8 Michigan women who changed history for the better

To celebrate International Women’s Day, let’s take a look through the stories of some of the most impactful women in Michigan history.

There are countless women who have changed the landscape in Michigan, from all types of backgrounds and areas. Check out the Michigan Women's Hall of Fame to learn more. All of the information below was compiled by the Michigan Women's Hall of Fame.

Rosa Parks - Detroit

Rosa Parks made history not just because of what she did, but because of what she refused to do. On December 1, 1955, Mrs. Parks boarded a bus in Montgomery, Alabama, after a long day's work as a seamstress. When the bus driver called out, "N***ers, move back," Rosa Parks refused. Her eloquent "No" sparked a 301-day boycott of the Montgomery bus system by Black citizens and her moment of personal courage helped inspire twenty years of civil rights reform, not only in Alabama but across the nation.

She has received numerous awards and tributes, including the Martin Luther King, Jr. Non-Violent Peace Prize and the Distinguished Service Award of Delta Sigma Theta, a national sorority of Black professional women. She has also had a major street named in her honor in Detroit and a scholarship fund which is intended to help Michigan students who display potential for the kind of courage and leadership Mrs. Parks evidenced in Montgomery in 1955.

Ruth Ellis - Detroit

An African-American entrepreneur and open lesbian at a time when few people were comfortable revealing their sexual orientation, Ruth Ellis lived her long life on her own terms.

After moving to the Motor City in 1938, she tried her hand at factory work but found she was better suited to typesetting. Using money from an inheritance, she set up a print shop in her home and began to produce donation envelopes, raffle tickets, letterhead, posters, and other items for nearby churches, businesses, and residents: this at a time when African-American women owned fewer than one percent of the businesses in Detroit.

Starting in the 1940s, Ruth Ellis' home also served as a haven for gay African Americans who had few social venues at which to meet. People gathered from around the region to sing, dance, and play cards there. They also drew support from Ellis, and counsel during tough times. Ellis was known for giving everything she had to those in need, particularly young people for whom she bought books and food, and even assisted with college tuition. Inspired by her example, friends developed Detroit's Ruth Ellis Center in 1999, which provides social services for runaway, homeless, and at-risk lesbian, gay, biattractional and transgender youth.

Helen Thomas - Detroit

Known as the dean of the White House Press Corps, journalist Helen Thomas covered the presidents of the United States since John Kennedy. She served as White House bureau chief for United Press International (UPI) and, as senior wire service correspondent, officially closed all presidential press conferences.

Thomas graduated from Wayne State University in 1942, majoring in English.

Originally assigned to cover Jacqueline Kennedy during the 1960 presidential campaign, she "assigned herself" as one of UPI's three White House correspondents after the election and covered that beat for every administration until President Barack Obama’s.

Thomas has been honored by her peers with many journalism awards, including the National Press Club's Fourth Estate Award and membership in the Gridiron Club, a formerly all-male journalism fraternity.

Sojourner Truth - Battle Creek

The woman known as Sojourner Truth, a legendary crusader for the cause of human rights, was born into slavery in New York as Isabella Baumfree in the year 1797. In 1827, she escaped from her owner and took refuge with a Quaker family with whom she resided until the New York State Emancipation Act was approved a year later.

At the invitation of Quaker friends, Truth moved to their village of Harmonia, Michigan on the outskirts of Battle Creek in 1857. Although she continued to travel widely, Battle Creek would thereafter be home to Truth, her children, and grandchildren.

During the Civil War, Truth worked tirelessly to ensure that troops of color were treated fairly, even assembling care packages for them on Thanksgiving Day.

Leg ulcers forced Sojourner Truth to return to Battle Creek for good in 1875. Though treated by a variety of practitioners including Dr. John Harvey Kellogg, she died on November 26, 1883. She is buried in Battle Creek's Oak Hill Cemetery.

Agnes Mary Mansour - Detroit

Agnes Mary Mansour distinguished herself in the corporate, academic, religious, and political arenas as professor of chemistry and president of Mercy College of Detroit, and as a member of the board of directors of Michigan Bell Telephone and the National Bank of Detroit. She also was a 1982 candidate for Congress (17th District), director of the Michigan Department of Social Services, and founding director of the Poverty and Social Reform Institute.

