These women have been champions of conservation, labor and women. Join us on a journey through time as we uncover the tales of strength, resilience, and ingenuity that define the legacy of women Activists in Northern Michigan.

E. Genevieve Gillette

E Genevieve GilletteE. Genevieve Gillette (May 19, 1898 – May 23, 1986) emerged as a pioneering conservationist in Michigan, born in Lansing on May 19, 1898. After relocating to a farm in Dimondale in 1901, she pursued education at Michigan Agricultural College (now Michigan State University). Overcoming gender barriers, she became the sole woman to graduate in the college’s inaugural landscape architecture class in 1920.

Facing limited job prospects, Gillette secured a position as an assistant to garden designer Jens Jensen in Chicago. Her transformative journey in conservation began in the early 1920s when she formed a close bond with P. J. Hoffmaster, Superintendent of State Parks (1922–1934), and later Director of the Department of Conservation. Tasked with identifying potential state park areas, Gillette dedicated her life to this cause.

From 1924 onward, she played a pivotal role in establishing parks at Ludington, Hartwick Pines, Wilderness, Porcupine Mountains, Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, and the Huron-Clinton Metroparks system. Notably, she championed the creation of P. J. Hoffmaster State Park in the Lake Michigan sand dunes area.

To garner public support, Gillette founded the Michigan Parks Association and tirelessly worked on a state bond issue for parks and recreation in 1969. Her efforts extended to securing federal funding for Michigan state parks, arguing that out-of-state park users should contribute to maintenance costs.

Presidential Appointment

Appointed by President Johnson, she served on the President’s Advisory Committee on Recreation and Natural Beauty. Gillette’s commitment to conservation persisted, with her appointment to the Wilderness and Natural Areas Advisory Board of Michigan until 1981.

The Gillette Nature Center at Hoffmaster State Park, dedicated in 1976, stands as a testament to her legacy. Genevieve Gillette’s unwavering determination helped preserve Michigan’s natural heritage, with her final project being Thompson’s Harbor State Park in Presque Isle County.

Upon her death in 1986 in Ann Arbor, Michigan, Gillette’s estate established a $300,000 trust to acquire new lands for public benefit. Buried in Mount Hope Cemetery in Lansing, her enduring impact reflects the words, “If you are seeking for her monument, look about you.”

Although Gillette was not from Northern Michigan, her conservation efforts had a direct impact for Northern Michigan. She was inducted in the Michigan Women’s Hall of Fame in 1984.

Anna Clemenc

Anna ClemencAnna “Big Annie” Klobuchar Clemenc (March 2, 1888 – July 27, 1956; pronounced “Clements”) left an indelible mark as an American labor activist, born in Calumet, Michigan. Serving as the president of the local Women’s Auxiliary No. 15 of the Western Federation of Miners, she played a pivotal role in the Copper Country Strike of 1913–1914, earning her a well-deserved place in the Michigan Women’s Hall of Fame.

Born to George and Mary Klobuchar, Annie returned to Slovenia briefly before her family settled in Calumet. In the U.S., her father worked in the mines, and her mother was a domestic worker. Despite graduating from the Calumet and Hecla Mining Company school, Annie took on various roles, aiding crippled miners and supporting her family by doing laundry. Standing at 6 feet 2 inches, she became widely known as “Big Annie.”

Leading the Way

In February 1913, Annie initiated the formation of the Women’s Auxiliary No. 15, becoming its president later that year. During the Copper Country Strike, she led marches, famously carrying a large American flag. In the tragic Italian Hall disaster of 1913, where over 75 lives were lost, Annie, with her flag, led the funeral procession for the victims.

Despite facing personal challenges, including a jail sentence, Annie persisted in her activism. After a lecture tour in 1914 to raise funds for disaster survivors and promote workers’ unionization, she faded into relative obscurity until the 1970s. Honored by the Michigan House of Representatives on June 17, 1980, as “Annie Clemenc Day,” her portrait, commissioned by the Michigan Women’s Studies Association, is displayed in the Michigan State Capitol.

Inducted into the Michigan Women’s Hall of Fame in 1996, Annie Clemenc’s legacy is also celebrated in a historical novel, “The Women of the Copper Country” by Mary Doria Russell. Though a sign commemorating her induction at the Italian Hall site has been removed, Annie Clemenc’s impact on labor activism and women’s history endures.

Verna Grahek Mize

Verna MizeVerna Grahek Mize (April 25, 1913 – January 1, 2013) was an influential American environmental activist. She was renowned for her tireless efforts in the Save Lake Superior campaign from 1967 to 1980. 

