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Grand Rapids in 1856

Scene of early Grand Rapids viewed from the...

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The Woman's Committee of World War I

by Diana Barrett

published: February 1st, 2007

In April of 1917 as the United States entered World War I, the Woman’s Committee, a government-appointed national organization and a division of the Council of National Defense, was formed. A survey of the skills women could contribute to the national war effort on the home front, obtained through a voluntary registration program, became the major effort of the Woman's Committee. At the end of April in 1918 Woman's Committee volunteers in Grand Rapids and surrounding areas completed 20,000 registration cards that recorded important personal information and skills of women. Busy registrars at "The Hut" in Campau Square finally closed their books at 10 p.m. on the final Saturday night after women had stood in long lines to have their information recorded. Today, cards from this 1918 national registration are almost non-existent, and the 20,000 cards in the GR History and Special Collections Department at the Grand Rapids Public Library appear to be very rare. Genealogists, academics, social historians, or those who are just curious to learn about the women of that era in Grand Rapids will find it enormously valuable. (Find more information to your right in Related Items)

The state's publicity poster, by Paul Honore of Detroit, entitled "The Spirit of Woman-Power," encouraged women thoughout Michigan to register during the week of Saturday, April 27th through Saturday, May 4th. A trained registrar conducted a twenty-to-thirty minute interview with each woman and recorded the information on a 5 X 8 card, designed and printed in Washington DC and used nationally. There were 1000 trained volunteer registrars in Grand Rapids, and during one week those women registered approximately twenty thousand local women over the age of sixteen.

The registration card of Agnes Bell, a Lithuanian immigrant, is just one of the registration cards in the incredible "snapshot in time" reflected in this collection. Approximately half of the female population over the age of sixteen registered and is represented in the collection. Registration cards of any type rarely collect such a broad scope of information about individuals as those developed by the Woman's Committee.

The back of the card belonging to Bertha Brazelton, an African-American resident of Grand Rapids, indicates she registered at Henry School, records the state of her health, and names what she is willing to contribute. We also learn the name of the registrar who conducted the interview. These cards are about women from all social backgrounds, income levels, years of education, both immigrant and native born, and we learn that an unexpected number of women were employed in many different occupations. They offered their skills, and expressed interest in being trained in a vast array of choices.

Justina Hollister served as Grand Rapids Woman's Committee chair. She was also a member of the local War Preparedness Board along with her husband, Clay Hollister, who became secretary for the state organization and chair for the local registration drive. The historic effort on the part of the nation's women has been all but forgotten, as have the registration cards that have languished overlooked and unused at the Grand Rapids Public Library for almost ninety years. Hopefully this photo essay will create more interest and lead people to investigate this valuable local and national resource.

Grand Rapids hosted the Southwestern Michigan War Conference August 8th & 9th in 1918. Women involved in the Woman's Committee were very active in the conference. At the left is a card for Mrs. William Blake showing her as an official registrar, as well as badges for the war conference which indicate the dates. A search of local newspapers to learn about the War Conference in Grand Rapids becomes possible because we have the dates from the silk lapel ribbon.


Items available at the GR History and Special Collections, Grand Rapids Public Library

  • Crane, Caroline Bartlett. History of the Work of the Woman's Committee (Michigan Division) Council of National Defense During the World War. 1922.
  • Scott, Emmett J. Scott's Official History of the American Negro in the World War. Chicago: Homewood Press, 1919.
  • Woman's Committee of the Council of National Defense, Collection 174
  • Newspaper Clippings, Women

Books available for circulation at the Grand Rapids Public Library

  • Gaudiani, Claire, Burnett, David G. Daughters of the Declaration. New York: Public Affairs, 2011.


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