Breaking News
More () »

'Those pesky women from Grand Rapids' | The sisters at the front of Michigan's voting movement

Michigan women won the right to vote in 1918, two years before the 19th Amendment passed on Aug. 26, 1920. Grand Rapids played a major role in the movement.

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — Their names may not pop up in your history book, but as we celebrate the 101st anniversary of women nationwide winning the right to vote, it's important to remember Clara Comstock Russell and Etta Comstock Boltwood. They were part of a group of women who changed the voting landscape in Michigan forever.

The national women's suffrage movement took off in the early half of the 1800s, but for many people it wasn't a top-of-mind issue.

"In 1906, in a two-volume history of the City of Grand Rapids an otherwise great man who was also suffrage supporting, wrote only one sentence about that," said Jo Ellyn Clarey from the Greater Grand Rapids Women's History Council.

"It just demonstrates that anything that even was important about women who were in the newspapers all the time didn't make it in the history books. It was just subject matter that didn't seem to matter."

The right to vote did matter to many women across the state, but perhaps none more than the group from Grand Rapids.

"Clara Comstock Russell was responsible for engineering a renewal of the suffrage movement," Clarey said.

"She went to the Federation of Women's Clubs and, with help from the Ladies Literary Club, put together a petition to send to the Constitutional Convention, asking not to include the word 'male' in the Constitution. They lost that, but that fired them up."

Russell's work continued from there.

"She traveled all over Michigan on the trains back in the day gathering and speaking," said Cindy Laug, who is also with the council.

"She made it a task to go to all these little towns all along the way, on her own dime and her own time, because she was that committed to that suffrage movement."

Russell's sister, Etta Comstock Boltwood, was also a committed suffragist.

"The two sisters were heavily involved together. Clara maybe had more of a leadership role, but Etta was right there as well, and involved heavily in Kent County," Laug said.

Women in Michigan first won the right to vote in 1918, two years before the 19th Amendment passed, giving women across the nation the right to vote. But the fight wasn't over. Women also wanted to be represented in the offices for which they were voting.

"Women ran in 1919 for any office available. They didn't win, but they ran," Clarey said.

Boltwood was one of those women who ran for office.

"She ran for the Board of Regents of the University of Michigan twice," said Boltwood's granddaughter Linda Gietzen.

"Her campaign statements said you know there are 2,000 women at the University of Michigan who need to be represented by a woman. And I believe that a woman finally won that office, but not grandma."

Today Katherine E. White, Sarah Hubbard and Denise Ilitch serve on the university's eight-member Board of Regents. Gietzen said she's happy that Boltwood helped pave the way for women to hold such an office.

"Very proud of her. Yeah, she's one of my ideals," Gietzen said. "She and her sister were very concerned about women in general and wanting them to have an equal chance."

Russell and Boltwood also had two sisters who fought for suffrage on the ground level and husbands who were supporting of women getting the right to vote. 

After succeeding, Russell continued on in politics as a Republican and Boltwood did the same as a Democrat. But despite their political differences, the sisters and many other women remained united in the cause of equality.

"They were all working together, trying to create a different ambience for women, and I'm extremely proud to have been part of helping to rediscover some of them," Clarey said.

The Greater Grand Rapids Women's History Council has put together a digital suffrage exhibit on its website, telling the stories of the other major players in the women's suffrage movement in our area. The exhibit was presented last year as a gift commemorating the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment's passage.

"It's important to keep reminding this generation that this is an honor to be able to have that equal right of everybody here in the United States to have a decision," Laug said.

►Make it easy to keep up to date with more stories like this. Download the 13 ON YOUR SIDE app now.

Have a news tip? Email news@13onyourside.com, visit our Facebook page or Twitter. Subscribe to our YouTube channel.

Before You Leave, Check This Out