MICHIGAN—From anti-slavery activists to glass ceiling-shattering politicians, here are some of the most impressive women in Michigan’s history.
Elizabeth (Lisette) Denison Forth
Elizabeth “Lisette” Denison Forth was born a slave in 1786, in the area of Michigan now known as Mt. Clemens. After her parents were freed but she and her siblings were not, Lisette’s parents sued for the freedom of their children under the area’s Northwest Ordinance (which banned slavery). The Michigan Supreme Court heard their case, ultimately deciding that only those children who had been born after 1787—when the ordinance had taken effect—should be freed.
In 1807, the Chief Justice of the Michigan Territory ruled that any person coming into Michigan would be considered free. Lisette and one of her brothers then escaped to Canada and returned to Detroit, gaining their freedom.
Over the next several years, Lisette—who was financially savvy and excellent with numbers—worked as a domestic servant while also investing in land. She bought 48.5 acres of land in Pontiac, becoming the city’s first Black landowner. She also bought a lot in Detroit (now designated a state of Michigan Historic Site), shares of stock in Farmers Bank and Mechanics’ Bank, and an interest in the first steamboat built in the Great Lakes.
Though she continued to work as a domestic servant, Lisette spent most of her life as a dedicated philanthropist, advocating on behalf of causes and her Episcopalian faith. She died in 1866 and was buried in Detroit’s historic Elmwood Cemetery.
Laura Smith Haviland
Laura Smith Haviland was an anti-slavery activist who established Michigan’s first station on the Underground Railroad. Born in Kitley, Ontario in 1808, Haviland moved to Adrian, Michigan in 1829, along with her husband and parents. It was here that Haviland met and became friends with Elizabeth Margaret Chandler, an author and abolitionist poet. Together, the two organized the first abolition organization in Michigan: the Logan Female Anti-Slavery Society.
During the 1830s, the Haviland family began hiding fugitive slaves on their farm, which became the state’s first Underground Railroad station. Haviland also started the first integrated school, the Raisin Institute. She fought tirelessly against slavery her entire life—at one point, there was even a $3,000 bounty placed on her head by slaveholders.
One of the most well-known advocates for human rights of the nineteenth century, Sojourner Truth was born into slavery in 1797. In the Dutch county of Ulster, New York, she endured horrendous abuse at the hands of multiple owners, and was forced to marry another slave, with whom she had five children—all of whom were also born into slavery.
In 1827, Truth ran with her infant daughter to an abolitionist family, who bought her freedom for $20. They also helped her sue for the return of her 5-year-old son, who had been sold as a slave in Alabama.
Finally free, Truth and her two youngest children moved to New York City, where she became a traveling preacher before getting involved with the anti-slavery movement and the women’s rights movement.
One of Truth’s most famous speeches was one she delivered at the 1851 Women’s Rights Convention, titled “Ain’t I A Woman?” In the speech, she said, “I think that ‘twixt the negroes of the South and the women at the North, all talking about rights, the white men will be in a fix pretty soon.”
In 1867, Truth moved to Battle Creek, where she continued to fight for women’s suffrage until her death in 1883.
Emma Genevieve Gillette
Born in Lansing in 1898, Emma Genevieve Gillette is often called the “Mother of the Michigan State Parks System.”
In 1920, Gillette was the only woman to be part of the first landscape architecture class to graduate from the Michigan Agricultural College (now Michigan State University). She then began working closely with P.J. Hoffmaster (who became Michigan’s first superintendent of state parks) to preserve and expand the state park system, raising public support and funding for parks at Hartwick Pines, Ludington, Wilderness, and several other locations. Gillette dedicated her entire life to raising awareness for Michigan’s natural beauty—she also founded and was president of the Michigan Parks Association, established multiple conservation groups, and advised President Lyndon and First Lady Ladybird Johnson on nature and recreation.