Mize was born in Houghton and graduated from Calumet High School in 1940. She pursued a career with the federal government, holding positions with institutions like the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Home for a Visit

In 1967, Mize, now a Maryland resident, returned to Houghton and observed Lake Superior’s environmental decline. Disturbed by the Reserve Mining Company’s dumping of 67,000 tons of taconite tailings into the lake daily, she launched the Save Lake Superior campaign. Mize’s relentless advocacy included letter-writing, petitions, and personal meetings with officials, presenting a feasible land disposal plan for the waste.

Mize’s efforts gained support from six U.S. Senators, leading to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issuing a notice against Reserve in 1972. Despite legal hurdles, including a reversal by the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals in 1974, Mize persevered. In 1980, the company was finally compelled to cease dumping into the lake.

Recognizing her exceptional contributions, Michigan Governor William Milliken honored Mize as the “First Lady of Lake Superior” in 1980. A park in Houghton was named in her honor, and she was posthumously inducted into the Michigan Women’s Hall of Fame in 2016. Mize passed away in Potomac, Maryland, in 2013 at the age of 99. She was laid to rest at Arlington National Cemetery.

Maggie Walz

Maggie WalzMaggie Walz gained recognition for her altruistic endeavors. Born as Margareeta Johanna Konttra Niiranen in Tornio, Finland, in 1861. Maggie migrated to the United States at the age of twenty, settling in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Despite starting as a domestic servant, Walz aspired for more and, after attending night school, mastered the English language. Like many immigrants of the time, she adapted by changing her name to integrate into mainstream American society.

Transitioning from selling sewing machines, pianos, and organs door-to-door to becoming a sales clerk, Walz honed her language skills and commercial acumen. While pursuing opportunities beyond the Finnish immigrant community, she remained active within it. She contributed to the Finnish Apostolic Lutheran Church and co-founding the Finnish temperance society Pohjantahti. Notably, she facilitated the immigration of Finnish women to the U.S. Maggie would underwrite their passage, teaching English, and aiding in employment searches.

Not to be Deterred

Walz defied societal norms of the late 19th century by establishing herself as an independent businesswoman in the Copper Country. Despite facing criticism for her unladylike demeanor, she persisted. Involved in various pursuits, she attempted to create a women’s suffrage organization in 1888, and later organized the Calumet Finnish Women’s Society, which evolved into a national organization. Walz played a pivotal role in publishing the Naisten Lehti, a newspaper distributed nationally.

In 1902, Walz erected the Walz Block in Calumet, hosting businesses, including her clothing store, and becoming a symbol of her distinctive character. Expanding her influence, she became the federal land agent for Drummond Island in 1903, founding the Finnish colony of Kreetan. Despite her disassociation in 1914, Walz’s impact persisted.

As perceptions of women’s rights evolved, Walz continued her advocacy nationally, participating in temperance unions and international conferences. Her contributions earned her recognition as the “Jane Addams of Northern Michigan.” In 1927, at 65, Walz passed away, leaving a legacy of determination and social welfare advocacy. She was inducted into the Michigan Women’s Hall of Fame in 2015. Whether seen as an angel or pioneer, she had forged her unique path. She uplifted her fellow immigrants and women locally, nationally, and internationally.

Carol Atkins

Carol AtkinsCarol Elizabeth Miller was born on July 5, 1923, in Toledo, Ohio. She graduated Phi Beta Kappa with a degree in English from the University of Michigan. Carol met Edward H. Atkins, and their connection through dance lasted until his passing on Dec. 10, 2011. Carol died a short 15 months later on March 16, 2013.

Throughout their marriage, Carol and Edward lived in various places. Over the years they were in Minnesota, Ohio, California, Chicago, Pennsylvania, and her beloved Manistee. In Manistee, she dedicated herself to journalism with the Manistee News Advocate, becoming a stalwart figure in the community.

Champion of Women’s Rights

Carol was not just a journalist but also an activist, playwright, author, and poet. A passionate advocate for women’s rights, she established three shelters for women’s protection and chartered two NOW chapters to advance legislation. Her commitment to equality was reflected in her words and actions.

On feminism, Carol expressed, “I am a feminist. Active. Committed. Dedicated.” Her belief in equal rights for women drove her activism. She received several awards, including the Don Jennings Award, The Athena Award, and induction into the Michigan Women’s Hall of Fame in 2008.

A prolific writer, Carol contributed poetry, plays, and columns to newspapers like the Manistee News Advocate and the Wadsworth News Banner. Her writings covered a spectrum of topics, from humor to provocation, aiming to make people both laugh and reflect on matters that truly mattered.

Fearless and Committed

In their pursuit of justice and equality, these activists dedicated their lives to their causes. Their unwavering resolve and tireless efforts continue to inspire, illuminating the path towards a more just and sustainable future for Northern Michigan and beyond.

Come back for more history of Northern Michigan Women. In our seventh article we highlight 2 women and a group who helped to transform the region’s academic scene.

Read more about Northern Michigan Women in History. As we publish articles this month we will add links to published articles.