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River City … Furniture City … Suffragette City?

By Jo Ellyn Clarey
Photography by Johnny Quirin

Hyenas. Cats. Crowing hens. Unsexed females. Dangerous home wreckers.

No, it’s not the TV Guide description of next week’s episode of “Desperate Housewives.” At the turn of the 20th century, influential metropolitan newspapers commonly employed such derogatory expressions in reference to suffragists — advocates of the women’s suffrage movement.

Between April 27 and May 3, 1899, local newspapers had a chance to depict the national leaders gathered in Grand Rapids for the annual convention of the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA).

While Grand Rapids rightly celebrates its heyday as “Furniture City,” few GR citizens may realize how that period intersects with suffrage politics. One hundred and six years ago, Susan B. Anthony, Anna Howard Shaw and the entire national movement took over this town for a full week. Even fewer may realize that long before 1899, Emily Burton Ketcham had become a clarion voice calling out from Grand Rapids for the rights of women across the nation.

‘ Something Wiser and Better’
Who was she? National suffrage reports cite Ketcham’s as the name answering the question: Why did the NAWSA come to Grand Rapids? Certainly others helped lay the groundwork, but history finds Ketcham consistently in the thick of the Michigan suffrage movement — a leader during its early days in 1873, a mainstay through its reinvention every few years, and the dynamo behind its explosive years in the 1890s.

Emily Burton Ketcham was born in 1838 in Grand Rapids to Kent County settlers Josiah and Elizabeth Burton. She was educated in Grand Rapids’ early public school system and St. Mark’s College. Following a move to New York in 1862, she continued her schooling at Henrietta Seminary and Mary B. Allen’s School in Rochester, where her life’s two greatest passions kindled. In that vibrant setting, she encountered the progressive ideas of the women’s rights movement. She also met the man who would become her life partner, Smith G. Ketcham.

Smith and Emily were married in 1867 and, with their young son Harry, moved to Grand Rapids the following year. Ketcham soon became active in a pioneering local suffrage group and went on to hold several state and national offices, including four terms as president of the Michigan state suffrage association.

In 1886, Ketcham was selected by the movement to address the Republican state convention. In 1887, Ketcham represented Michigan at the National Suffrage Bazaar in Boston and a year later, as a member of the state association’s legislative committee, she helped secure Michigan House support for municipal suffrage for women. The Senate did not concur.

Ketcham spoke to acclaim in the Woman’s Building at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. Later, she, Anthony and other suffragists were the special guests of Buffalo Bill Cody at his Wild West Show, one of the big hits at the exposition.

Newspapers of the day reported their “scandalous” attendance at such an event on a Sunday. Unapologetic, they had a rollicking good time.

The 1894 U.S. Congressional Record printed Ketcham’s Feb. 21 address to the House Judiciary Committee. She spoke eloquently of her state, “whose shores are cleanly washed by many inland seas,” but also so that legislators might “have some conception of the kind of women there are in Michigan.” Then Ketcham warmed to her broader topic: securing universal suffrage.

“ I submit that the time has passed to treat this subject lightly,” she said. “It has been much ridiculed in the past; but it has reached a point where many of the body politic are taking it up. This country has reached a period where there is great unrest, and when there is great unrest among the people, it is time to demand something wiser and better.”

Ketcham’s demand to the House Judiciary Committee was finally met in 1920 — more than a quarter of a century later — when the ratification of the 19th Amendment granted suffrage to all American women of legal voting age. Sadly, Ketcham did not live to see that day; she died at her desk while writing letters for the cause in January 1907.

Reviving a Legacy
Newspapers around the country recounted the import of Ketcham’s life and work in extended obituaries and tributes. Among them, The Woman’s Tribune of Portland, Ore., wrote: “Ketcham was one of the charter members of the Michigan State Suffrage Association and was its president for several years. But whether president or private, her fealty, her energy, her executive ability always made her the mainstay of her coadjutors.”

Nevertheless, Ketcham became so thoroughly forgotten in Grand Rapids that even her local descendants were uninterested. Esther Ketcham Visser recalls her late father’s often futile attempts to interest her and her siblings in their great-great-grandmother’s life.

From a widely scattered family, John Burton Ketcham Sr. regathered his great-grandmother’s furniture, scrapbooks and other artifacts. He located the carpet bag that accompanied Ketcham on suffrage campaigns through western states, one of the elaborate dresses she was known for and an 1894 Matthew Brady studio photograph of Ketcham and Susan B. Anthony in Washington, D.C., with the rest of the NAWSA executive board.

By the 100th anniversary of the Grand Rapids NAWSA convention, much had been rediscovered about Ketcham’s life by newly interested descendants and others. However, the location of her burial site remained a mystery.

Eventually, Esther’s mother Margaret remembered a colorful family story. Margaret’s mother-in-law had become tired of living with the Ketcham family urns. But this was the Great Depression and cemetery plots were expensive.

As the story goes, she sneaked Smith’s and Emily’s ashes into the casket of their son, Harry Burton Ketcham, when he died in 1937.

On an August afternoon in 2001, Esther, Margaret and I visited Emily’s home on the old family farm, still extant north of John Ball Park. Then we drove out to Harry’s grave in Rosedale Cemetery west of Standale. His bronze marker does list two other names: Smith and Emily. We had found the remains of Emily and her affectionate husband and political support, slipped into their son’s Depression-era grave.
The site now provides Grand Rapidians a specific place to honor Emily Burton Ketcham, the suffragist whom Anna Howard Shaw called “the greatest worker that Michigan ever produced.” GR
Jo Ellyn Clarey is a longtime member of the Greater Grand Rapids Women’s History Council who researches local women’s history.

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