Six Women Who Shaped Detroit

Modified: March 06, 2023 | Story by Leslie Cieplechowicz

Everyone is familiar with Antoine Laumet de La Mothe Cadillac, who founded Detroit in 1701, but his wife Marie was Fort Pontchartrain’s doctor who took on many administrative duties, such as hiring voyagers. This month is Women’s History Month and there are so many great women of Detroit who helped to shape the Motor City. Let’s meet six of them from throughout history.

Fannie Peck, courtesy of Detroit Public Library

Fannie Peck was the wife of Rev. William Peck, a respected civil and religious leader in Detroit and pastor of Bethel A.M.E. Church. Fannie championed female domestic workers and founded the National Housewives League, headquartered in Detroit, to empower these women. The League fought the meat packing industry due to its high prices and with the help of Chicago housewives, participated in a march that crippled the industry. Peck was a woman of deep faith and in 1936 created the Fannie B. Peck Bethel AME Church Credit Union, which was a stable financial institution for decades.

Ruth Ellis was an African American entrepreneur and an open lesbian during the 1930s, a time when discussing sexual orientation was taboo. In 1938, she moved to Detroit and opened up a print shop which was quite a feat as less than 1% of business owners were African American women. Ellis’s home became a haven for African American gays and lesbians; throughout her life, she advocated for their cause. The Ruth Ellis Center in Detroit continues her work and aids homeless and at-risk LGBT youth.

Ruth Ellis, still from the documentary, “Living with Pride: Ruth C. Ellis at 100

Jeanne Findlater, courtesy of Detroit Free Press

Jeanne Findlater was the first woman in the country to lead a major market station. In 1979, Jeanne became vice president of the ABC-owned television stations and a general manager of WXYZ-TV in Detroit. Findlater, while general manager, focused on locally produced programs, one of which she wrote, “Learn to Read.” The adult literary series, which focused on workers’ inability to read, won national sponsors and the Charles W. Scripps Literary Award. Findlater also won notoriety for running the first condom ad on broadcast TV which caused talk radio to explode with chatter.

Ruth Carlton, a Detroit News columnist, revolutionized adoption by featuring over 718 hard-to-adopt children in her column, something mass media had never done. Her activism lead to a number of reforms in the state adoption process and adoption subsidies that allowed parents with lower incomes to adopt. Carlton became a national field consultant for the North American Center on Adoption and worked to create agencies for hard-to-adopt

Ruth Carlton, courtesy of Michigan Women Forward

children across the United States.

Maryann Mahaffey served on the Detroit City Council from 1973 until 2005, and served as council president from 1990 until 1998 and 2001 to 2005. She was a champion for women’s rights and was shaped by her employment at the Poston Internment Camp, a Japanese prison camp operated during World War II, where she found American citizens being held against their will because of their ethnicity. During her stint on council, Mahaffey fought to open the Detroit Athletic Club to women, created the first rape crisis center for the Detroit Police Department, and helped pass an ordinance prohibiting sexual harassment against city workers.

Maryann Mahaffey, courtesy of Detroit Free Press

Najah Bazzy, courtesy of

Najah Bazzy is a lifelong nurse and humanitarian who has practiced at many of the major hospitals in Detroit, including Sinai Grace and Harper-Hutzel. After witnessing hardship and brutal poverty in her patients, she created Zaman International, a non-profit dedicated to providing assistance, such as food, utility assistance, and infant burial to marginalized women and their children throughout the metro Detroit area. Bazzy also co-founded the Muslim Youth Connection, an organization that fosters service towards others and leadership skills in young adults.

These six women of Detroit worked tirelessly to improve the lives of residents of the metro Detroit area and lives from across the country. They are just a few women whose accomplishments sometimes got overlooked due to their gender. All deserve recognition for their wonderful achievements during this Women’s History Month.

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