Mansour became a national symbol during her first year as director of the Michigan Department of Social Services when controversy arose regarding her role as a nun and that of a human services administrator of Medicaid funding for abortion. She was given an ultimatum by a papal emissary to leave the Department of Social Services or leave the Sisters of Mercy. She chose the latter.

Beyond her accomplishments as director of the Michigan Department of Social Services, Mansour took every opportunity to educate elected officials and the public on the growing feminization of poverty. She endeavored to make the Department of Social Services more responsive to the needs of the poor, especially women and children, and raised the consciousness and concern of all citizens for the less fortunate.

Esther K. Shapiro - Detroit

Esther K. Shapiro has led a life of effective contributions to civil rights, voting rights and consumer rights, all of which have had significant positive local, state and national impact.

She was the first director of Detroit's Consumer Affairs Department, appointed by Mayor Coleman Young in 1974, and held this position until her retirement in 1998.

Shapiro, along with her husband, labor union organizer Harold Shapiro, was at the forefront of getting support for voting rights and civil rights, and helping get African Americans elected to local and national offices. She worked in the campaign offices of Congressman John Conyers and Congressman George Crockett, and was an early supporter of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. through the Michigan Friends of the South—an informal Detroit women's group that raised funds for the civil rights activities of Dr. King and the Freedom Marchers.

Dr. King acknowledged the importance of these efforts in a meeting with Shapiro and the other members of this group when he came to Detroit in the 1960s.

She was the first non-lawyer to achieve the State Bar of Michigan's Frank Kelly Consumer Award. The Detroit Urban League recognized the civil rights advocacy of Shapiro and her husband with a Distinguished Warrior Award. The Society of Consumer Affairs Professionals in Business named its annual award after Shapiro, now given to those who share her visionary leadership and ethical standards in consumer affairs.

Helen W. Milliken - Traverse City

Helen Milliken, wife of the former Governor of Michigan, has long been identified with women's issues and concerns. She was a distinguished national co-chair of ERAmerica and traveled throughout the country speaking on behalf of the Equal Rights Amendment. She also freely gave her time and energy to raising needed funds to support this major cause.

In addition, she was a convener of the International Women's Year Delegation in Michigan and a member of the delegation to the IWY Conference, which met in Houston in 1977.

She is associated with The Women's Research in Education Institute in Washington, D.C., and chaired the National Women's Conference Committee.

Helen Milliken has been a major patron of the arts in Michigan. She was in no small measure responsible for the development of a state public arts project and for the growth in public support of the arts. Since its inception, she has served as chair of the Michigan Artrain, which has toured Michigan and 23 other states.

Ethelene Crockett - Detroit

Dr. Ethelene Crockett was a Detroit physician who became well known as a community leader and humanitarian. 'She was involved in the betterment of society in areas beyond medicine. Her unselfish contributions of time, knowledge, energy and leadership served to rectify social inequality to help those whose need was immediate, and those who could not speak for themselves,' stated a 1978 New Detroit, Inc. resolution.

In 1972 she led the fight to liberalize Michigan's abortion laws. In 1977, the Detroit Medical Society selected her 'Physician of the Year.' She was the first woman to be president of the American Lung Association, the nation’s largest and oldest voluntary health organization.

She served on the Detroit Public Library Commission and as an officer for the Michigan Cancer Society. In 1971 the Detroit Free Press cited Dr. Crockett as one of "nine of Detroit's Most Successful Women."

She received the 'Woman of the Year' Award from Zeta Phi Beta Sorority Beta Omicron Zeta Chapter in 1972. In 1973 the Howard University Alumni Federation, Washington D.C. cited her 'For Conspicuous Service to Her Profession and Community.'

Learn more about impactful women in Michigan history here.

The Historical Museum is open Monday through Friday, noon to 5 p.m. It is located at its new home at 105 W. Allegan, Lansing, near Michigan’s state capitol.

About the Author:

Ken Haddad is the digital special projects manager for WDIV / ClickOnDetroit.com. He also authors the Morning Report Newsletter and various other newsletters. He's been with WDIV since 2013.