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Pat Pulliam

What women have wrought

While females in West Michigan have
made amazing strides, today’s leaders
say there’s still a lot to be done.

By Ann Byle
Photography by Johnny Quirin

Grand Rapids history is ripe with women who established and ran businesses, volunteered endless hours, raised families and envisioned a city that offered cultural and educational opportunities.

Anna Sutherland Bissell ran the family carpet sweeper business after her husband’s death in 1889. Emma Cole, Central High School teacher and botanist, discovered 20 new species and endowed a botany fellowship in 1910 that continues today at the University of Michigan. Helen May Meade, a single mother, was secretary to seven mayors and 12 city managers from 1945 to 1971. And Betty Bloomer Ford brought her poise and strength to the White House when her husband was named to the presidency in 1974.

Women throughout Grand Rapids continue the work begun generations ago. While strides have been made in providing equal pay for women, in offering reproductive choice and in supplying educational and vocational opportunities, “There is still lots of room for work,” said Mary Seeger, board president of the Greater Grand Rapids Women’s History Council and long-time dean at Grand Valley State University. She retired in 2005 after 40 years at the university.

“When I came to the university in 1965, there were far fewer female teachers and far fewer in positions of any kind of influence, whether as administrators or department chairs. Men thought the equity issues were fine, but women thought otherwise,” she said.

Pat Pulliam, publisher of the Grand Rapids Times and a long-time educator, also came to Grand Rapids in the 1960s. While her experiences mirrored that of all women — lack of representation in leadership and other positions, lack of pay equity — she also felt the sting of racial inequality.

“There were no black female physicians or lawyers (and) a total of 35 black teachers in Grand Rapids Public Schools,” said Pulliam, who moved through the ranks from Central High School teacher to executive vice president of Grand Rapids Community College, and finally interim president before retiring in 1999.

“We had the Civil Rights Movement, but that change didn’t come immediately to West Michigan. There were gradual changes in the 1960s, but deliberate efforts to recruit African-American teachers, etc., didn’t happen until the late 1960s.”

The 1940s, ’50s and ’60s were the days of men heading off to work and women staying home to care for the house and children. If women worked outside the home, they were teachers, nurses, or secretaries. In the upper-middle-class white community where Beth Goebel found herself, “We were stay-at-home moms. There were many things we couldn’t do. In my world, I couldn’t work.”

“But after awhile, I began to realize it wasn’t enough. I had to find something to interest me; I needed to stretch,” said Goebel, whose father-in-law served as mayor of Grand Rapids and whose husband, Paul, helped build the Paul Goebel Group. Her daughter, Meg Goebel, now runs the insurance agency.

Beth Goebel’s salvation came in the form of education, a cause she still champions with energy and dedication. She attended Grand Valley State University in the 1970s to complete her degree, then spent years working with the Kent County Juvenile Court. Her work prompted wide-spread transformation of the way courts address the needs of abused, neglected and abandoned children, changes that reached across the country, as well. She also has helped govern the Michigan Women’s Foundation, a group started in 1986 to support programs that meet the needs of women and girls across the state.

“Education is the most important thing in the world, especially for women,” she said.

Her daughter agrees.

“If I had to pick one key to helping women, it would be providing access to education. There are so many options open once a woman is educated, which is key to getting out of poverty,” said Meg Goebel. “Another key is self-respect. Self-respect breaks the cycle of poverty in girls.”


Meg and Beth Goebel

She sits on the board of the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce and Planned Parenthood of West and Northern Michigan, as well as various arts organizations in the city.

Patricia Duthler is executive director of Grand Rapids Opportunities for Women, a nonprofit economic development organization dedicated to providing women with opportunities to achieve economic independence. Duthler grew up in Grand Rapids, attending East Christian High School and Calvin College before working abroad in the area of literacy and working for nonprofits in the Washington, D.C., area. She returned to Grand Rapids in 1988 to work in the family car business.

GROW offers training in small business readiness and entrepreneurship, business support services, economic literacy training and funding help, so Duthler sees firsthand the obstacles women face.

“Many women are stuck because of societal realities: Women stay home with the kids, provide for the kids. They are responsible providers, but access to the best jobs is denied. They take the low-paying jobs because their economic need doesn’t give them much choice,” said Duthler.

“Women may be partly to blame because they may not realize they are settling for ‘just enough.’ They’re putting food on the table, getting medical care, but they don’t strive for more,” she said.

Duthler believes West Michigan has come a long way in that women are finding their voices and expressing themselves more and more. “But we want to move beyond ‘just enough.’ This is more than just teaching a woman to fish or work at the fishery, but to own the fishery,” she said.

Women have always found ways to make their voices heard and use their talents. The Ladies Literary Club, founded nearly 140 years ago, established the first lending library in the city and became the precursor to the Grand Rapids Public Library. The club was the first in the nation to build a clubhouse, still located at 61 Sheldon Blvd. SE and now owned by Calvin College. The literary club hosted presidents Teddy Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson and William Howard Taft.

Nine women founded the St. Cecilia Society in 1883 in an effort to promote music appreciation, study and performances. They decided a building was necessary, so in 1892 purchased the property at 24 Ransom Ave. NE. The building was completed in 1894 and still stands, home to Royce Auditorium and at the heart of Grand Rapids’ music world.

