On this day in 1917: Michigan helps lead way toward women’s suffrage

    Michigan Capitol | Susan J. Demas

    A ceremony was held on May 8, 1917, when Michigan Gov. Albert E. Sleeper signed the Damon-Flowers bill. 

    The measure authorized by the Republican from Bad Axe placed on the ballot a referendum to allow women to vote in presidential elections. Voters approved a state constitutional amendment the following year making the historic measure law throughout Michigan. 

    It represented the culmination of decades of state leadership in the suffrage movement. During the mid-1800s, suffrage organizations were formed in towns and cities across the state. On March 12, 1874, during a special spring session, the Michigan State Woman Suffrage Association requested the state Legislature strike out the word “male” from the state Constitution. 

    “Women are also governed,” the association argued, “while they have no direct voice in the government, and made subject to laws affecting their property, their personal rights and liberty, in whose enactment they have had no voice.” By righting this wrong, it argued, the Legislature would “elevate the entire people to the highest practicable place of intelligence and true civilization.”

    By 1855, women were actively signing petitions asking for the right to vote, according to the Library of Michigan. Detroit was especially progressive. In 1871, Nannette B. Gardner became the first woman to vote in a Detroit election. Laura F. Osborn in 1917 became the first woman elected to public office when city voters placed her on the Detroit Board of Education.

    The seminal Sleeper signing came before Congress passed the 19th Amendment in 1919. Michigan became one of the first states to ratify it on June 10, 1919, passing it in unanimous fashion. 

    By August 1920, the amendment was ratified by all states, making this year the national centennial. A photograph of women watching the Sleeper bill signing was published in the Michigan Suffragist newsletter.

    Ken Coleman
    Ken Coleman covers Southeast Michigan, economic justice and civil rights. He is a former Michigan Chronicle senior editor and served as the American Black Journal segment host on Detroit Public Television. He has written and published four books on black life in Detroit, including Soul on Air: Blacks Who Helped to Define Radio in Detroit and Forever Young: A Coleman Reader. His work has been cited by the Detroit News, Detroit Free Press, History Channel and CNN. Additionally, he was an essayist for the award-winning book, Detroit 1967: Origins, Impacts, Legacies. Ken has served as a spokesperson for the Michigan Democratic Party, Detroit Public Schools, U.S. Sen. Gary Peters and U.S. Rep. Brenda Lawrence. Previously to joining the Advance, he worked for the Detroit Federation of Teachers as a communications specialist. He is a Historical Society of Michigan trustee and a Big Brothers Big Sisters of Metropolitan Detroit advisory board member.