An entrepreneur, activist, and progressive woman ahead of her time, Ruth Ellis was one of the oldest openly gay black women in the world when she died in 2000 (she was 101 years old). She came out as a lesbian at the age of 16 and earned her high school diploma—no small achievement given that she grew up in an integrated neighborhood, against a backdrop of violent riots and discrimination.
In 1936, Ellis moved to Detroit with her longtime partner, Ceciline “Babe” Franklin, eventually opening a printing business, which was the first female-owned print shop in the state. The couple wanted to improve life for other LGBTQ+ people, so they turned their home into the “Gay Spot,” a place where generations of gay African-Americans (who were denied access to white gay clubs and black straight clubs) could gather.
Today, the Ruth Ellis Center provides trauma-informed services for LGBTQ+ youth and young adults.
An advocate for Michigan’s most vulnerable populations, Edelmira Lopez founded the Cristo Rey Community Center in Lansing in 1968, which helps underserved families and individuals gain access to medical care, food, mental health services, and financial counseling. Her other roles and accomplishments are legion: Lopez served as the first female president of the Lansing Mexican Patriotic Committee; she was the first Latina on the City of Lansing Housing Commission; and she was president of the Hispanic Cultural Center. She also supported farm workers’ rights by working on the local team of the United Farm Workers.
Cynthia Yao is the first Asian woman to create a hands-on science program for the US—and it’s a program you’ve probably enjoyed. The Ann Arbor Hands-On Museum is an internationally recognized children’s science and technology center that’s attracted over 2 million visitors since opening in 1982. It was Yao’s passion for the “hands-on” philosophy that led to the establishment, vision, leadership, management, and success of the museum, where she served as executive director for 22 years.
Yao’s advocacy also resulted in the Curious Kids’ Museum in St. Joseph and the Jamaica Chinese History Museum in Jamaica, her birthplace.
In October 2005, she was inducted into the Michigan Women’s Hall of Fame, and received the lifetime achievement award of the Michigan Women’s Studies Association. She was also the first recipient of the Governor’s Unsung Heroine Award for Youth Development.
Born in Gladwin and raised in Clare, Debbie Stabenow was the first female class president at Clare High School. She went on to receive her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Michigan State University, and was still a graduate student when she learned that a county commissioner planned to close a Lansing nursing home. It was the only nursing home in the area that accepted Medicaid patients, and closing it was unthinkable to Stabenow. She decided to run against the commissioner, who—during the campaign—referred to Stabenow as “that young broad.” Stabenow won in a landslide.
She became the first woman and youngest person ever to chair the Ingham County Board of Commissioners. She went on to be the first woman elected to represent Michigan’s 58th House District in the state’s House of Representatives, and the first woman to represent Michigan’s 8th Congressional District in the US House of Representatives. In 2000, Stabenow became the first woman from Michigan elected to the US Senate.
She’s the first (and only) female US Senator to have been elected to local office, both chambers of her state Legislature, and both chambers of the US Legislature.
In a piece for the National Museum of American History commemorating the 100th anniversary of women’s right to vote, Stabenow wrote: “If there is only one, that’s a token. If we have many women’s voices, we have a democracy.”
Stabenow is retiring in 2025—and she’ll leave a legacy that includes the first-ever federal ban on drilling for oil and gas in the Great Lakes, historic tax cuts for families and small businesses, and widely acclaimed legislation to protect children and families.
Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha
In 2015, Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha made history for her role in uncovering the Flint water crisis. A pediatrician and professor in Flint (and now public health advocate), Hanna-Attisha led the charge in proving that the city’s drinking water had been tainted by lead and was poisoning the community.
After sounding the alarm and persisting in her demand for recovery efforts, she would go on to testify multiple times before the US Congress and be named one of Time magazine’s 100 Most Influential People in the World. A champion for clean water and children’s issues, Dr. Hanna-Attisha is also the author of What the Eyes Don’t See: A Story of Crisis, Resistance, and Hope in an American City, which was a New York Times Notable Book.