Her Story: Meet four leading ladies who changed history

BY Taylor Rebhan

Detroit’s narrative has long been defined by the mavericks who have forged a unique path with unwavering grit and spirit. This Women’s History Month, we’re honored to shine a light on the fearless female leaders from Detroit’s past. These four women have helped shape the city’s history. 

Lady of the Law – Cora Mae Brown


Image Courtesy of Michigan Women’s Historical Center and Hall of Fame

A graduate of Detroit’s Cass Tech, Cora Mae Brown moved to Nashville, Tennessee, to study sociology at Fisk University, where she got her first taste as an advocate when she demonstrated against the 1933 lynching of an African-American man who had been falsely accused of rape. Upon receiving her bachelor’s degree in 1935, Brown returned to her hometown of Detroit to accept a job as a social worker at the Detroit Police Department’s Women’s Division, where she’d later serve as a police officer.

After completing her law degree from Wayne State University, Brown entered private practice and contemplated running for public office. She made history in 1952, becoming the first African-American woman to win a seat in any State Senate, and the following year, Brown continued to break the glass ceiling as the first African-American woman elected president of the Michigan State Senate. A champion for civil rights, Brown served two terms as a senator, and as a federal attorney for the remainder of her career.

Socialite Meets Social Activist – Patricia Hill Burnett


Image Courtesy of Michigan Women’s Historical Center and Hall of Fame

Patricia Hill Burnett lived a dynamic life. Crowned Miss Michigan in 1942, the former debutante voiced characters for The Lone Ranger and The Green Hornet, which both premiered on WXYZ radio. Known for her talents as a portrait artist, she was commissioned to paint a variety of luminaries (Betty Ford, Margaret Thatcher, Indira Gandhi, Rosa Parks, Betty Friedan, Joyce Carol Oates, and Barbara Walters to name a few). Hill was among the first women to be offered membership to Detroit’s Scarab Club, where she kept a studio for 25 years.

It was also at Midtown’s Scarab Club where Hill — a passionate feminist — established the Michigan chapter of the National Organization for Women (NOW), inviting 40 prominent female lawyers, doctors, and business leaders to join the cause. She served as president of Michigan’s NOW chapter from 1969 to 1971, which led to leadership roles with the Michigan Women’s Commission, national and international chapters of NOW, and the National Association of Commissions for Women.

Power House – Ruth Ellis


Photo Courtesy of the Ruth Ellis Center

It was while at Springfield High School in Illinois that Ellis came out as a lesbian — an identity she never hid. During a time when it was rare for African-American students to graduate from secondary school, Ellis earned her high school diploma, later moving to Detroit with her partner, Ceciline “Babe” Franklin. African-American women owned less than one percent of Detroit’s businesses when the couple moved to the city in 1938 — but that didn’t faze Ellis, who launched a print shop. What’s more, she and Franklin opened their home as a haven to the African-American LGBT community from the 1940s through the 1960s.

Known as the oldest surviving open lesbian and LGBT activist until her death at age 101, Ellis was a proud resident of Detroit, and her legacy continues at Highland Park’s Ruth Ellis Center, a youth social service agency providing refuge for the LGBT community.

Justice for All – Dorothy Comstock Riley


Photo courtesy of the Michigan Supreme Court Historical Society

Dorothy Comstock Riley attended Detroit Public Schools before matriculating at Wayne State University, where she earned her bachelor’s degree in 1946 (the same year she was crowned homecoming queen). Later, as one of three female law students, she’d earn her Bachelor of Laws degree from Wayne State before entering private practice. 

But Riley found her calling as a public servant after being appointed Assistant Wayne County Friend of the Court. She went on to become a Wayne County Circuit Court justice, and in 1976, the first female justice to serve on the Michigan Court of Appeals. She was appointed to the Michigan Supreme Court in 1982 during a partisan dispute that saw her removal in 1983, but was voted back to the bench in 1985, blazing the trail as the first Hispanic woman to be elected to a state Supreme Court. She served as Chief Justice of the Michigan Supreme Court from 1987 to 1991 and retired from the Court in 1997.

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