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Economy

How an agriculture advocacy group became an ally to women's suffrage

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Courtesy of the Michigan History Center
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In your travels throughout Michigan, you might have noticed small, century-old buildings bearing the word “Grange.” If you live in a rural area in Michigan, you may be familiar with these buildings and know what their purpose is. But if not, you might be wondering: what’s a Grange?

The Grange, formally known as the National Grange of the Order of Patrons of Husbandry, was founded in 1867 in Washington, D.C., in the aftermath of the American Civil War. It was created as a fraternal organization — sort of like the Freemasons or the Oddfellows — open to both men and women, says Jillian Reese, curator of exhibits for the Michigan History Center.

“The Grange focused specifically on farming and rural life in the United States,” Reese said. “Its big focus and mission was on community-building in rural areas, and then turned into more of an advocacy group for farmers. They would advocate for specific public policy and also as a way to educate farmers on new and best practices in agriculture.”

The Grange is divided into separate entities on the national, state, county, and local level. Reese says the old buildings that you might see around the state are meeting houses for local (or “Subordinate”) Granges, which, especially in rural areas, served — and still serve — as community gathering places.

Reese says the first Grange formed in Michigan was created in 1872 in Lapeer County. The statewide Grange was formed in Kalamazoo one year later.

“By 1876, there were hundreds of Granges throughout Michigan and tens of thousands of members. So it was very popular and grew very, very quickly in the 1870s,” she said.

The organization still exists today, but it’s best known for its role in shaping the Granger movement, which swelled in the late 1800s and brought national attention to agricultural advocacy. Reese says the organization worked particularly hard to curb the power of big railroad monopolies.

“They argued successfully that interstate commerce, specifically with railroads at the time, should be seen as a public utility, in which the federal government and the state government needed to intercede to make sure that the owners of these railroads weren't exploiting, particularly, farmers with their prices for transportation,” she said.

The Grange also had an impact on the U.S. Postal Service and how it operates today. Reese says Grangers lobbied for expansion of the Postal Service, free post delivery in rural communities, flat rate shipping, and federal involvement in the parcel-post system.

Reese says the Grange also supported a range of other issues, like progressive federal income tax, farming cooperatives, and state and federal regulation of alcohol.

Scholars say that, in the late 1800s, the national branch of the Grange took a stance of inclusivity. But researchers point out that membership decisions were generally left to the discretion of the local Grange, which meant that in some parts of the country at the time, especially the South, white farmers in Subordinate Granges could prevent Black farmers from joining the organization.

Reese says the Grange included women within its ranks — as well as in its leadership — from its inception. She says the organization treated women’s issues as farming issues, recognizing that women’s voices would be a useful force behind some of the policy initiatives the Grange prioritized.

“On the one hand, there was sort of an altruistic background to this, where men and women on the farm were seen as sort of in partnership with one another, that both of their work was necessary for the farm to be successful,” Reese said. “At the same time, they understood that they had a large number of folks that couldn't vote, that if they got the right to vote, would vote for things like temperance, things like a progressive income tax.”

Reese says the organization’s focus on women’s issues helped lead to the Michigan State Grange’s early advocacy for women’s right to vote.

“If you have women in these leadership positions, their issues become synonymous with the organization issues, which is why the Michigan State Grange is the first statewide organization in this state to support women's suffrage. And that's even before the Michigan State Federation of Women's Clubs, which is a group that only allows women as members,” she said. “By having this sort of mixing of the genders, there is more of an appreciation for some of the ways that women are discriminated against in the United States.”

For more, listen to the full conversation above.

This post was written by Stateside production assistant Nell Ovitt.

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