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Ann Arbor 200

Emma E. Bower: A Woman With Her Own Ideas

Year
2024

Ann Arbor's Emma Bower was "known throughout the state as one of its most brilliant women." Doctor, Newspaper Editor and Publisher, Suffragette, School Board President, and Great Record Keeper for the Lady Maccabees of Michigan are only a select few of the many titles she earned. 

Photo of a greek revival style building as seen from a street. A picket fence and trees are in front of the building.
University of Michigan Homeopathic School ca. 1880/1914. Courtesy of the Bentley Historical Library.

Beginnings

Born in Ann Arbor on October 13, 1849, Emma graduated from Ann Arbor High School, then stayed in the city to attend the University of Michigan and its Homeopathic Medical School. After acquiring her M.D. in 1883, Emma moved to Detroit. She practiced in the office of Dr. Phil. Porter, but “ill health” in her family brought her home in 1886. Upon moving back, she found work as Assistant to the Chair of “Materia Medica” and Chair of Obstetrics and Diseases of Women and Children at the University of Michigan.

Henry, her father, was a dry goods merchant in Ann Arbor before succumbing to consumption in 1870. Her mother, Margaret Gertrude Chase Bower, maintained their home at 16 N Ingalls (later, 214 N Ingalls) alongside daughters Emma and Margaret Virigina Bower until her own death in 1906.

Editor Extraordinaire 

The newspaper business was a family affair for the Bowers. Younger brother Burroughs Frank Bower (known as Frank) co-founded The Democrat in 1878. Four years later he sold his stake in the paper to his brother, Henry, and joined The Detroit Journal. In 1890 Frank became business manager for the The Cleveland Evening World, and went on to purchase (or, re-purchase) that paper in 1897. Frank and Emma appeared to maintain a close relationship and their visits to one another were published in the papers throughout the years.

Advertisement for The Ann Arbor Democrat "Only one dollar a year." "It contains more local matter than any other paper in the county" "Emma E. Bower, Editor and Publisher No. 29 Main St. Ann Arbor, Mich"
Advertisement for the Ann Arbor Democrat, 1895

Prior to his assumption of the editorship of The Democrat, older brother Henry E. H. had already been involved in journalism as the Ann Arbor correspondent for large dailies in Detroit and Chicago. He was ill for many months in 1888 and Emma managed the paper during this period before officially taking on the role after he died. 

Henry had a law degree from the University of Michigan and served on the Ann Arbor common council for a few years, but “his natural newspaper ability drew him into journalism.” One rival paper described him as “of a kindly, genial nature,” while The Courier expressed both respect and frankness in their obituary for him. “He was one who had his faults, but he also had his virtues. He was honest and upright in all his dealings with his fellow-men, and never forgot his manhood in that respect. At times brilliant as a journalist, he was at times erratic also…He was a strong friend to his friends and just as strong a hater to those he disliked.”

A headline and subheading from a newspaper which reads, "NEWSPAPER WOMEN. A Congress of Women of Brains -- will soon honor our city with a visit."
Headline from the Ann Arbor Register, May 31, 1894 regarding the Meeting of the Michigan Women's Press Association at Newberry Hall

When Emma took on the mantle of owner and editor of The Democrat she devoted herself to advancing her new profession. In doing so, she won the respect of her fellow editors, who seem to have never printed a negative word about her. In 1891 she was elected vice president of the newly formed Ann Arbor Press Club. She traveled to Bay View in 1892 to read a paper about “Women in Journalism” at a meeting of the Women’s Press Association

The Literary Century, a pamphlet published by the Michigan Women’s Press Association was distributed at the Women’s Building at the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893. It includes a description of Emma: 

“She does all the work of an editor-in-chief, collects and writes up all the news, solicits advertisements, personally attends to all the departments of the paper and never fails to send out an interesting well edited number every Friday in a year.”

“While sacrificing and considerate, she is thoroughly self-reliant and combines perseverance with that rare executive ability which is the true secret of all phases of business success. She conducts her paper as a business enterprise upon business principles, and while she is not enabled to enjoy the same amount of leisure and recreation, she has the satisfaction of knowing she earns as much money every year as any professor in the University of Michigan.”

