Hall of Fame History/Process

In October 1983, 700 people gathered in a ballroom at the Fairlane Manor in Dearborn to witness a momentous occasion. Two former governors were in attendance as well as First Lady Paula Blanchard, the secretary of state, and a sitting justice from the Michigan Supreme Court. Their eyes, and those of the rest of the esteemed attendees, were trained on a procession of women making a dramatic entrance and taking their seats on the dais. Such was the atmosphere at the first induction ceremony and dinner of the Michigan Women’s Hall of Fame (MWHOF).

The MWHOF was a brainchild of the Michigan Women’s Studies Association (MWSA), a professional organization of academicians concerned about what was being thought and taught about women in the state’s schools, colleges, and universities. “It was a natural extension of our work in the classroom,” explained an MWSA founder and then-Michigan State University professor Gladys Beckwith, “and another means of disseminating information about Michigan women, past and present.”

Patterned after the National Women’s Hall of Fame in Seneca Falls, New York, the Michigan Hall was the first of its kind to recognize high-achieving women of an individual state. A woman’s ties to Michigan could take one of three forms: she could be born in this state, rise to prominence here, or live in Michigan for an extended period after achieving prominence elsewhere.

Organizers for the Michigan Women’s Hall of Fame insisted that the nomination process be democratic: that is, anyone, anywhere could suggest a possible honoree by filling out and submitting a standard form capsulizing that woman’s accomplishments. The forms would then be sent to two panels of judges—one for historical nominations and one for contemporary nominations—of women and men from all walks of life and all parts of the state.

After those judges scored each candidate, their tally sheets would be tabulated by an independent accounting firm. The nomination forms for the top 25 nominees in each category would then be sent on to a second set of judges for their review.

At the beginning, the developers of the MWHOF weren’t sure how successful this process would be. “There was so little written about our state’s women at the time,” said Beckwith, “that we had no idea how many would be worthy of induction.” As it turned out, the first crop of nominations was both large and extraordinarily accomplished, leading to a large and extraordinarily accomplished inaugural class of inductees.

At the first induction ceremony and dinner held October 20, 1983 in Dearborn, 18 women were recognized, among them Isabella Baumfree (Sojourner Truth), a former slave who became a nationally known crusader for human rights; Anna Howard Shaw, a minister and physician who succeeded Susan B. Anthony in leading the National American Women’s Suffrage Association; and Lucinda Hinsdale Stone, the state’s foremost spokesperson for co-education during the last half of the 19th century and founder of the women’s club movement in Michigan. Among the contemporary inductees were Martha Griffiths, a congresswoman, primary sponsor of the ERA in that body, and first woman elected lieutenant governor in Michigan; and Rosa Parks, often called the mother of the modern civil rights movement.

In 1984, a second class was selected; the following year, a formal dinner recognized both the 1984 and 1985 honorees. The induction ceremony has been held without fail every year since.

The number of nominations to the MWHOF was substantial at the beginning, with each community rushing to recognize the most important women in their history. Today about 100 nominations are received each year, including “resubmits” of past nominees. The number of honorees has flexed in and out over the years as well; from a high of 18 in 1983, the average today is 10-12 inductees per year. “As each honoree is given an extensive introduction at the ceremony—with living honorees encouraged to give an acceptance speech—we’ve learned to pare down the inductee class size,” said Beckwith.

Today’s Michigan Women’s Hall of Fame contains nearly 300 inductees. Some are “firsts” or “founders;” that is, they were the first females to assume a particular role of leadership, such as Michigan’s first female U.S. Senator Debbie Stabenow, or the founders of new entities like Bina West Miller, who established the first life insurance company for women. Another category of women are considered experts in their fields: for instance, Catherine Carter Blackwell is a recognized authority on African history and culture. And many inductees are Michigan’s proud representatives on a national stage. An example of this is Lily Tomlin, whose creative abilities have earned her two Tonys, six Emmys, a Grammy, two Peabody Awards, and an Academy Award nomination.

Biographical information and photographs of each inductees may be found at WEBSITE and a commemorative plaque for each woman is located in a special gallery within the Michigan Women’s Historical Center & Hall of Fame in Lansing. The development of this museum, the only museum in Michigan solely dedicated to Michigan women’s history, features history exhibits, a gift shop, a library, and a public meeting space.

Speaking to the long-term impact of the Michigan Women’s Hall of Fame, Beckwith mused: “Even those of us who had taught in the field were surprised to discover all the capable, courageous, and accomplished women associated with our state. And each year—through the Hall of Fame nomination process—we uncover more.

“The Hall of Fame has enabled us to write women back into history,” she continued, “providing inspiring role models for girls and women as well as a fuller picture of our state’s history for all its citizens.”