Those familiar with the history of Rochester – even just a little bit – know the names of some of the area’s most prominent women of the past. Sarah Van Hoosen Jones, Bertha Van Hoosen and Matilda Dodge Wilson are among the women whose stories we’ve read or heard about during a tour of the or .
They make us proud knowing how instrumental each was in the establishment and growth of our community.
In addition to these prominent local women, there are others from Rochester’s history whose names may not be so recognizable, but whose contributions to Rochester and beyond were equally significant.
In honor of National Women’s History Month, I’d like to tell you a bit about some of our town’s most interesting and important women of the past.
Almost all of these women were integral in the formation of Rochester’s civic, cultural and educational institutions. Others, inspired by their time and work in our town, became important figures in social causes and movements that spread across Michigan and the nation.
Antoinette Brown Blackwell
Believed to be the first ordained female minister in the United States and a champion of women’s rights and other social causes, Antoinette Brown Blackwell spent a brief period of time in Rochester in the 1840s as a teacher at a private high school called the Academy of Rochester.
A native of New York, Blackwell attended Ohio’s Oberlin Collegiate Institute in 1846, where she studied theology and began honing her skills in public speaking – a pursuit generally reserved for men at the time.
According to Friends and Sisters: Letters Between Lucy Stone and Antoinette Brown Blackwell 1846-93, edited by Carol Lasser and Marlene Deahl Merrill, Brown and a few other female friends from Oberlin organized their “own secret debating and mutual improvement society, inspired perhaps by Brown’s experiences at the liberal Rochester Academy in Michigan, where she taught in fall and early winter 1846-47. There she had learned new skills by working with a young women’s debating society and delivering her own extemporaneous talks at school assemblies that were open to the public.”
During her time at Oberlin, Blackwell traveled and spoke out in favor of women’s rights, temperance and an end to slavery. In 1850, she attended the first National Women's Right's convention in Worcester, Mass. Other attendees included Susan B. Anthony, Frederick Douglass, Lucy Stone and Sojourner Truth.
As Lasser and Merrill noted, both Blackwell and her friend, women’s rights activist Lucy Stone, “committed themselves to work for the social progress of women and the emancipation of black Americans from slavery and racial prejudice.”
Fidelia Woolley Gillette
Fidelia Woolley Gillette was a noted writer, lecturer, minister and poet. A staunch supporter of women’s suffrage, Gillette moved from Birmingham to Rochester with her husband in the 1860s and became the women’s rights editor of the Rochester Era newspaper.
In an article written by Maureen Thalmann for the Rochester Clarion in Oct. 1995, it’s noted that Gillette lectured on issues of temperance, supported the Rochester Literary and Library Society and spoke to people throughout Michigan about women’s suffrage as a representative of the Woman Suffrage Society. Her work and dedication to social causes caught the attention of the Detroit Free Press, which, as Thalmann cites, called Gillette “a thinker of uncommon breadth” in April 1875.
In 1874, the Michigan State Woman’s Suffrage Association selected Gillette and nine others to represent Rochester and Avon Township in Lansing at their annual meeting. It was there that the association began planning a campaign in support of a proposed constitutional amendment granting women the right to vote.
“With the overwhelming defeat of the (proposed amendment),” wrote Thalmann, “the Michigan State Woman’s Suffrage Association went out of existence.”
Despite the setback, Gillette continued to work for the rights of women and others experiencing prejudice in society. She was ordained a Universalist minister in 1877 and became a missionary for the church.
In addition to her work with the Rochester Literary and Library Society, Gillette was a founding member of the Rochester Woman’s Club in 1896, a group dedicated to the study of art, literature and science and which went on to establish Rochester’s first public library.
Sarah Van Hoosen Jones
Born in 1892 and raised on the Van Hoosen farmstead in Stoney Creek Village in what is now Rochester Hills, Sarah Van Hoosen Jones lived in an era when women were discouraged from attending college.
With the support of parents who believed in education – her mother, Alice, had been a schoolteacher and her father, Joseph, a school superintendent – Jones went on to earn a master’s degree in animal husbandry in 1916 and a doctorate in animal genetics from the University of Wisconsin in 1921.
With degrees in hand and a natural affinity for farming, Jones eventually took over the operation and management of her family’s dairy farm, now the Rochester Hills Museum at Van Hoosen Farm.
According to the museum’s web site, under Jones’ direction, the Van Hoosen farm “supplied the majority of milk consumed in Detroit in the 1930s and 1940s and was the first farm in southeastern Michigan to produce certified milk.”