Emma gave up the editorship around 1894 and promoted another female employee in her stead, Cora DePuy. Cora's tenure lasted less than a year. In May of 1895 Emma published an apology to anyone who was charged for an obituary. Cora, who was now a "late employee of the Democrat," appeared to have been making money through the service without Emma's "knowledge, sanction or advise."

A History of the Newspapers of Ann Arbor 1829-1920 opines that The Democrat “was no doubt at its best under the proprietorship of Emma Bower.”

Busy & Beloved

Emma was devoted to her community and involved in so many organizations that it’s a wonder she had enough time for it all. She contributed to groups focused around women’s equality, animal rights, temperance, education, entertainment, and fraternal organizations.

At various points she was:

Portrait of Emma taken in profile. Her hair is in a bun and she wears what looks to be a velvet collar with fur lining.
Portrait of Emma, 1893

Her consistent selection and election for leadership roles shows how clearly she was admired and trusted by her peers.

When running for the statewide position of Great Record Keeper for the Ladies of the Maccabees in 1893, The Courier, who had unfavorably described her brother, enthusiastically endorsed her. “She is a thorough business woman, and the order would be extremely fortunate in securing her services. There are no recommends that Miss Bower could not secure from the business or social people of Ann Arbor.” 

The Argus provided a similarly glowing approval, “Her business and editorial training peculiarly fit her for the duties of the office to which she aspires, while her many personal graces and social qualities will endear her to the members of the order with whom she is brought in contact.” 

A third paper, The Register, praised her win, writing, “The vote was practically unanimous for Miss Bower, a fact greatly to her credit.” 

Apart from her skill in writing and editing, Emma was a routine public speaker. In 1894 the Register wrote, “Miss Bower is a brilliant writer and is gaining a wide reputation as an able speaker. The lady is well educated, is a graduate of the U. of M., has her own ideas about things and can express them. Judging from the number of invitations she receives to make speeches, people like her ideas.” 

School Board & Suffrage

Emma’s lack of detractors is notable for a woman who bucked the status quo. She never married, was outspoken, and actively fought to advance women’s rights. The good she did for the community and her social standing may have helped shield her from slander, along with her talents for elocution.

In 1867 Michigan women who paid taxes were granted the right to vote for school trustees. In 1889 the Michigan legislature expanded the right for every person who was over 21 and paid school taxes to vote on all school related questions at their district’s meetings and any parent or legal guardian of school-aged children who were part of the local census could vote during school meetings on questions that did not involve raising money through taxes. Select Michigan women gained their first right to vote in these narrow ways. 

12 years later, and after multiple prior failed attempts, Michigan’s Governor Rich signed a bill granting women the right to vote in municipal elections on May 27, 1893. However, eligibility was limited to “women who are able to read the constitution of the State of Michigan, printed in the English language.” Women would be tested before the board of registrations, allowing the board to pass or disqualify women at will. 

Portrait of Olivia Hall and Israel Hall seated across from one another with a desk and hutch full of papers and books. Taxidermy animals rest on top of it. Olivia faces away from Israel and holds a book.
Olivia and Israel Hall, ca. 1875-1889. Courtesy of the Bentley Historical Library.​​​

In September of 1893 “nearly one hundred ladies” exercised their right to vote in the school board election. “Considerable interest was manifested owing to the efforts of the woman’s suffragists,” but their efforts lacked coordination. Emma D. Perry was nominated, but withdrew. Perhaps because she didn’t want to interfere with her husband Walter S. Perry’s position as superintendent. Olivia B. Hall, whose husband Israel had previously served on the board, was then put forth and garnered 26 votes, nowhere near the turnout for the leading men, who gained closer to 400.

A month after this vote the Michigan Supreme Court ruled that the Legislature did not have the authority to create a new class of voter, rolling back women’s brief freedom. However, the state’s Attorney General issued a followup ruling to clarify that the women who had been voting in school meetings could continue to do so. 

