What would Lucinda do? Southwest Michigan women channel their feminist forebears

In Southwest Michigan, we are blessed with a rich legacy of women who championed the rights of those who were oppressed and marginalized. Lucinda Hinsdale Stone, Sojourner Truth, and Vernie Merze Tate led the way with determination tempered by patience and grace.

Then there were women like Fannie Sprague Talbot who forged a path for women who came after her. She was among the United States' first female newspaper reporters.

These women were pioneers not just for women's rights, but for human rights. Their literal DNA may not be in our blood, but their cultural DNA is in our institutions and continues to shape our community's values.

We asked some contemporary Southwest Michigan women to reflect on their feminist forebears and consider how these pioneers may have approached issues of today.

What would Lucinda do?

Dr. Gail Griffin is an accomplished Kalamazoo writer and the Parfet Distinguished Professor Emeritus of English at Kalamazoo College where she taught from 1977 to 2013. She is the author of several books, including "The Events of October: Murder-suicide on a Small Campus" (2010), "Grief's Country: A Memoir in Pieces" (2020), and a recent book of poems "Omena Bay Testament" (2023), which won the Two Sylvias Press Wilder Series Poetry Prize.

Griffin's work also includes "Emancipated Spirits: A Portrait of Kalamazoo College Women," (1983) for which she researched and wrote about several influential women who impacted both the college and the community at large. One of those women was Lucinda Hinsdale Stone, who was considered, along with her husband and K College President James Andrus Binn Stone, to be the mother and father of Kalamazoo College. 

L.C.H., which was Lucinda Stone's pen name, was a feminist, educator, traveler, journalist, and philanthropist. She is known for her commitment to education and equality: "Whatsoever things are true and good, and holy, must be done by men and women working together, without jealousy or prejudice, without distinction of caste or sex."

Griffin reflects on how Lucinda Stone, who called the 19th Century the 'Women's Century,' might perceive the current cultural crisis in American education: 

It’s hard for me to imagine Lucinda Stone confronting the 21st Century. I was born at the exact center of the previous one, and so much has changed in my world that I am often flummoxed as to how to understand it. And Lucinda’s sensibility — the way her mind functioned, her frames of reference — was very much of the 19th Century, the age of the Industrial Revolution, Civil War and emancipation, the quest for suffrage for Black men and all women. The Woman’s Century, she called it. I would be fascinated to know how she would understand the struggle for reproductive rights and autonomy, for instance, which was not on her radar at all.  

But there is a burning issue where I can imagine her response, and that is the crisis in American education. Of all her causes, education was at the center, because of her own experience of exclusion from classrooms and subjects because of her gender. I’m certain that she would be horrified to witness this country’s abandonment of its public school system. 

When she was born, free public education was embraced as an integral part of the American experiment in democracy. Her lifelong struggle to open higher education to women — at what became Kalamazoo College, at the University of Michigan, through the women’s clubs she fostered, through international travel groups for women — was, for her, the logical extension of the American educational dream. To see the effects of white flight from public schools, schools physically disintegrating, school budgets cut to the bone, teachers underpaid, overworked, and blamed for systemic failures would have broken her enraged heart. 

I believe Lucinda Stone would also be appalled by political attacks on school curricula — the removal of books from libraries, the erasure of the truth of African American history, the deprivation of LGBTQ students of the kind of teaching and curricular materials that feed confidence and pride and counteract isolation and despair. 

It might take Lucinda a while to comprehend a contemporary view of sexuality and gender as diverse and changeable. But I feel fairly confident that her first and last commitment would be to the welfare of young people, which includes a truthful understanding of the world. She got into trouble herself because of her curriculum and methods, and because she brought the vital ideas of her day onto her campus and into her students’ lives through visiting writers and activists, especially in the areas of women’s rights and Black freedom.   think she would grasp fairly quickly that the authorities resisting materials about race, sexuality, and history in today’s classrooms are pretty much the same gang that made her life difficult. 

Lucinda Stone might well be surprised and disappointed to learn that we haven’t yet elected a woman president (and how did that brilliant Mrs. Clinton lose out, when she won the popular vote?) Certainly, Lucinda would want the Electoral College gone. But first and foremost she would urgently demand that we honor the American dream of public education. 

Sojourner Truth

A formerly enslaved woman, Sojourner Truth became an outspoken advocate for abolition, temperance, and civil and women’s rights in the 19th century. Her Civil War work earned her an invitation to meet President Abraham Lincoln in 1864.

Truth was born Isabella Bomfree in Dutch-speaking Ulster County, New York in 1797. Born into slavery, her enslavers bought and sold Truth four times, and subjected her to harsh physical labor and violent punishments. In 1826, a family bought her freedom for twenty dollars.

Truth moved to New York City in 1828, where she worked for a local minister. In 1843, she declared that the Spirit called on her to preach the truth, renaming herself Sojourner Truth.

During the 1850s, Truth settled in Battle Creek, Michigan, where three of her daughters lived. She continued speaking nationally and helped enslaved people escape to freedom. In the late 1860s, she collected thousands of signatures on a petition to provide formerly enslaved people with land, though Congress never took action. Nearly blind and deaf towards the end of her life, Truth spent her final years in Michigan. She remained in Battle Creek until she died in 1883. She is buried in Oak Hill Cemetery. 

