Groundbreaking female attorney finds place in state Women's Hall of Fame

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By Cynthia Price
Legal News

Thanks to the efforts of another woman lawyer, Ella Mae Backus, who in 1923 became the first female assistant U.S. attorney in Michigan, has been brought out of the shadows of history.

Backus was one of five historical honorees recently inducted into the Michigan Women’s Hall of Fame, and Grand Valley State University Legal Studies Coordinator Ruth Stevens, who nominated her, was there to accept the honor.

Stevens told the story about reading just a brief paragraph about Backus in the book about Grand Rapids Bar Association history published in 1995.

Having thought that she was familiar with most of the female pioneers in her local legal community, Stevens’ interest was piqued. “When I began practicing law in 1980, the received wisdom was that Rosemary Scott, Jean McKee, and Margaret Cook were the first women to practice law in Grand Rapids and that they were followed by Janet Neff and Mary Jane Morris,” she wrote in a recent article for Stereoscope, the Journal of the Historical Society for the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Michigan.

Once she started researching, Stevens found that coverage of this ceiling-shattering woman was pretty widespread at the time, and she has been able to piece together several women attorneys’ stories that predate the influx of women that really gathered steam in the 1970s.

Backus had worked in the Western District U.S. Attorney’s Office for 19 years as a clerk, even though she had passed the bar after working for attorneys in Traverse City. At that point, her boss, the U.S. Attorney Edward Bowman, attempted to get her a raise, but it became apparent that the only way to do so was to appoint her an assistant U.S. attorney (AUSA). So, to his credit, he did.

At the time there were only six female AUSAs in the country. Annette Abbott Adams is credited as being the first female AUSA, appointed in California in 1914.

Nor was Backus the first female attorney in Grand Rapids. Elizabeth Eaglesfield, who is also in the Hall of Fame, set out her shingle in 1878.

What seems most impressive about Ella Mae Backus is that she just quietly went about doing her job – thoroughly and with comprehensive knowledge of federal law and procedure – until her death in 1938.

Stevens, who partnered in nominating Backus with the Greater Grand Rapids Women’s History Council, concluded her remarks by saying, “I think of her as emblematic of women on whose shoulders we stand, who remind us of what women can do.”

The induction banquet was full of such reminders, honoring a truly wide range of groundbreaking women. From Elizabeth Denison Forth, a former slave who lived from about 1790 to 1866 and worked for the mayor of Detroit to save money that helped fund the founding of St. James Episcopal Church in Grosse Ile, to the first woman president of the SEIU (Service Employees International Union), which has over two million members, Mary Kay Henry, the 2017 cohort was diverse and fascinating.

The Philip A. Hart Award, given to a man who has championed justice for women, was given to Sen. Curtis Hertel Jr.

Perhaps the most touching inductee was “Rosie the Riveter” and the group of women she represents.  The real-life Rosie, Rose Will Monroe, worked at the Willow Run plant in Ypsilanti, and several others who joined her in keeping the manufacturing effort going during World War II were ushered onto the stage by volunteers from the Yankee Museum dressed in “Rosie” costumes.

The Michigan Women’s Historical Center, which has just recently moved into the Meridian Mall in Okemos, houses the Hall of Fame. It is operated by the non-profit Michigan Women’s Studies Association (MWSA).

MWSA was founded by academics for academics, to focus on women entering that profession in the state. Gladys Beckwith, a Michigan State University professor at the time, was the founder in 1973 of an organization intended to “change what is thought and taught about women.” She was in attendance at the banquet at Lansing’s Kellogg Center.

At the end of the evening, the presidents of the MWSA and the Michigan Women’s Foundation, Shirley Zeller and Carolyn Cassin respectively, announced that their two organizations are going to merge.

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