Traverse City Record-Eagle

November 2, 2009

Women helped build Traverse City

Early clubs lobbied for schools, clean water, reforestation, libraries, hospital


TRAVERSE CITY -- Mystery surrounds their names:

Mrs. A.S. Roberts, M.K. Buck, Mrs. B.D. Ashton, Mrs. J.W. Milliken, Mrs. J.T. Milliken, Mrs. Hatch, Ada K. Sprague Pratt, Mrs. William Love, Clymene Cole Bates, M.E.C. Bates.

Who were they and what did they do to get on the very exclusive list of Traverse City's early women trailblazers and community builders?

For the most part, these women and others were educated, white and married to successful lumber-era businessmen, lawyers, doctors, merchants, manufacturers, newspaper publishers and civic leaders.

They helped build Traverse City's library system, schools and hospital. They lobbied for clean water and clean streets. They were concerned about the needy, child labor, reforestation, international peace and the right of women to vote.

They did this largely through two local women's clubs -- the Ladies Library Association and the Traverse City Woman's Club.

The Ladies Library Association was founded in 1869 by eight women called together by Clymene Bates, wife of Grand Traverse Herald publisher Morgan Bates, when Traverse City was still an isolated village of 1,245. The other founding members were identified only as "Mrs. Ashton, Mrs. M.E.C. Bates, Mrs. Hatch, Mrs. Fuller, Mrs. Sam Arnold, Misses Mina Leach and Mary Knizek."

The Library Association marked many successes over several decades. Enthusiastic fundraising and donations in the 1870s enabled the association to purchase property and construct a wood-frame building at what is today 205 E. Front St. near Cass Street.

It stayed there until 1909, when it moved into a new brick building on Cass Street next to the city hall on the southwest corner of Cass and State streets. When it closed in 1940, it had 5,413 volumes.

Traverse City Woman's Club

The Ladies Library Association, the Traverse City Woman's Club founded in 1891 and the Grand Traverse Federation of Women's Clubs organized in 1910 were part of what historians call the Women's Club Movement, which started at the end of the Civil War and continued up to World War II.

By the mid-1800s, social conventions increasingly called for separate roles for men and women. Middle-class women found themselves isolated at home. The women's clubs, library, and literary associations provided an opportunity for ongoing education. They also offered a civic outlet for women who wanted to improve their communities and work on social and legal reforms.

Nationally, it was a time of intense social reform and transformation generated by growing poverty, labor violence, urban slums and spreading disease. Progressive efforts generally were carried out through the well-organized and focused women's clubs.

As pioneer towns go, Traverse City was just a kid in 1869 when the Ladies Library Association came to life, but it was about to undergo a gigantic growth spurt.

Prosperity and growth boomed here in the 1880s through 1900, as lumbering peaked and the first buildings of the Northern Michigan Asylum went up. Traverse City became a village in 1881 and a city in 1895. Population jumped from 1,897 in 1880 to 9,407 in 1900.

The Traverse City Woman's Club took shape in this milieu in 1891 with 55 founding members.

"As a club, it is in line with every movement that tends to elevate women, and through her, the home and society," an 1897 club report to the state chapter said.

In its first decades, the club met every two weeks from September to June. Annual programs from its first decades offer a window into women's diverse social interests and concerns of that time.

Talk titles are telling: "The Disadvantages of our Present School Systems with a discussion on Morals in the Public Schools;" "Food Waste and the American Household;" "Will the Use of Electricity Be Revolutionary?;" and "The Need of Women on the School Board."

In 1899, Mrs. A.W. Peck used a quote, possibly tongue-in-cheek, to preface a paper on the need for more reasonable clothing for women in factories and elsewhere: "Next to the effeminate man, there is nothing more disagreeable than a mannish woman."

Club members did more than study, discuss, put on plays and host receptions that included men in those early days. They worked with the city council and police, lobbied successfully for garbage collection, a 9 p.m. curfew for children under 18, and for parks and playgrounds for children.

They promoted the need for a local school board and for a city hospital with a maternity ward and a free bed for the needy. Their efforts in the early 1900s led to voting privileges for women who paid taxes, said Yvonne Bunt, a recent president.


Suffrage and temperance movements, bubbling since the mid-1800s, reached a high boil by 1912. Teddy Roosevelt's Progressive Party became the first major political party to pledge itself to woman's suffrage. Michigan Gov. Chase Osborn persuaded the Legislature to put it on the state ballot. It passed, but a rather suspicious recount resulted in a 762-vote defeat.

On March 3, 1913, a crowd of mostly men in Washington, D.C., for Woodrow Wilson's inauguration jeered and attacked marchers in a suffrage parade; 300 suffragists were hurt.

The Traverse City Woman's Club hosted a debate the next month: "Resolved, that the women of the United States should have equal suffrage with me."

"Both sides were ably represented," club minutes reported. "At the close of the debate, the ladies were asked to express their preferences for equal suffrage and of those complying, the majority voted in favor of it."

The Grand Traverse Equal Suffrage Association formed in 1914 and invited the Michigan Equal Suffrage Association to hold its annual convention in Traverse City that November. The Traverse City Woman's Club donated $50, or about $1,060 by today's standards.

"Traverse City is a Suffrage City. Her men and women are loyal to the cause," Mrs. M.S. Sanders, a Grand Traverse delegate, noted in her welcome speech.

The local suffrage association president was Agnes Love.

The 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution became federal law on Aug. 26, 1920, and women in every state for the first time voted in that November's presidential election.

But the Traverse City Woman's Club's work was far from done. It finally disbanded in June 2008, one of Traverse City's oldest organizations, in its 117th year.

Its more recent legacy includes: the 1960s purchase of the Oak Park Library at Washington and Rose for use as a clubhouse and fundraising center; launching the community effort to create the Phoenix Hall drug and alcohol treatment facility for women in the 1970s; sale of its clubhouse and distribution of funds over the next years for a Northwestern Michigan College scholarship fund; as well as donations to the Opera House, Munson Hospice House, Father Fred, Special Olympics and other community projects until the funds were gone.

"We did make a big difference," Bunt said.