Jones gained national recognition for her successful farming career, becoming one of two women in the United States to be named Master Farmer in 1932. She was also the first woman in the United States to be named a premiere breeder of Holstein cattle.
In addition to her agricultural pursuits, Jones served the Rochester community in numerous ways. She was a member of the Stoney Creek and Rochester school boards from 1924 to 1961 and was a founding member of the Board of Trustees.
Jones deeded the Van Hoosen farmhouse and property to Michigan State University upon her death in 1972. The university then donated the farmhouse and 3.5 acres of farmland to Avon Township (now Rochester Hills) for use as a museum. The rest of the property was sold to a private developer. In 1989, the City of Rochester Hills took ownership of the farm and acquired 10 surrounding acres from private owners to establish the Rochester Hills Museum at Van Hoosen Farm.
Eva Woodward Parker
Eva Woodward Parker was the daughter of pioneering Rochester farmer and politician Lysander Woodward and is credited with helping to build Rochester’s first public library.
Parker lived in the Woodward family home at 1385 N. Main Street until her death in 1933. In 1949, funds from her estate helped build Rochester’s first public library building, located on the northeast corner of Fifth (now University) and Pine streets in downtown Rochester. It was named Woodward Memorial Library in Parker’s honor.
Despite modifications to the building over the years, the library eventually outgrew it. Now renamed the , a new library building was built on Olde Town Road in 1999.
A variety of boutiques and businesses, including , now occupy the former library building.
Bertha Van Hoosen
Bertha Van Hoosen was born in 1863 and grew up on her family’s farm (what is now the Rochester Hills Museum at Van Hoosen Farm) in Stoney Creek Village. There she learned the ways of a farm, witnessing the birth of countless farm animals. Overtime, she developed a love of medicine and science.
While her parents supported higher education for women, they were less enthusiastic about Van Hoosen’s desire to pursue a medical career and become a surgeon. Undeterred, she worked to earn money to attend the University of Michigan, from which she graduated with a degree in medicine in 1888.
She went on to specialize in women’s medicine and childbirth.
“At a time when women doctors were rare,” notes the museum’s web site, “Bertha served her community as an obstetrician, gynecologist and surgeon. Her illustrious career spanned more than 50 years.”
During her career, Van Hoosen developed a number of innovative practices and techniques. Among them were the “buttonhole” appendectomy and the use of scopolamine morphine (Twilight Sleep) as an anesthetic during childbirth.
Additionally, Van Hoosen taught medicine, serving as a professor at the Women’s Medical College of Northwestern University and at the University of Illinois. She became head of the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at Loyola University and founded the American Medical Women’s Association.
Van Hoosen was also an early champion of sterilizing surgical instruments to prevent infection and campaigned for women’s equality in the field of medicine.
Matilda Dodge Wilson
Born Matilda Rausch in 1883, Wilson lived a quintessential American story. The daughter of German immigrants, Wilson was born in Canada and moved with her family to Detroit in 1884, where, according to the website for Meadow Brook Hall, her father owned a saloon and her mother operated a boarding house.
In 1908, Wilson married John Dodge, who, along with his brother, Horace, owned a successful automotive parts company in Detroit.
The Dodge’s raised six children – three from John Dodge’s previous marriage and three of their own. They lived in Detroit and spent weekends at their Meadow Brook Farms property and country home in Rochester.
In 1920, John Dodge died, leaving his wife to care for six children and a large estate. Matilda Dodge turned to her philanthropic pursuits and worked in earnest to support many social causes, including women’s rights.
As noted in Wilson’s biography on the Michigan Women’s Hall of Fame website, Wilson generously supported many local organizations with both financial donations and with her time and leadership skills. From 1922 to 1929, she served as president of the Salvation Army Auxiliary. She was also treasurer of the National Council of Women and director and first female chairperson of the board of directors for the Fidelity Bank and Trust in Detroit.
In 1925, Wilson married lumber broker Alfred Wilson. After selling her holdings in the Dodge Motor Car Company, Wilson became heir to “one of the largest fortunes in the United States,” according to the website for Meadow Brook Hall.
She and her husband soon built a new home on the Meadow Brook Farm property – today’s Meadow Brook Hall.
The Wilsons played a pivotal role in the formation of Oakland University. Together they donated their estate, including Meadow Brook Hall and an additional $2 million to Michigan State University to create a branch campus in Rochester. That branch became Oakland University in 1963.