Sojourner Truth is arguably the most important historical figure to call Battle Creek home. In 1999, a 12-foot-high sculpture of Truth designed by California artist Tina Allen was dedicated in Monument Park. The sculpture greets those coming into the city’s downtown area and serves as a poignant reminder of a woman of tremendous courage and faith who dedicated her life to helping those most in need. The sculpture depicts her at a lectern because she used her gift for public speaking to fight for abolition and suffrage.  
The question posed to the leadership of Battle Creek's Truth, Racial Healing and Transformation was this: What would Sojourner Truth think of the racial equity efforts undertaken by BCTRHT and the efforts of businesses and organizations to include DEI staff within their ranks?
Rosemary Linares, Co-Coordinator for BCTRHT:
Rosemary Linares

We can't answer what Sojourner Truth would say because we do not speak on her behalf. However, what I HOPE she would say is that BCTRHT's goals and activities align with the vision she fought and stood for. Her vision directly informs our work to catalyze a local movement for racial equity, where individuals embed the work of racial healing and transformation into their daily lives in service of eradicating the false hierarchy of human value across all intersecting social identities.


Victoria Fox, Creative Community Connection Coordinator for BCTRHT:
Victoria Fox

I think anyone who follows any abolitionist as closely as Truth would say that the work will never be finished. It's okay to celebrate how far we have come in their honor, but we still have far to go as a community and as a society when it comes to abolishing the systems of oppression.


Elizabeth Garcia, Program Director for BCTRHT:
Elizabeth Garcia, the new Battle Creek Coalition for Truth, Racial Healing Program Director

Sojourner Truth stands as a beacon of intersectional equity and justice. While we cannot speak on her behalf, we aspire to uphold her legacy by advancing towards a more equitable society. As advocates for historically marginalized and underrecognized voices, BCTRHT has diligently worked to prioritize the inclusion of female/fem-presenting individuals, queer individuals, neurodivergent individuals, those with disabilities, and advocates for change in our internal decision-making processes.

We strongly urge businesses to persist in their efforts. Specifically, they should prioritize two critical areas: ensuring that the pool of potential candidates for roles reflects diverse backgrounds and experiences, and ensuring that the lists of candidates considered for roles are diverse as well.

It is imperative for businesses to actively address biases in their processes to foster truly inclusive workplaces that represent everyone.

Fannie Sprague Talbot

Fannie Sprague Talbot was Battle Creek’s first female newspaper reporter, according to information provided by the Historical Society of Battle Creek.

Her mother made arrangements with George Willard, Publisher of the Battle Creek Journal, the city’s first newspaper, for Fannie to work there. Sprague began her job in 1895 as a regular assignment reporter making a weekly salary of three dollars. She also worked for the former Moon-Journal from 1915 to 1940 as the head of its Society Desk covering clubs and social agencies. That newspaper was the result of a merger of two publications.
Personals, she says in the information collected by the Historical Society, were top news. She also covered club meetings, weddings, and other social events.
Her first interview was with Dr. Henry Tanner, who was famous for his 40-day fasts. Among the major stories she covered was the ex-communication in 1906 of John Harvey Kellogg, two sanitarium chaplains, and other major figures from the Seventh Day Adventist Church.
During World War I she sent weekly columns containing Camp Custer social news to the Detroit News, Detroit Free Press, Kalamazoo Gazette, and other area papers. She stayed with the Moon-Journal until it folded in 1940 and was a contributing writer to the Battle Creek Enquirer.
Talbot died in 1957 at the age of 83 from a stroke, but her legacy as a reporter and chronicler of Battle Creek at the turn of the 20th century lives on. 
Why Fannie?
Fannie was a pioneer in the local media landscape. Her initial role as head of the newspaper's Society Desk was about the best a majority of female reporters during that time could hope for. Her persistence likely led to opportunities to interview prominent citizens in Battle Creek, including John Harvey Kellogg.
Were it not for female reporters like her, women journalists like me (Jane Parikh) would not have had the opportunities we have now.
The question to be answered: What would Fannie Sprague Talbot think of the current media landscape?
Jane Parikh, Project Editor and Reporter for On the Ground Battle Creek:
Hypothesizing about a response from an individual no longer alive goes against everything I learned as a journalist — you don’t present facts without attribution and you don’t put your words in other people’s mouths. So understand that my answer is pure speculation.
I don’t often think about the female reporters who came before me and the solid foundation they laid to create a bridge for me to cross. Their resilience and determination in the face of what was a male-dominated profession at the time, cannot be overstated. They are the reason that my first job was as a Police Reporter with the Battle Creek Enquirer.
While Fannie would likely look at the female revolution in journalism that she had a major hand in with pride, I think it would have saddened her to see the demise of newspapers throughout the United States and the loss of credible and hyper-local news that communities came to expect. She made it her life’s work to provide this type of coverage and I do not doubt that she would have been among the first reporters — male or female — to highlight how this impacts the ability of readers to separate truth from falsehoods. 

She also may have cited how the lack of coverage of local government as so aptly stated by Sue Ellen Christian, a former Chicago Tribune reporter and now a Western Michigan University journalism professor, puts accountability at risk.
In a February 2024 Crain’s Detroit Business article, Christian says, “I really do believe there’s never been a better time to be a corrupt local politician because nobody is watching the henhouse. There are very few local reporters now, few local news outlets with the bandwidth to pull the documents, go to obscure committee meetings — that’s where you find the story, the string that you pull that becomes a really good, important local news story."

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Jane Parikh is a freelance reporter and writer with more than 20 years of experience and also is the owner of In So Many Words based in Battle Creek. She is the Project Editor for On the Ground Battle Creek.