Her Legacy: Suffragists at St. Cecilia

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by Melissa Fox for the Greater Grand Rapids Women’s
History Council |Illustrations by Libby VanderPloeg

After a heated debate at its 1893 convention, National American Woman Suffrage Association delegates voted to undertake a regional strategy and hold their annual convention every other year outside of Washington, D.C. In 1899, Michigan leader Emily Burton Ketcham took advantage of the policy change and invited NAWSA to her hometown, Grand Rapids. Ketcham’s campaign likely succeeded over such cities as Cleveland and San Francisco because of her serious and long-term dedication to the movement, but also because Grand Rapids itself offered such an enticing financial package. (Read more about suffrage dynamo Ketcham online in the March issue of WLM!) 

The 1899 meeting in Grand Rapids made it only the third city, after Atlanta and Des Moines, to host a NAWSA convention outside of the U.S. capital. From April 27th to May 4th in 1899, national suffragists overran the city and held meetings at St. Cecilia Music Society, whose new woman-built, state-of-the-art club house and auditorium were proclaimed “the most beautiful building in which they had ever met.” Delegates were invited to stay at the conveniently located Warwick Hotel for $2.00 a day, where they could hold committee meetings before walking “along paths dappled with light” to the convention. There, they were treated to national suffrage leaders pontificating from the St. Cecilia stage. In addition to Susan B. Anthony, they heard from the next two presidents to replace her in the twentieth century, Carrie Chapman Catt and Anna Howard Shaw.

Under the leadership of Emily Burton Ketcham during the 1890s, Grand Rapids had become a hub for state suffrage activity. Now the movement’s biggest hitters were in the city all at once; and they moved beyond the St. Cecilia auditorium to share the suffrage gospel at twelve churches across the city on April 30th: Susan B. Anthony addressed a full house at Fountain Street Baptist Church; Reverend Anna Howard Shaw, a Michigan girl, spoke at Park Congregational; and Kentucky’s Laura Clay explored the Bible’s implications about equal rights at Calvary Baptist Church. The church strategy was a wise one for NAWSA. Besides reaching large audiences in packed houses, the church settings powerfully countered perceptions of conflict between the women’s suffrage movement and religious teachings. 

Still, there was a big stir on the second-to-last day of the convention caused by Lottie Wilson Jackson of Bay City, Michigan. Representing the National Association of Colored Women, Jackson put forward a resolution that when traveling “colored women ought not to be compelled to ride in smoking cars, and that suitable accommodations should be provided for them.” She was met with passionate opposition from southern delegates, illustrating decades-long tensions between reform movements. 

The convening of so many suffragists in Grand Rapids generated massive media interest, and Ketcham’s face was reportedly “wreathed with smiles” because her city’s women’s clubs and Board of Trade had supported the convention so whole-heartedly. On one excursion, carriages took delegates to visit Anna Sutherland Bissell’s factory, where she offered tours and engraved miniature souvenir carpet sweepers. The NAWSA meeting in Grand Rapids marks the only time the national movement ever met in Michigan. 

Susan B. Anthony Slept Here!

By the 1899 National American Woman Suffrage Association convention in Grand Rapids, Susan B. Anthony had been a visitor here for over 25 years. She campaigned in Michigan during the first referendum battle for suffrage in 1874 and returned often to inspire workers at Michigan Equal Suffrage Association meetings. During Emily Burton Ketcham’s four terms as MESA president, this Grand Rapids suffrage leader had developed a lasting friendship with Anthony– who put a political twist on Ketcham’s 25th wedding anniversary celebration in 1892! Standing in the receiving line to greet Ketcham’s 400 guests, Anthony was reported by the Grand Rapids Herald to have worn a “magnificent trained gown of dark maroon velvet” with “all the grace and polish of a reigning society queen.”  


GGRWHC’s programming to honor the 19th Amendment centennial has been interrupted by the coronavirus outbreak. For now, please stay safe but celebrate with us virtually and in print! Visit the digital suffrage exhibit on our website (ggrwhc.org); follow our calendar electronically and in WLM; and stay tuned about August 26th: HER VOICE HER VOTE! 

This article appeared in the May 2020 edition of Women’s LifeStyle Magazine. Click here to read the full edition.

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