Powerful Women Let's Talk - 029: Jo Ellyn Clarey

Jan 18, 2021

Jo Ellyn Clarey

This is Jo Ellyn Clarey:  Co-President/Director of The Greater Grand Rapids Women’s History Council. A literary scholar by profession, Jo Ellyn Clarey has redirected her path into the world of local women’s history in Grand Rapids.  For the Greater Grand Rapids Women’s History Council, she continues advancing long term projects highlighting the roles of local women in the Michigan Suffrage movement; overseeing a complete electoral history of the city’s women and so much more.  She’s this week’s guest on Powerful Women: Let’s talk.

Powerful Women: Let’s Talk is created by WGVU NPR and made possible by WGVU NPR sustaining monthly donors. Become a sustaining monthly donor now at wgvu.org/donate to support WGVU NPR’s local programs, including Powerful Women: Let’s Talk.

Full Transcript:

Produced by women, about women, “Powerful Women, Let's Talk” is a series of interviews with women who are trailblazers and have helped shape our world, transforming who we are and how we live. “Powerful Women, Let's Talk” is made possible in part by Family Fare, keeping it real.

Jennifer Moss: Hello everyone, it’s time for one of my favorite things and it's another edition of “Powerful Women, Let’s Talk.” I’m Jennifer Moss. As always, we're grateful for you joining us as we find out about more outstanding women in our community and beyond. So, we thank you for joining us and tuning in today.

So, today's powerful woman is Jo Ellyn Cleary. Now get ready, because this is going to be a lot of fun. Today's guest, really, is the epitome of what powerful women is all about. So, by profession, a literary scholar, Jo Ellyn Cleary has kind of redirected her path and to the world of local women's history here in Grand Rapids where she has been dedicated to researching and crediting early area women as community builders.

She also has had many awards and has been on boards with the Grand Rapids Historical Society, the Grand Rapids Historical Commission, among many others. So, with that, we are very happy to welcome Jo Ellyn to today's edition of “Powerful Women, Let's Talk.”

Jo Ellyn Cleary: Thank you, Jennifer.

Moss: Yes, we’re so glad to have you here, so thanks so much for joining us again. It’s going to be difficult to get everything in, a lot of bases here to cover, but to start you are the Co-President and Director of the Greater Grand Rapids Women's History Council and you just informed me of something very special and that is you've been there 30 years.

Cleary: I have been.

Moss: That’s exciting.

Cleary: I came to Grand Rapids because my husband took a job at Grand Valley (State University) and I was also in the English Department there. Decided it wasn't a good fit and I learned about their Greater Grand Rapids Women's History Council and I've been there ever since.

So, I sort of turned my more formal academic path as a narrative theorist into digging out local women. But I had a great model in a cultural historian from Grand Rapids.

Moss: Oh, wonderful. And we’re going to get to that in a moment, I just want to mention, too, “Powerful Women” actually started with a tie into a PBS presentation last summer, the summer of 2020, which of course honored the 100th anniversary of the passage of the 19th Amendment guaranteeing and protecting, of course, a woman's constitutional right to vote. And so it's very fitting and awesome to have you here today and, you know, we want to look back at of some of the things you've done with the Women's History Council here in West Michigan and Grand Rapids.

Of course, we could talk for hours about this, just on what you've done at the history council, but give us an idea, kind of, of some of the work that you’ve been doing.

Cleary: Let’s stick with the voter first. In fact, the first major project I took during the 1990's with the Women's History Council had to do with documenting the fact that the whole national suffrage movement came to Grand Rapids and met in 1899 at Saint Cecelia. It's not like that hadn't been known before, but not much has been done with it and it had been totally forgotten. So I was really starting from scratch. And doing so much women's history is like that; you're pioneering - you shouldn't have to because lots of women were very well known in the past, they were all over the newspapers but they haven't needed into city histories, same thing with this. So, we did a huge celebration, centennial celebration, in 1999.

Since then, readying for 2020 for the centennial of the 19th Amendment, we created a digital suffrage exhibit which is now on our website. In the meantime, the most important discovery was a woman named Emily Burton Kitchen, Burton as in Burton Avenue. She was born in Grand Rapids in 1838. She turned out to be their primary, the probably predominant suffrage in Michigan, and West Michigan had never been credited at all.

Moss: I was going to say, was it noted nowhere…?

