You Probably Don’t Know These 7 Female Historical Figures from Michigan

By Lisa Green

March 8, 2022

Do you know about the American Joan of Arc or Michigan’s own Rosie the Riveter? Learn more about Michigan’s most iconic women throughout history.

MICHIGAN—Michiganders already know the Henry Fords and the Thomas Edisons of Michigan history. But plenty of Michigan women made significant contributions to shaping Michigan’s legacy.

During Women’s History Month, we are reminded of the contributions of Michigan’s most influential women. Michigan women have not merely been content to rest on their laurels throughout history. Many of them not only challenged the traditional notions of feminine gender roles, but also significantly shaped the history of the state we know and love today. This March, we celebrate Michigan’s feminist icons as historical figures in their own right.

Here are seven female historical figures from Michigan’s past that you may not have known, and their incredible stories.

Rose Will Monroe (1920-1977)

Rosie the Riveter – Photo credit J. Howard Miller via Wikimedia Commons

Michigan’s “Rosie the Riveter”

Rosie the Riveter, the iconic female focal point of the “We Can Do It!” poster, is one of the greatest symbols feminist movement, especially that of 1940s feminism. Rosie the Riveter represents the often-unsung heroines who became blue-collar workers in factories during World War II. As a cultural icon, Rosie the Riveter was not based on just one person, existing instead as an amalgam of real-life women. But Michigan contributed to the soul of Rosie the Riveter’s cultural status through its very own Rosie, Rose Will Monroe.

Rose Will Monroe was always a handywoman, working with tools during her childhood in Kentucky. She moved to Michigan as a young widow and single mother, rebuilding her life after the sudden and tragic death of her husband in an automobile accident. She joined the 40,000 person workforce at Willow Run Aircraft Factory in Ypsilanti, Michigan to provide for her two daughters. In its heyday, Willow Run was the largest manufacturing operation in the world, producing military aircraft at a rate of about one plane per hour.

Californian Naval Air Station worker Naomi Parker Fraley was the actual model for Rosie the Riveter, with artist J. Howard Miller producing a propaganda poster in her likeness. Though now famous, the poster was just one of many in its time. Another Michigander and former metal presser, Geraldine Hoff Doyle, believed an old photo of herself was the inspiration of the now-iconic poster. Doyle’s claim was not disproven until after her death. Kay Kyser also had a song “Rosie the Riveter” based on real-life Long Island aircraft factory worker, Rosalind Palmer. The first woman to actually portray Rosie the Riveter as an Americana folk hero, though, was Rose Will Monroe at the Willow Run Aircraft Factory in Michigan.

On a normal workday on the assembly line, actor Walter Pidgeon discovered Rose Will Monroe and aspired to use her in his promotional film. Since she was a real-life riveter named Rose, Pidgeon couldn’t let the opportunity go to waste. Rose Will Monroe portrayed Rosie the Riveter as a character in Pidgeon’s short film. The film was designed to encourage viewers to buy war bonds. It aired in theaters between features. 

Rose Will Monroe’s likeness as Rosie the Riveter predates the iconic “We Can Do It!” poster by J. Howard Miller. Miller’s poster didn’t achieve prominence until the feminist movement claimed it in the 1980s. At that time, Miller’s poster was not under copyright either. Miller’s red bandana-clad Rosie easily harkened back to Rose Will Monroe and other female workers of the era and became a symbol of female empowerment.

Rose Will Monroe enjoyed a brief stint of fame from Pidgeon’s film, but she never capitalized on it. After the war, Monroe continued to challenge gender roles and keep the spirit of the WWII blue-collar worker alive. Monroe worked for a cab company, then a beauty shop, and finally, founded Rose Builders, a construction firm that built luxury homes. She continued to hold a passion for aircraft as the only female member of a local aeronautics club. Monroe retired from an aircraft accident in 1978 which caused her to lose a kidney, and passed away peacefully in 1997 after complications from her remaining kidney.

Monroe’s legacy lives on today, inspiring both exhibits and events at the Yankee Air Museum near the former Willow Run location.

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Jane Johnston Schoolcraft (1800-1842)

Photo credit Wikimedia Commons

First Native American Literary Writer

Her writing inspired works such as Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s The Song of Hiawatha, and yet few people know her name. Though her Native American name is Baamewaawaagizhigokwe, translated to “Woman of the Sound the Stars Make Rushing Through the Sky,” history better knows her as Jane Johnston Schoolcraft, the wife of “Indian Agent” Henry Rowe Schoolcraft.

Jane Johnston Schoolcraft is a Sault Ste. Marie native, with an Ojibwe mother and an Irish fur trader father. Both of Jane’s parents were prominent leaders in their respective communities. Jane was bilingual, and eventually wrote in both Ojibwe and English. She married Henry Rowe Schoolcraft in 1823, one year after he was appointed Indian Agent of the Michigan Territory. Henry Rowe Schoolcraft was tasked with learning about the indigenous populations of the Michigan Territory, Jane taught her husband the Ojibwe language and as much as she could about her indigenous heritage.

