Winter lectures tout Birmingham’s own Wonder Women

By: Tiffany Esshaki | Birmingham - Bloomfield Eagle | Published January 20, 2020

 This image of Birmingham’s  Ruth Shain was featured in  Afterglow Magazine in 1925.

This image of Birmingham’s Ruth Shain was featured in Afterglow Magazine in 1925.

Photo provided by the Bloomfield Township Public Library

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BIRMINGHAM — Put down the comic books and pick up a history book if you’re looking to find a real Wonder Woman.

In fact, you can learn about a few impressive local women during an upcoming joint lecture series at the Baldwin Public Library, sponsored by the Birmingham Museum.

The two-part event will focus on contributions women made in shaping modern Birmingham.

The first lecture, on Thursday, Jan, 23, presented by museum assistant Kyle Phillips, will feature the life and contributions of an unstoppable force in the village and city whose legacy continues to enrich residents’ everyday lives.

“Wonder Women of Birmingham: Ruth Shain” will discuss Shain’s early life in Michigan’s farm country, her education and her career, and most importantly, her unexpected but impactful civic projects in the 1920s and 1930s.

“Ruth was an intelligent and sensitive girl who strove to become educated at a time when most young women were not able to seek a college degree,” Phillips said in an email. “She received her teaching degree from the University of Michigan in 1907 and traveled all over the U.S. and the world as an educator in her early career.”

When she was 32, Shain — born Leila Ruth Edgar — married local businessman and Birmingham druggist Charles Shain in 1918, and shortly after, her mental health issues became a considerable hurdle to overcome.

“Ruth Shain made astounding contributions to modern Birmingham,” museum Director Leslie Pielack said in a press release. “We know her as the founder of The Community House and also the Birmingham chapter of the American Association of University Women. We know she was active in the League of Women Voters and made numerous other civic contributions, and that she is largely responsible for the existence of Shain Park and the downtown municipal center, enjoyed by thousands of Birmingham’s citizens since 1929. But what we didn’t know is that she launched these projects as an attempt to master significant mental distress.”  

The second installment, to take place on Thursday, Feb. 27, will highlight Birmingham’s Ladies Library Association.

Before the Baldwin Public Library became what it is today, it was a little-known egalitarian women’s organization founded to fight male oppression in education and government.

“We’ll discuss how 11 Birmingham women were re-organized in 1868 by Martha Baldwin, pooling their finances and talents to face down opposition from village leaders and their own husbands to eventually bring their vision of a public library to life,” museum assistant and presenter Caitlin Donnelly said in an email.

The programs are part of the museum’s yearlong exhibit, “Beyond Suffrage: Empowering Birmingham’s Women,” a celebration of the centennial of the passage of the 19th Amendment, which granted women the right to vote.

Due to limited space during library construction, people should register on the library website, baldwinlib.org/calendar.

For more information, call the Birmingham Museum at (248) 530-1928 or visit bhamgov.org/museum. The Baldwin Public Library is located at 300 W. Merrill St. in downtown Birmingham.

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