Capitol Women: Librarians, Clerks, Janitresses, and Lawmakers 1879-1940
by Valerie Marvin
Thursday, February 22 - 7:00 p.m.
Library of Michigan - 702 W. Kalamazoo
When the present Capitol opened, Harriet Tenney, Michigan’s first female state librarian, held control over almost an entire wing of the building. The first professional woman to hold a top tier gubernatorial appointment in the peninsular state, Tenney was aware of her significance. In her first report to the governor she wrote that “By the advice of the Chief Executive of the State and with the unanimous consent and approbation of the Senate, on the 31st day of March, 1869, this Library was placed in charge of a WOMAN.”
In the years that followed, Tenney was joined at the Capitol by an ever-increasing number of women who worked as assistant librarians, clerks, secretaries, telephone operators, and janitresses. Laboring day in and day out, these women fulfilled vital roles in state government as they kept careful records, operated new technologies, and, in the case of Harriet’s protégé, Mary Spencer, built a statewide lending library program that benefitted Michigan residents for decades. Among Mary’s contemporaries was another fascinating figure, Belle Maniates, who clerked during the day and wrote short stories and novels at night. In 1912 Maniates published her first novel, David Dunne, about a boy who grows up to be governor. Several scenes in it are set in the Capitol building.
The dawn of women’s suffrage in 1920 brought Michigan’s first female legislators to the Capitol, including Grand Rapids suffrage leader Eva McCall Hamilton, and, in 1924, Cora Reynolds Anderson, a Native American educator and health activist from L’Anse. Bold advocates for women and children, Hamilton and Anderson were praised by some, and loathed by others, who saw them as distractions and interlopers in the male legislature.
Learn about these trailblazing women and the rules—written and unspoken—that both limited and inspired their successes.