One of Jane Johnston Schoolcraft’s pennames was Leelinau, thought to be the etymology of the Leelanau Peninsula and Leelanau County. Though Henry Rowe Schoolcraft was an anthropologist who had been published many times, Jane Johnston Schoolcraft was never published under her full name until after her death. The Schoolcrafts handwrote and published Literary Voyager, which ran for 14 issues in Sault Ste, Marie, Detroit, and New York. Jane’s name was never attached. Yet, Jane contributed retellings of traditional Ojibwe tales under her pen names. Historians now question how much influence Jane Johnston Schoolcraft had over some of her husband’s publications.

Jane Johnston Schoolcraft’s poetry and other writings often address personal matters, such as the death of her son. Her writings preserved the cultural contributions of the Ojibwe people, but she was not recognized as such until more than a century after her death in 1842. Without the literary contributions of Jane Johnston Schoolcraft, it is likely a significant portion of Ojibwe oral history would have been lost.

Harriet Quimby (1875-1912)

Photo credit Theodore C. Marceau via Wikimedia Commons

First Woman in America to Earn a Pilot’s License

When you think of a famous female aviator, Amelia Earhart might be the first person that comes to mind. However, one Michigan woman, Harriet Quimby, predated Earhart in the aviation world. The “Dresden China Aviatrix” might have had a petite stature, but she was tough enough to become America’s first female pilot.

Though Harriet Quimby’s birthplace is disputed as either Arcadia in the northwest or Coldwater in the south, no one disputes that Quimby was a Michigander. Initially, Harriet Quimby wanted to become a journalist. She moved to New York City in 1903 and published articles for nearly a decade. Yet ironically, she is more well-known for her foray into aviation over the last two years of her life.

Quimby first became interested in flying after attending the Belmont Park International Aviation Tournament on Long Island in 1910. She had found her new passion in life, and took her pilot’s test the following year in 1911. She became the first United States woman to hold an Aero Club of America aviator’s certificate. However, she maintained her femininity with her trademark look, trousers tucked into knee-high boots and multiple accessories. Quimby began touring with airshows, earning money for performances and races. In the meantime, she continued to write and advocated for aviation as an ideal sport for women.

Harriet Quimby made an important aviation milestone that unfortunately became overshadowed by another historical event, the sinking of the RMS Titanic. On April 16, 1912, one day after the famous sinking, Quimby became the first woman to fly across the English Channel. Her plane made the 22-mile journey from Dover, England to Calais, France in just under an hour. Unfortunately, the accomplishment received little to no media coverage.

Quimby’s career was cut tragically short by her untimely death. Just three months after crossing the English Channel, in July 1912, Harriet Quimby’s brand-new monoplane unexpectedly crashed. The 20 minute flight resulted in the fatal ejection of both Quimby and her passenger, William Willard. Though her career was cut short at only 37 years old, Harriet Quimby paved the way for other female aviators. She is memorialized in two historical markers in both Coldwater and Arcadia Township.

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Anna “Big Annie” Clemenc (1888-1956)

Photo credit Jane Whitaker via Wikimedia Commons

Copper Country Labor Activist

In the late 1800s, the Upper Peninsula was “Copper Country,” America’s leading producer of copper. But when the booming copper industry’s workforce started striking for better working conditions, one woman was often found leading the crowd. The Slovenian woman in a gingham dress stood 6-foot-2, carrying an American flag on a 10-foot pole. This woman was Anna Clemenc.

“Big Annie” was born and raised in Calumet, Michigan, and she eventually became an important figure of the early labor movement. She was not a believer of traditional gender roles, devoting herself to the active participation of women outside the home. After marrying a miner, she formed the Woman’s Auxiliary No. 15 to help support the Western Federation of Miners, especially as they began to strike for better working conditions and better wages. Over 800 women joined Clemenc in standing with the striking miners. Clenemc was known as the “American Joan of Arc” for her strong ideals and patriotism that inspired the nation.

Clemenc courageously endured significant risk of violence and jail time to stand on the picket lines. She was arrested and jailed twice during the ongoing efforts for unionization. Though the miners never gained the right to unionize, the strike did eventually provide better wages and a shorter work day. Clemenc also organized the Christmas party that infamously became known as the Italian Hall Disaster. She led the funeral procession of the 75 victims killed in a panicked stampede after an unknown person falsely cried “Fire!” Clemenc later went on a lecture tour of the Midwest to raise funds for the Italian Hall survivors and continue to preach her ideals of unionization.

The courage of Anna Clemenc and her fellow members of the Women’s Auxiliary made national headlines. The ongoing strike efforts eventually caught the attention of the federal government. This movement inspired federal regulations for business, including child labor laws. Her bravery lives on in the ongoing labor movements of today.

Pearl Kendrick (1890-1980)

Photo credit Wellcome Images via Wikimedia Commons

Co-Developer of the Whooping Cough Vaccine

Most people don’t think about the history of required inoculations for children, such as the whooping cough vaccine. However, this vaccine was not only created in Michigan, its creation defied the odds. The whooping cough vaccine was developed by an unlikely team of medical professionals, three women, in a time of economic upheaval, the Great Depression. One of those women was Pearl Kendrick.