It appears that it was under this directive, and with the strength in numbers seen the year prior, that the women and their allies came back to the school board election with improved strategy and organization in September 1894. Turnout skyrocketed from the usual few hundred to almost 1,000, the “reason for such a large vote is found in the fact that those 'pesky women' as a certain 'lord of creation' expressed it, wanted to run the earth.” The Register attributed the women’s success to their strategy of not showing their strength until it was too late for their competitors to rally. The women’s original slate had been Emma alongside Lelia Burt, whose husband Benjamin was a teacher, and Mrs. Amoretta Stevens. In the end Emma was the only victorious one of the three. 

Portrait of Anna Botsford Bach facing the camera wearing a high neck black top with a white ruffle and pin at the neck.
Anna Botsford Bach. Courtesy of the Washtenaw County Historical Society.

The Courier offered further explanation for her win, attributing her ample support to her connections as a leader of the Maccabees. In addition, the women had targeted the easiest candidate to defeat: the sole Catholic member of the board. This loss resulted in, “a number of our citizens who feel that the result was unfortunate” because it meant a lack of Catholic representation. Even with this detraction, the paper makes clear they do not wish to diminish Emma's success, continuing, “Not that there is anything against the lady elected by any means, for there is not. She is an excellent business woman, and that she will make a model member of the Board, no one doubts for a moment.”

Emma was not the first woman on the school board, she was preceded by Mrs. Sarah H. Bishop. Nor did she serve as the first female president. That title belongs to Anna Botsford Bach, who joined Emma on the board in 1896 and became president a year later. Anna’s husband Philip, namesake of Bach Elementary, had previously served as President and was a 41-year member of the school board.  

What sets Emma’s success apart is her status as an unmarried woman. She had no children of her own that would have provided her with a deeper interest in the schools to campaign upon and no husband who was associated with the schools. 

Emma further underscored the political nature of her election by submitting her 1895 bond for Treasurer with only female signees

“Since Miss Bower’s bond was presented to the board, some doubt as to the legality of the document has been raised, it being alleged that a married woman cannot legally affix her name to the bond and be held responsible. The opinion of the board on the matter is unsettled. Ex-President Beal said this morning [t]hat he saw no reason why a woman, holding property in her own name, could not be held responsible. Still, he thought it a matter for the lawyers to decide.”

The “humor” of women bondholders is emphasized in a retelling of the events in the Ann Arbor Argus’ Funny Things” column:

“Miss Emma Bower, of the Ann Arbor Democrat, recently elected treasurer of the school board, has filed a female bond of $40,000. Not a “horrid man” on the paper – all women, every mother’s son of them. But, gentle reader, don’t snicker just yet. Hereby hangs a tale. The bond has been declared invalid because some of the sureties are married and therefore said to be irresponsible. It is a large sized joke on the Benedicts of the Michigan Athens [husbands], that the women who married them are by that token held irresponsible. Discharge that snicker at this point. Meantime the bond has been accepted and there is a fine nest of hairpins.”

Some of the women signees even garnered derision from family members. Henrietta Penny had endorsed Emma’s bond, but her nephew’s objections were made public. 

Emma successfully became treasurer and she went on to serve as President in 1900. She used her position on the school board to try to advocate for women beyond just the upper class. During Emma’s tenure as treasurer, history teacher Eliza R. Sunderland approached the board because her salary had been reduced from $750 to $600. The board gave various reasons for the reduction, including “objection to paying so large a salary to a married woman.” Emma moved that the salary be put back at $750, but the motion ultimately lost. 

Repeated re-elections allowed Emma to maintain her position on the board until her eventual defeat in 1902.

The Mighty, Modern Maccabees

Advertisement for "The Ladies of the Maccabees -- Provides Death, Total Permanent Disability, Old Age Disability and Maternity Benefits. -- SAFE SECURE STABLE -- Apply for Information -- Dr. Emma E. Bower Port Huron, Mich. Mrs. Frances E. Burns, St. Louis Mich.
Advertisement in The Fraternal Monitor, 1922

One year prior to her election to the school board, Emma was victorious in an election that would shape the rest of her life. She secured “the honorable and lucrative position of great record keeper of the Lady Maccabees of Michigan” which included a salary of $1,200, an allowance of $850 to hire a clerk, and $500 for other expenses. “Great Record Keeper”--akin to “Secretary” in other organizations--made Emma responsible for recording the work of hives throughout Michigan and much of the organization's communications.

