River City … Furniture
City … Suffragette City?
By Jo Ellyn
Photography by Johnny Quirin
Crowing hens. Unsexed females. Dangerous
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
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
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
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
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
In 1886, Ketcham was selected by
the movement to address the Republican state convention.
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
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
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
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
From a widely scattered family,
John Burton Ketcham Sr. regathered his great-grandmother’s
furniture, scrapbooks and other artifacts. He located
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
By the 100th anniversary of the
Grand Rapids NAWSA convention, much had been rediscovered
life by newly interested descendants and others.
However, the location of her burial site remained
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
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.