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Michigan Women’s Historic Contributions to State Government

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Kamala Harris by Gage Skidmore is licensed with CC BY-SA 2.0. To view a copy of this license, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/
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On January 20, Senator Kamala Harris will be sworn in as the first female Vice President of the United States. It is history in the making. But Michigan has its own unique historic moments with women in government.

Valerie Marvin is the Historian and Curator at the Michigan State Capitol. She says the building is full of reminders of Michigan’s rich history. One that stands out to her in particular is a portrait that hangs in the Senate Chamber.

“This portrait was commissioned by the Senate in the 1990’s, and it honors a woman named Eva McCall Hamilton,” Marvin says.

Marvin says that back in 1920, Grand Rapids resident Eva McCall Hamilton was elected to the State Senate, the first woman to serve in Michigan’s Legislature. But keep in mind that she was elected in 1920--that’s the same year women were even given the right to vote in America.

Marvin says McCall Hamilton’s path would not be a simple one.

“She had a very tricky road ahead of her. First of all, she knew that her constituency in many ways was not just the people back home in her district,” Marvin explains. “She had become--at least to some extent--the embodiment of the suffrage movement. In some ways, her constituency was every woman in Michigan because for the first time, a woman’s voice would be heard in the debate; a woman would be voting on proposed laws for Michigan.”

Another woman to serve in Michigan’s Capitol in the 1920’s was Cora Reynolds Anderson.

“She is the first woman elected to the State House,” Marvin says. “She was born and raised in L’Anse up in the Upper Peninsula, and she was part Native American.”

Marvin says Anderson faced what many women in political office often face today.

“She is watched. The newspapers report not only on her legislation, but they tell us what color dress she’s wearing, and they tell us about her complexion, and that she likes to shop in Lansing, and that she’s having tea with the legislator’s wives. These women are constantly being scrutinized for everything they do.”

Both women only served one term in Lansing, but it was a groundbreaking moment in Michigan history. Another important milestone in state government would happen much later. In 1952, Cora Brown was elected to the Michigan Senate.

“Cora Brown was an African American woman who was born in the South, came to Michigan as a child with her parents, went to a historically black college, and actually went on to earn her law degree from Wayne State,” Marvin says. “And she, as a state senator, uses her voice to advocate for Civil Rights.”

Today, Marvin takes pride is telling the stories of Michigan women in leadership roles

“For me personally, as a woman who works in the Capitol building, I have learned to take great strength from the knowledge that women have been in this building and in government trying to do good work on behalf of the state for a very long time,” Marvin says. “I think that perhaps it’s important that we reclaim some of the fact that Michigan was a leader in bringing women into government very early on, and we also acknowledge the fact that the women who are serving in office today were in some ways empowered because of the women who came before them.”