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Women's History Month: Meet the trailblazers that paved the way for today's political leaders

To celebrate Women's History Month, the Greater Grand Rapids Women’s History Council is highlighting some of the women that ran for public office during the 1970s.

KENT COUNTY, Mich. — March is Women’s History Month and to celebrate, the Greater Grand Rapids Women’s History Council is highlighting some of the women that ran for public office during the 1970s.

These trailblazing women paved the way for political leaders today.

During the “second surge” of the 1970s, women like former second ward commissioner Mary Alice Williams broke down barriers in an effort to have their voices heard.

“My family and I moved to Grand Rapids in 1974. And we were located in the Eastown neighborhood, and they were housing issues, crime issues, zoning issues. I got involved when a community organizer knocked on my door one day, and I signed a petition, and the rest is history," Williams said.

It's a long history that spans decades with women running for public office in Kent County since as early as 1887.

“Linda Johnson, in 1978, was the first African American woman, actually to be elected and seated on the Grand Rapids school board, a number of women had run starting in 1951. But she was the first woman elected to office and so they're just, there's all kinds of range that this program will cover," Jo Ellyn Clarey, with the Greater Grand Rapids Women's History Council, said. 

It was common during that time for women to serve alone alongside their male counterparts.

“We worked with 19 men, which was a lesson for me because I grew up with six older sisters. So, I wasn't real familiar working with men. I learned a lot quickly. And I always found that strange that they seem to be so nervous about every vote that they took, I always felt pretty solid about what my vote was,” Carol Kooistra, a former Kent County Commissioner, said. 

Progress has been made in the decades since the second surge. We’ve elected the first female Mayor of Grand Rapids, Rosalynn Bliss, and the first woman to represent Michigan's third congressional district in the U.S. House of Representatives, Hilary Scholten. These pioneers say more work needs to be done to close the gender gap in politics.

“If the truism is that women hold up half the sky, then we need to be in at least half the places where decisions are being made that affect our daily lives," Williams said.

It’s a battle these women fought fearlessly and even more women continue to do so to this day.

The "second surge" event is March 15 from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. at the St. Cecilia Music Center on Ransom Street. It's free and open to the public.

For more information, click here.


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