Pearl Kendrick caught whooping cough as a child of three years and became devoted to stopping this public health concern. She earned her doctorate in bacteriology from Johns Hopkins University while also working for the Michigan Department of Health. In 1932, before graduating with her doctorate, Kendrick began a whooping cough research project.

At the time, whooping cough, also known as pertussis, claimed more than 6,000 lives in the United States. It caused more infant deaths than measles, polio, and tuberculosis combined. Kendrick partnered with Grace Elderling, who she met at the Western Michigan Brand Laboratory, and used the Grand Rapids area as their clinical trial area. However, the ongoing economic instability created by the Great Depression and World War II made funding difficult. In 1936, Kendrick convinced Eleanor Roosevelt to provide funding for a large scale research program dedicated to creating a vaccine. The first lady provided these funds through the Works Progress Administration. Two years later, after including more than 5,000 children in their study, Kendrick and Elderling had produced positive effects of the vaccine. Mass production of the pertussis vaccine for children began in 1938.

Kendrick and Eldering also brought on African American chemist, Loney Gordon, to help with further research. Gordon was having difficulty finding work as a dietician due to racism and sexism. After Kendrick hired Gordon, Gordon tested thousands of cultures of the pertussis bacterium. The team eventually produced the DPT vaccine, a vaccine for diphtheria, pertussis, and tetanus. This vaccine was the prevailing defense against these three diseases for about fifty years and sharply decreased pertussis deaths.

In Kendrick’s later years, she retired and became a faculty member at the University of Michigan, working in their Department of Epidemiology. She died in Grand Rapdis at the ripe age of 90, a successful triumph over pertussis.

Mabel White Holmes (1890-1977)

Photo credit flickr.com/afiler

Inventor of All-Purpose Baking Mix

The next time you reach for a box of baking mix at the supermarket, remember to thank one of Michigan’s first mompreneurs, Mabel White Holmes.

Mabel White Holmes was a former schoolteacher who married Howard S. Holmes. The Holmes family inherited the Chelsea Milling Company in Chelsea, Michigan from Mabel’s father. Mabel White Holmes had two sons, a set of twins, who would eventually help her pioneer America’s first all-purpose baking mix.

One day in the late 1920s, Mabel White Holmes found inspiration in an unlikely place, a biscuit. Her two boys had a friend with a widowed father, and they brought the friend over for lunch at the Holmes residence. The friend pulled out a flat, hard biscuit that his father had made him for lunch. Mabel White Holmes was so incensed by the poor quality of the biscuit made by the friend’s father that she got an idea. Why not create a baking product so easy that even contemporary men could use it?

Mabel got to work and perfected the ingredients for her baking mix. Soon enough, she had a perfect “just add milk” concoction. The mix created perfect biscuits every time, and “in a jiffy.” Thus, she called it JIFFY Biscuit Mix. In 1930, JIFFY Biscuit Mix started hitting store shelves as America’s first baking mix. Mabel later became company president of the Chelsea Milling Company after her husband’s death in 1936.

Mabel retired from the company after only four years, but passed the business on to her sons and continued to hold an interest in the business. The JIFFY brand is still family-owned to this day, with Mabel’s grandson, Howdy S. Holmes, serving as the current CEO.

Anna Sutherland Bissell (1846-1934)

Photo credit Winfield Scott Downs via Wikimedia Commons

First Female Chief Executive Officer in the United States

America’s first female CEO was found, oddly enough, in a vacuum company in Grand Rapids. And her name was Anna.

Anna Sutherland married Melville R. Bissell in 1865, and the two settled in Kalamazoo initially. The Bissells’ business started as a grocery store, but expanded to a crockery and glassware store. Eventually, they moved to Grand Rapids for better business opportunities. The crockery and glassware stock arrived packed in sawdust or straw, which created quite a mess when unpacking. It got bad enough that Melville invented a better mechanical carpet sweeper to handle the mess, which he patented and began in 1876. Thus, the Bissell vacuum empire was born.

Anna Sutherland Bissell became vital to her husband’s business plan, since their market was American housewives. Since their sales and marketing needed a feminine touch, Anna began networking in the Grand Rapids area. Soon enough, the Bissell’s carpet sweepers were found in homes across Grand Rapids. The Bissell company was incorporated in 1883. Carpets, and carpet sweepers, grew in popularity in the 1880s. Unfortunately, Melville died of pneumonia in 1889, leaving Anna to inherit her husband’s business as she cared for their young children. Thus, America’s first female CEO had finally arrived.

Bissell served as president and CEO of Bissell Carpet from 1889 to 1919. During her time as CEO, she became known for her progressive labor policies and personal concern for her employees. By 1899, Bissell was the largest corporation of its kind in the world. She also became a philanthropist, starting Bissell House which provided training and other services to immigrant women and youth in Grand Rapids. She served as chair of the board until her death in 1934.

Today, the Bissell family still runs what is now known as BISSELL Inc. A bronze statue in her likeness was also erected in Grand Rapids to honor her legacy.

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