The Ladies of the Maccabees (LOTM) were an offshoot of the Knights of the Maccabees, a fraternal organization that originated in London, Ontario, but grew to real prominence in Michigan. Ann Arbor’s “hive,” as the ladies’ groups were known, was established in 1891 and Emma had the title of Lieutenant Commander by 1894.

A diagram titled "Sergeant and Mistress-At-Arms Giving Password to Commander and Collecting Same" illustrates the movements of members of the Ladies of the Maccabees including marching around an altar and saluting.
A choreographed march to be followed by the hive, 1899

What exactly did the Ladies of the Maccabees do? Like every secret society seemed to, they had rigorous rituals that laid out the hive’s structure, titles, attire, oaths, and even marches. They defined themselves as “a vast sisterhood of women, bound together by the sacredness of our obligation, for mutual benefit, and the uplifting and upbuilding of our sex; for mental, moral and spiritual growth; and for a cultivation of the divine attributes of charity and love, which is the foundation of the happiness of the world.”

Newspaper article with the headline "Quarter Million Dollars Paid in Death Claims by the Ladies of the Maccabee -- Great Record Keeper's Report Shows the Immense Amount of Business Transacted"
Ann Arbor Argus-Democrat, March 7, 1902

In practice, they operated similarly to insurance companies in an era when many insurers didn’t cover people of average resources. While the Maccabee’s enrollment was broader, it still was not completely inclusive. Members were required to be white, healthy, relatively young, and not involved in high-risk professions. The hives collected payments and doled out benefits to enrollees in need of help when death, illness, or injury occurred. Money management was crucial to the society, and the hives were audited routinely to ensure that they were fiscally sound. In 1901 alone Emma reported that the Ladies of the Maccabees of Michigan paid out over $250,000--equal to almost $10 million in 2024. 

The Maccabees made a point to hire women, employing female lawyers, book-keepers, writers, orators, and bankers. Emma herself used her roots in journalism to serve as editor for the monthly Lady Maccabee: Official Organ of the Great Hive for Michigan whose circulation reached 59,500 in 1901

The exclusion of men was seen as laughable to many. A common retort was that women couldn’t be part of a secret society because they are incapable of keeping a secret. Emma seems to have deftly used this ridicule to her advantage. On numerous occasions she gave a speech on the subject of whether women can keep a secret. She was praised for its wit and it presumably was a rebuff to these mocking remarks. In another speech she joked that LOTM had another meaning – leave out the men.

Portrait of Emma Bower facing the camera, her hair in a bun wearing round wire-rimmed glasses and a square necked top.
Portrait of Emma, 1923

Emma’s Ending
As the Ladies of the Maccabees grew, Emma wasn’t able to devote as much time to her other commitments. Eventually she left Ann Arbor in 1906, the same year that her mother died, to be closer to the state offices in Port Huron. She then moved on to Detroit in 1926 when the Ladies combined with the Knights to become "the Maccabees." Their headquarters were in the newly built Maccabees Building. Three years later, she retired. She retained the title Grand Lecturer for the Maccabees until 1934, when she suffered a stroke from which she never fully recovered. She returned to Ann Arbor to live again with her sister, Margaret, but Margaret preceded Emma in death by two years. Emma herself passed on October 11, 1937, two days shy of her 88th birthday. She is buried alongside much of her family at Forest Hills.

 

Mrs. Wrathell

Mrs. Wrathell image
Parent Issue
Day
7
Month
March
Year
1963
Copyright
Copyright Protected

Mrs. Lillian Lott

Mrs. Lillian Lott image
Parent Issue
Day
2
Month
April
Year
1956
Copyright
Copyright Protected

County And Vicinity

County And Vicinity image
Parent Issue
Day
4
Month
January
Year
1888
Copyright
Public Domain

I. O. O. F. Dedication

I. O. O. F. Dedication image
Parent Issue
Day
30
Month
April
Year
1897
Copyright
Public Domain