Former women's suffrage leader inspires community 125 years later

The national headquarters of Woman's Life Insurance Society is a columned architectural gem at 1338 Military St. in Port Huron. In 1989, the State of Michigan entered this building into the Register of Historic Sites. Built in 1917, the commanding exterior of this structure greets those on the main approach to downtown Port Huron from the south and bids farewell to all departing the downtown area. Green carpeted steps lead to impressive doors opening to a red carpeted, spiral staircase and a welcoming and exquisite interior.

The initial impression upon entering takes you back into the past, to Bina West, the organization's founder. Her desk sits in discreet display. Her pens and business record books remain as silent reminders. The professionals who pass her desk daily on their way to their workplaces, the clients purchasing insurance or filing claims with their agents, the chapter members meeting for charitable efforts know that this is Bina's building.

All are aware that they are a part of her-life changing vision.

"Bina's values are still our values," says Woman's Life Insurance Society Representative Diane Bedore, LUTCF. Now, the beautiful building continues to serve as the home office for Woman's Life.

Founder honored in Women's Hall of Fame

In 1993, Bina West Miller was inducted into the Michigan Women's Hall of Fame and described as "an outspoken advocate for women's suffrage," travelling throughout the United States, Canada, Europe and the Near East. In 1928 she was named Michigan's top businesswoman in a Detroit Free Press poll, and was called by the Associated Press "one of the five greatest women in America." The Hall of Fame lauded her fifty-six years as chief executive officer of the Woman's Life Insurance Society, improving women's status by providing financial security, opportunities for social and community involvement and self-improvement.

Woman's Life Manager of Communications Karen Deschaine says just in St. Clair County alone, there are two dozen Woman's Life chapters contributing to real needs within the community. Chapters organize continuously throughout the U.S., especially popular in the mid-western states of Michigan, Ohio, and Indiana. Currently, more than 120 groups making a difference in their communities across the country.

"No other county in the nation has as much Woman's Life presence as ours," she says. "It was birthed here."  

Their total charitable contributions in Michigan for 2015 was $744,794, given to local nonprofits and sometimes to meet an individual need. The national total in contributions for the same year was $977,230.

"It is a very compelling reason for women to join in to make a difference," Deschaine says."Each chapter is eligible for financial support, including matching funds and volunteer service grants from Woman's Life to enhance the support they provide to the causes they care about."

Bina West's vision for equality of women

In 1892, the twenty-five-year-old teacher from Capac, Michigan, founded one of the first organizations to offer life insurance to women, the Woman's Benefit Association. Men had decided against insuring women's lives. The rationale was that pregnancy and childbirth put women at high risk of death. Bina West considered this policy irrational and fought against it. Certainly she wouldn't have been the only person who felt that a woman's death was a significant loss?

A woman in 1892 lived in fear of her loved ones' suffering due to her death, according to historical records. There was no safety net such as social security or financial assistance. After funeral expenses, families had to deal with motherless children's needs not only emotionally and physically, but also financially. Desperate widowers felt overwhelmed. Some gave over their children to relatives; others married for the sole purpose of gaining housekeeping and child care services; still others cut their work hours to care for their children only to witness their families' plunge into poverty. Some fathers provided financial support for their children but could only do so by placing them into "homes" that often resembled workhouses. In effect, these fathers lost not only their wives, but also their children.

West felt that life insurance was a wise means of addressing the many losses resulting from a woman's death. Others no doubt agreed, but West was one of the first who did something about it. At least one person wholeheartedly recognized West's foresight and accomplishments -- a client to whom West's insurance company paid the first claim to. The $1,000 check made a huge impact in 1893!

Not only was West a formidable innovator, but also she was politically savvy, said Karen Deschaine, Woman's Life Manager of Communications. In 1886, she was the first woman in Michigan selected to serve on a board of county school examiners. In 1908, Bina West represented the National Council of U.S. Women at the International Council of Women in Geneva, Switzerland. Between 1919 to 1929, she was one of 11 members appointed to the first Women's Executive Committee of the Republican National Committee awarded an honorary degree of Master of Arts from the University of Michigan and was on the National Republican Convention Committee. She and selected to deliver the nominating speech for Herbert Hoover and was appointed by him to the Planning Committee on Child Health and Protection.  

In keeping with respect for all family roles, the company included men in 1931. Other changes came in the form of the organization's name. The Woman's Benefit Association became The North American Benefit Association and, in 1996, Woman's Life Insurance Society.

The Honorable Cynthia Lane, 31st Circuit Court Judge in Port Huron, says she's been a member of Woman's Life Chapter 820 (the Archangels) since 2009.

"Our members live throughout St. Clair County," she says. "Our events often mix social occasions with community service and always involve opportunities to raise funds to benefit various organizations, including Kids in Distress Services, Hunter Hospitality House, the Arc of St. Clair County, A Beautiful Me, Mid-City Nutrition, to name a few. The social aspect of belonging to a Woman's Life Chapter is always enjoyable but I find it especially gratifying to know how much our efforts benefit our communities."

West's stellar reputation has always drawn dignitaries as well as common folk to her Woman's Life Insurance Society. This Port Huron treasure continues to draw members from the local community and around the country. This year marks the 124-year history of the Woman's Life success. Their society's national cause is as admirable as its founder, "answering the call to fight homelessness and hunger in America."

Woman's Life services today

The Woman's Life Insurance Society, a fraternal benefit society, serves the life insurance, financial, and fraternal needs of women and their families. Experienced Woman's Life professionals guide event planning,  graphic design, marketing skills and a business and professional network of special services. Their award-winning member magazine has a 23,000 circulation.

Woman's Life Chapters raise money by sponsoring various fundraisers, from painting classes to 5K runs. Three Woman's Life chapters in St. Clair County are joining together to sponsor an ‘80's Dance Party and a Kayak Poker Run is planned for the Labor Day weekend. For more information on events, Woman's Life Insurance or to find a local Woman's Life group in your area, call (800) 521-9292 or go to womanslife.org.   


Pictured above is the grand entrance into the historic Woman's Life Insurance Society.

Angela M. Rochon is a writer living in St. Clair County, working on her memoirs.



 
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