women's History Council

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The GGRWHC celebrates its 25th anniversary Thursday with a party at the Women's City Club. In 1988, the founders recognized the need to research and document contributions of local women who helped build our community.
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Founders recognized need to research and document women's contributions to Grand Rapids history

The GGRWC celebrates its 25th anniversary Thursday at the Women's City Club with party featuring a tribute to the Council’s founding members who recognized in 1988 the need to research and document contributions of local women who helped build our community.

Cover picture of a 1908 magazine titled “WOMAN”, once published by early Grand Rapids feminists.

Cover picture of a 1908 magazine titled “WOMAN”, once published by early Grand Rapids feminists. /The Grand River Valley History magazine

On Thursday, March 28, the Greater Grand Rapids Women’s History Council celebrates 25 years of accomplishments and outlines its ambitious vision for the future.

You’re invited to the party where there will be a tribute to the Council’s founding members who recognized in 1988 the pressing need to research and document contributions of local women who helped build our community. Meet some charter Council members when they mingle among the guests during the pre-program reception.   

Doors open at 5 p.m. Thursday in the lower level of the Women’s City Club, 254 E. Fulton St. Complimentary hors d’oeuvres will be provided along with a glass of wine for new and renewing members (otherwise, a wine-ticket bar ($5/glass is available) followed by a brief program starting at 5:30 p.m. Admission is free.

If you plan to attend, please make reservations by emailing this address, [email protected].

“An important goal early in the group’s history was to raise the community's awareness of our inheritance from women of the past,” says Jo Ellyn Clarey, GGRWHC president. “It coordinated its first city-wide celebration during Women's History Month in 1991 called Legacy. The event brought more than 50 organizations together representing the arts, education, health care, business, labor, religion and social causes and created exhibits, events and programs highlighting the multi-faceted ways that area women helped build Grand Rapids.”

The Council was established after a local woman discovered a dearth of recorded history about local women when she was asked to do a presentation about the role they played in the history of Grand Rapids. 

In 1988, Mary Caroline (Twink) Frey, as a supporter of that era’s feminist causes, knew women had had an enormous influence on shaping and building the city. Yet, there was virtually no credit given to their contributions.

She recruited a growing group of women to form the Council, including Jane Idema, Mary Meade Fuger, Jean Hainer, Jane Henderson, Gwen Hibbard, Bunny Voss, Mary Alice Williams, Lillian Sigal, Jinny DeJong, Carolyn Grin, Bessie Ward, Vernis Schad and Kyle Irwin, along with Gordon Olson who was then Grand Rapids city historian. They led efforts to conduct research into the lives and contributions of local women who came before them and to document and preserve that information.

The brief birthday party program will link the Council’s most recent projects to its founders’ pioneering efforts. 

Among the early Council’s first projects were research workshops and a conference, An Eye to the Present, An Ear to the Past, which showed off what they had uncovered in just two years. For 25 years the Council continued recruiting and training researchers, encouraging donations to the archive of the Grand Rapids Public Library, working on bibliographies to indicate its holdings and finding creative ways to disseminate information.

 A brief chronological sampling includes:

  • "Seven Local Women Who Made a Difference," published for the first community-wide Legacy celebration in 1991 and featuring women inducted into the Michigan Women’s Hall of Fame. 
  • A special issue of "Grand River Valley History" in 1995, featuring more substantive articles on area women’s history.
  • A traveling photographic exhibit in 1997, "Twelve Outstanding Women."
  • Continuing conference papers and panels in statewide and academic meetings, including GVSU’s Great Lakes History Conference; month-long March series in local schools and institutions, such as Central High School and Clark Retirement Community; participation in the annual History Detectives event at the GRPL; a guided walking tour downtown of spots important to women’s history, such as St. Cecilia Music Center, which hosted the national suffrage convention in 1899.
  • Special events such as a play featuring four local women (1994); the premiere of the first mass composed by a woman honoring local women composers with the Grand Rapids Cantata Choir (1998); and a centennial re-enactment of the meeting with Susan B. Anthony in Grand Rapids (1999).

Today’s Council continues to move into new territory—from handing out information along with candy at July 4th parades to publishing in book form the most developed research on early local women’s accomplishments as scientists, attorneys, journalists and even as reformed courtesans.

Its 50 tapes and transcripts of oral history interviews, currently processed and housed in the GRPL archive, have aided historians in the publications of a variety of articles and books, most recently Todd Robinson’s "A City within a City: The Black Freedom Struggle in Grand Rapids, Michigan" (2013).

Soon the Council will post the tapes and transcripts digitally, making them available to researchers worldwide.

Keep track of its activities via its online newsletter by signing up at Help the GGRWHC contribute more broadly to an understanding of the significant roles women have played in the history of our community and support its efforts by becoming a member.

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