Cleary: The suffrage leaders, no. I mean, we found her family, scrapbooks, and that was before Google, before being able to search newspapers on the Internet, so things have changed, but it's really turned Michigan women’s suffrage history on its head. And that's what's so wonderful about digging in where you live, getting details. Not only do you learn about local women, but you learn who they were on the state level and the national level. Emily Burton Ketchum sat in 1894 in Washington, D.C. for a photo of theses national suffrage leaders with Susan B. Anthony, etcetera.

So, you know, and, still, who knew? It's still very, very hard to get attention paid to women's history and honor women from the past. There just aren't structures that are working.

Moss: It's like the city's best kept secret sometimes. And thanks to you and many others at the history council, it comes to light, right?

Cleary: For example, by accident a friend found an allusion to a woman in the late 1890's, Elizabeth Eagles, field attorney at law, a letter to the editor in the Grand Rapids Press.

And we actually covered four states looking for this woman, digging her out, she was one of the first women, the two women attorneys in the nation. And to date the biggest study of national women attorneys was said in those days they had desks in the backs of their husband's office. This woman was a wild woman. She really, really tried in Grand Rapids to make a living in the law, which was much harder to get into, by the way, than into medicine. There were many more women physicians in the 1890s.

They’re just great to study. So, basically, her autobiography raises huge questions about a lot of the assumptions that have been made about the early history of women attorneys. So, digging in locally, it expands. It’s like dropping a pebble in the pond, it's been great fun.

Moss: I was going to say, do you enjoy that? But also, how important would you say the work of the Women's History Council is in bringing to light so many women here in Grand Rapids and West Michigan? That history, like you said, not even acknowledged in many areas even though there are a lot of different, maybe some pictures here and there, but the whole story, I love the whole story coming to light.

Cleary: We're working on that. It's crucial. When it's the other historical organizations, it can be a little tough here - sort of interested in women’s history, but not particularly and a lot of local historians and local people are interested more in buildings and that kind of thing and assume that every bit of women's history is political. Well, doing women's history is a political act but it's not just political history. Women's social histories, economic histories, religious histories, educational histories are absolutely different from men's.

Moss: That’s true.

Cleary: And that's really not even accepted yet. Well, we've done that. We have a history of the city, but without acknowledging a lot of the women builders so it’s very peace male. The Women's History Council is a volunteer organization, so we spend a lot of time training people to research. We have people doing wonderful work who haven't written a footnote since high school and so both getting information then getting it out there has been a trick. And we’re better at it some years than others, just depending on who has time and who’s working with us.

Moss: Again, volunteer. You all are doing a wonderful, wonderful thing for this community and for just enriching women's lives in and again, just like “Powerful Women,” the idea is to allow that information to come out that's not necessarily known, you know, the background and the backdrop for some people, it's very interesting to find and it's in our backyard and that's the important thing I love to emphasize.

Cleary: Absolutely. One more quick example of just how empowering some of this can be. Well, on the way, let me note that when I first arrived in town I was informed that no women had run for the county commission until the 1970s and they won, and that they were the first one seated in the county commission. We've been taking the next step from suffrage history in working up an entire electoral history, the city's women and that's not true. Women were running from the very moment they could for all kinds of positions in public office and in 1930, a woman named Grace Ames Van hosen won a seat on the county commission. She was among 75 guys and she served for eight years during the Depression.

Moss: The 1930s…

Cleary: I believe the 1970's women were the next women, so that's how women's history can go.

Moss: Absolutely. So, people think they have history from the ‘70s, there, you're looking at that particular one, but it really started in the ‘30s. And that is what the history council does, though, it uncovers those things. And you said you like to dig. Tell me one of your - you just mentioned a couple - but give me one of your really favorite things that you discovered that maybe hit home, personally to you where you're like, this is really cool.

Cleary: Very briefly, too. A woman named Constance Rourke is the cultural historian, I alluded to later, and when I quit Grand Valley we weren’t really intending to stay in town. Here I am.

Moss: Still here, right.

Cleary: I have a younger husband who hadn't had as much of an adult life yet as I had, and so Constance Rourke was a cultural historian who died, she fell and hit her head on the ice in 1940 and was eulogized in the Saturday review of literature, she was the cover girl on their magazine. She was extremely important. And she sat in a little house next to Paddock Place and wrote seven major books - an American cultural history - was eulogized by a poet William Carlos Williams. All kinds of American intellectuals at the time. When I moved to here around 1990, most people in Grand Rapids hadn't heard of her, so she was both a model for me and it was a joy to pound people over the head a little bit. But also, more recently, it was just amazing when I really went looking to find that in the 1890s there were African American women's clubs.

Moss: In the 1800s? Woah.

