Flashback: Ladies Literary Club
by Richard Harms, College Archivist

The Ladies’ Literary Club (which recently donated its historic building to Calvin) occupies a unique place in local history, in state history and, in particular, the nation’s history. The group began when Marion C. Withey visited her aunt Lucinda Hinsdale Stone in 1869 in Kalamazoo. A college graduate, rare for early 19th-century women, Stone had come to Kalamazoo with her husband and the two had helped open what is now Kalamazoo College in 1836. Both served on the faculty until 1864, and afterward she was active in creating access to educational opportunities for women through literary study clubs. Stone encouraged her niece to return to Grand Rapids and organize such a group.

Within a week of Withey’s return to Grand Rapids, the first informal meeting of seven women was held, with a more formal meeting in Park Congregational Church shortly afterward. The opportunities for intellectual stimulation, learning and expanding knowledge saw the group’s membership grow quickly. To facilitate their programming, the women began to collect books, and in March 1870 formally organized the Ladies’ Library Association. This led to the organization of a lending library opened to the community in July 1870, just four months after the formation of the association. The next year the members combined their 1,231 books with 2,700 from the two local high schools and 50 from the YMCA to form a free lending library that is now the Grand Rapids Public Library.

Club programming included classes and lectures on such things as Shakespeare, social reform, cooking, current events, botany, Darwin, French art, prison reform and poetry. Often some of the newest ideas to the city first were presented at gatherings in the club’s auditorium, such as the kindergarten movement in 1873. By 1885 membership had grown to 270, and a larger space was needed for the Saturday meetings. Despite the fact that dues were only $2 annually, the members decided to build their own structure, rather than continue renting space. William G. Robinson, the leading architect in town, was hired to draw the plans.

The building was completed Dec. 31, 1887, and dedicated two days later, and therefore was the first clubhouse built by a women’s group in the United States. Over the years the building hosted other firsts. Former President Theodore Roosevelt used the occasion of his speech at the club to first publicly express his support for the women’s club movement, and in a 1911 appearance in the club’s auditorium, Michigan Gov. Chase Osborn similarly first publicly spoke in favor of women’s suffrage.