The Women’s City Club held its first meeting in 1924, and purchased its clubhouse at 254 E. Fulton St. in 1927. The Women’s Board of the Union Benevolent Association Hospital (later Blodgett Memorial Hospital) established the Mary Free Bed fund to help needy patients. In 1887, a group of women organized the Children’s Aid Agency to assist needy children, leading to the establishment of the D.A. Blodgett Homes for Children.

Women participated in the suffrage movement, contributed to war efforts and established church aid organizations.

Volunteerism has long been an outlet for women, though today’s volunteerism has a different hue. Traditional women’s groups are seeing lower numbers as more women work outside the home.

“You can’t assume you have stay-at-home moms leading the Brownie troop every week,” said Seeger. “That’s not bad, it’s just different, and people need to move into that difference.”

Alice Kennedy

Despite increased numbers of working women, pay equity remains an issue. Seeger participated in the Women’s Climate Study at GVSU in the mid-1990s, a study she says “changed the face of the university.” Five initiatives resulted: a children’s center that offers daycare, the university’s women’s commission, better promulgation of a discriminatory harassment policy, more attention to gay/lesbian issues, and salary equity studies.

The first four happened quickly, but the fifth was more difficult, she said — a difficulty still felt by women across the area.

The lack of women in leadership positions is another concern. Meg Goebel sees more women in such positions now, but says, “Don’t kid yourself: There is a glass ceiling, though it has a few cracks in it. There are more and more women in decision-making roles, but there are still so many industries dominated by white males.”

Women of color bang into that glass ceiling regularly. In fact, Ingrid Scott-Weekley calls it the cement ceiling.

“Today is sort of the best and worst of times for African-American women,” said Scott-Weekley, managing director of administrative and human resources services for the city of Grand Rapids. “We are delighted to have Michele Obama in the White House; we’re excited about Oprah Winfrey and U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice. It’s easy to conclude that as a group of women, we are doing well. But these are a handful of women, a number that doesn’t represent who we are. Many African-American women are struggling economically, socially and in the job market.”

She and others call for inclusion, the idea that the work force and leadership roles and boardrooms should reflect the make-up of the area’s population.

“It’s one thing for corporations and cities to say they’re pushing for diversity, but it’s another to practice inclusion,” said Pat Pulliam. “Black women aren’t making strides. Take a look at colleges and businesses, and the presence of African-American women is limited. It’s especially limited as key decision makers. They have the potential, but women are placed at a disadvantage because of other people’s irrelevant standards. Women are really scrutinized.”


Chris Arnold

Chris Arnold, director of the Bob and Aleicia Woodrick Diversity Learning Center at GRCC, is granddaughter of one of the first Mexican families to settle in Grand Rapids in the 1940s. Her mother raised seven children alone in a time when the local Hispanic population was smaller. Arnold graduated from Ottawa Hills High School and went to work immediately at GRCC.

“I’m still the only Hispanic woman on a lot of boards I sit on and tables I sit at. Positions of leadership don’t reflect the ethnic diversity of our area,” said Arnold.

“My dream is for more women to be in key leadership positions throughout the community. I want to turn on the television or pick up a newspaper and see someone who looks like me portrayed in a more positive way. I want this not just for Latina women, but for all women.”

For Alice Kennedy, whose family emigrated from Vietnam in 1975, the issue takes on the additional flavor of cultural expectations. “For Asian women, we’re still trying to establish our presence in the Asian community, much less the non-Asian community,” said Kennedy, owner of Kennedy Management Resources and KMR Diversity Theatre.

“We do have to work a lot harder, first as a woman, then as a woman of color, then as an immigrant. There are so many things to prove for both gender and race. If I fail, I’m failing women, immigrants, Asians, Vietnamese. You really have to work at establishing and building credibility.”

Her dream, Kennedy said, is for the glass ceiling to be gone; for women to be visible, to be running companies, to have leadership roles reflect the demographics, to move past her assessment that “Asian women are really behind around here.”

While women are quick to say strides have been made, they are also quick to add that there is far to go.

“There is a lot of inequality out there,” said Duthler of GROW. “We want to move women out of poverty. I see lower status of women as a loss of full potential. We need to harness the potential of everyone. We can’t afford to leave anyone behind.”

Pulliam calls for a radical change in how West Michigan views gender and race, how inclusion is practiced and how decisions are made.

“The greatest potential for change will have to be the social consciousness of the few people who control the wealth in the community. Because their resources control policies and procedures, the people who control the economy control the direction and nature of the work force. If inclusion were their priority, it would happen faster and be maintained.”

Meg Goebel, as well as others, encourages mentoring, helping other women and avoiding complacency.

“In 20 years, I don’t think there’s any question we’ll see more women in powerful positions in government, but I hope we won’t have to focus so much on gender. I hope men and women can transcend the gender issue until it becomes just an issue of competence.”

Seeger summed it up: “The climate for women in West Michigan is certainly not frigid, but it’s not as warm as it could be either.” GR

Ann Byle is a freelance writer based in Grand Rapids.

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