Cleary: I’m a member of the Grand Rapids Study Club and I can tell you that when reporting to the African American women there who just assumed that African American women, especially, didn't appear in the newspapers, had no cultural clout, were in their writing editorials to the Press or the Herald about the Press for running an editorial from North Carolina, this is the beginning of Jim Crow, pounding them. And in 1906 or 1907, out of the population of 700 African-Americans there were five women's clubs which hosted the State Federation of Colored Women in Grand Rapids.

Moss: In Grand Rapids?

Cleary: Yeah. Amazing. It’s just… we shouldn’t have to be pioneering, we shouldn't have to be trailblazers when we know that there have been people whose shoulders we can stand on before. So, just that, was dawning. It's a kind of an empowering moment to realize this really has happened before. Something happened in the meantime, but we can pick it up and it's great.

Moss: And looking at that history, too, has to make you feel - like you said - it is empowering and it is great to note, even as we look at current finds of different historical measure, to know that that already occurred then to think of the bravery, you know, of so many women who have done amazing things.

Cleary: I'm old enough to be able to testify – I graduated from high school in 1965 on the cusp of the ‘50s, really, as lots of documentaries from last summer illustrated. “The Vote,” by the way, that PBS did was wonderful. But also, RBG.

Moss: Oh yeah.

Cleary: All of Ruth Bader Ginsburg's hugest lawsuits were during the 1970s, for this course of women's work. Hillary, I'm one day younger than Hillary Clinton and this is America, all about the 1970s, where just all kinds of things exploded and women's history began. Women's history, really, as a discipline, has not been done for very long.

So as a local group we can be fairly proud that we've done as much as we have because even nationally it's eh, maybe it’s in the adolescent stage.

Moss: We all thank you for presenting this information to us and having such a wonderful group of women that work there at the history council. So, as we look and talk about powerful women and you've looked at so many, we would call them powerful women, those pioneers, right? But as you look at that, what are some of the barriers that you personally have potentially encountered, you know, looking at women's history representation and the like, what would you say some of your barriers may have been?

Cleary: Well, I just alluded to the fact that I graduated from high school on the cusp of the ‘50s. And expectations for women were extremely low and the birth control pill had been developed in the early ‘60s, but most women still didn't, you know certainly the culture did not think in terms of women being able to control their bodies. I didn't worry about that that much. I came from a family situation where we had moved a lot. I grew up in an area where neither of my parents had cultural roots. I lived in seven different towns and cities in seven years, so I was always the new kid and so I think that I just had to kind of be in there slugging a little bit.

Moss: …that had to be tough.

Cleary: I didn't notice some of these things until later, but I was, you know, I went into student teach, when I was an undergraduate, I did a teaching certificate and my master teacher told me later, she said I thought, ‘Oh no, here comes another trouble blonde.’ So, even she, a quite enlightened woman. It just suggests certain kinds of barriers. But that wasn't that big a deal I guess I just always felt I always kind of had some hurdles. So, I developed a, kind of, voice early on and I can joke a little bit, I remember being in the camp, but it was probably in 7th or 8th grade and some question was put out there - if you could be any person in history who would you be? And I immediately said Cleopatra, or the combination of Cleopatra and Queen Elizabeth. I don’t think I even knew that much about them then, but I guess I wanted to do things. I've just always been kind of focused on that, I don't want to waste my time. Be kind of purpose driven.

Moss: Absolutely. So, and kind of pegging off of what you just said, is part of the council's history information. I saw it stated since 1990 we have worked to give women of the past a proper voice in history, and you just mentioned your voice. So, what did it take, though? I know you're tough and you moved a lot. What did it take to find that inner voice, so that you knew and were comfortable in your own skin as you move forward? Maybe not knowing at that time, earlier on, that you would end up at the Women's History Council and looking at other pioneering women, but what was it that helped you find your voice?

Cleary: I think I probably became an English major in college because I found power in the literature that I was reading and studying. I think that it showed other ways of living. And just reading and writing. I'm very much an academic. I have a foot in the academic world as well as the popular world, and so I think they've been useful to the council in mentoring, trying to help identify people’s strengths and trying to do something with them. But in academic study, you are always looking for something that hasn't been noticed before, digging something out. So, I came by that honestly. And in my literary studies, I started noticing that there was always something about the past in the centers of some extremely important novels that were being written. And, of course, we're all shaped by the past and so I became especially acute to the historical and I think that was just a natural move so that I, perhaps, have been energetic in trying to find what's been hidden. Because you know, you just know, it has to be there. So, along the way, writing especially. Writing and speaking, that’s what you do in academic life.

Moss: And it kind of gave you your voice.

Cleary: Yes, teaching. Absolutely.

Moss: Absolutely. So, when you look at that, and – again - coupling it with your work at the history council, what leadership traits do you like to see? You know, those you work with and, perhaps, even those you mentor, like you said you mentor some, and maybe you want to see them kind of go down a certain path or to really find their voice as well. How do you instill that leadership and what type of leadership qualities are you looking for in people?

Cleary: Some energy. Focus. But a real dedication. Because a lot of things can be worked on if

someone just has a real interest, even if they're flailing about a little bit, not quite sure what to do with themselves, matching up a desire with… venue is the word that started to come out of my mouth. But matching a capability with opportunity to use it.

Moss: Absolutely. That’s good. And, as you do all of this, and you’ve been busy, busy, busy at work and you're still kind of at the helm here of things. What are one of the ways that you find to relax? I mean, you know, working women and others - even those, so many women at home, whatever you're working to do. Whether you're at home with children because that certainly is work as we all know it to be or whatever you're doing, how do you find ways to relax and, you know, with family, with friends, because of all of us look for tidbits from other people to say, OK well, maybe I can incorporate that into my down time. You know, sometimes we feel like we don't have a lot.

Cleary: Especially when some people say ‘Oh, I read to relax.’ Well, I'm a professional reader. I mean, I do, but it's not always entirely relaxing. You know, in college - this is very early on - I became a runner in the late ‘60s and I think the woman who first ran, sneaked her way into the Boston Marathon was my age.

So, some physical activity has always been necessary to counter, you know, when your work isn't - you know this to some extent - if your work is at a computer and you're sitting a lot, you really do need to move. And so, I have found, you know, fun ways to do that and I ran until I decided I was going to have large joint problems. So, I still get outside a lot and my husband's in academics also, so we kind of have to be partners and beat on each other to have to do it.

But we’re opera fans so, theater. And I’ve been in a couple of things in Grand Rapids. I used to lead a much more active theater life than I have since I’ve been in Grand Rapids. But, that kind of thing. We travel a lot. A lot of our travel has always been for work, for conferences, but we've always managed to tack things on.

Moss: Absolutely, and you’ve got to enjoy that moment as well. So, Jo Ellen, what makes you laugh?

Cleary: Well, a lot of things. I guess, my husband, predominantly. For example, on Facebook yesterday he saw some extended family member with this new little baby named Oakley Anne. And so the next thing he was doing was finding the Ethel Merman rendition of “Anything You Can Do” from Annie Oakley and sticking it up. So, he keeps things pretty funny.

Moss: Absolutely, I love it, I love it. So, you know, a lot of times women are looking for word of encouragement. Do you have any favorite sayings or maybe a motto that kind of comes to mind when you want to encourage someone or just something that you use for yourself?

Cleary: You know, Emily Burton Ketchum, that suffragist I mentioned, had a sort of mantra she would always say: ‘Let us work earnestly.’ And I think, you know, balancing play in with work is important. Having a light touch, sort of a light attitude, about some things even when your commitment is deadly serious is important. And I guess I think some people probably think I’m a little intense, driven. So, I think that in terms of words of encouragement, just work earnestly, you know, touch some core of yourself. Be earnest and go out into the world.

Moss: And trying to do the best you can, that impact.

Cleary: They’re baby steps and they're always processes we use to help someone along the way. That kind of earnestness or dedication to something will really take people a long way and end up an accomplishment, which will set up other accomplishments.

Moss: Such as you have done at the Women's History Council, that accomplishment there. Speaking with one of our powerful women who’s right here in West Michigan, Jo Ellen Cleary, thank you so much for joining us today.

Cleary: Thanks Jennifer. It’s been a pleasure.

Moss: Well I also want to thank all of you, our listeners there, for joining us for this edition of “Powerful Women, Let's Talk.” I'm Jennifer Moss.

Produced by women, about women, these powerful podcasts focus on powerful women and how their strength transforms who we are and how we live. Want to hear more “Powerful Women, Let’s Talk”? Get additional interviews at WGVU.org or wherever you get your podcasts. Please rate and subscribe. “Powerful Women, Let’s Talk” is made possible in part by Family Fare, keeping it real. It is produced by WGVU at the Meijer Public Broadcast Center at Grand Valley State University. The views and opinions expressed on this program do not necessarily reflect those of WGVU, its underwriters or Grand Valley State University.