The Michigan American Council on Education, or MI-ACE, Women’s Network has selected MaryLee Davis, a longtime Michigan State University administrator and community leader, as one of its two 2020 Public Policy Pioneer honorees.
MI-ACE’s nonpartisan Public Policy Pioneer award began in 2013 to champion Michigan women who have impacted public policy or taken precedent-breaking action on behalf of women and higher education. The award also recognizes honorees’ work to support access, collaborative leadership and the equitable treatment of women.
Previous year’s honorees have included Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow, First Lady Helen Milliken and State Sen. Alma Wheeler Smith. For more information about this year’s honorees and a list of all previous winners, visit the MI-ACE Women's Network website.
Davis has often been credited with “breaking the glass ceiling” throughout Michigan. At Michigan State University, she became the first woman administrator in the state and in the Big Ten to work as a governmental affairs officer and was the first woman to serve in the position of the corporate secretary of the MSU Board of Trustees. She also served as the first woman board chair for Sparrow Health System. Additionally, she was appointed by three governors to four Treasury Department positions that had statewide impact, including serving as a Michigan Finance Authority Board member.
She has also held positions at the national level with the American Hospital Association and on the national board for Girl Scouts of the USA. She is an inductee to the Michigan Women’s Hall of Fame. Today, she is the president of the Leadership Solutions Group in Kingsport, Tenn.
Among her numerous awards, Davis was the first person to receive the now International ATHENA Leadership Award. In 2008, she was recognized for and received the Michigan State University Lifetime Achievement Award for Excellence in Diversity.
“I am grateful and humbled to be recognized as a public policy pioneer in Michigan,” Davis said. “As a child, my mother liked to ask me, ‘MaryLee, what did you do today to help make the world a better place?’ Every day, I aim to have an answer to that question, and it has guided me through a wonderful career. Therefore, I actively strive to pass that ethos on to the next generation of women leaders in Michigan.”
Davis is a worthy award recipient not only because of her résumé but because of her dedication to mentoring others, MI-ACE Women’s Network State Chair Kimberly Hurns said.
"MaryLee has spent her life and career as an educator and leader, trailblazing pathways for women’s advancement and equitable treatment and advocating for higher education, health and medical care,” Hurns said. “She has had a major impact on public policy and is a role model in public service. She serves as a mentor to many and continues to provide a focus on strengthening collaborative leadership at local, state and national levels."
Eva McCall Hamilton
2020’s second honoree is Eva McCall Hamilton, the first woman elected to the Michigan Legislature. The Grand Rapids native was elected to the Michigan Senate by a 2-to-1 margin in 1920, the first election in which women were allowed to vote.
Prior to her election, Hamilton was a teacher and active in public issues. In the 1910 Grand Rapids homecoming parade, Hamilton led the horse-drawn “Lilly Float for Suffragists” entry by the Grand Rapids Equal Franchise Club, followed by 75 local suffragists in decorated cars. In 1912, she worked with two other women to mail out six tons of “Votes for Women” literature, buttons, stickers and other items. That same year, she worked on a major state referendum on women’s suffrage. In 1919, Hamilton was involved in establishing the Michigan League of Women Voters in Grand Rapids, later becoming the League of Women Voters of Michigan.
As a senator, Hamilton’s legislative focus was on advocating on behalf of women and children. One of her successful bills raised the mill tax in certain cities to fund teacher pay raises. Another of her greatest accomplishments was working on legislation to reform the Michigan Mothers’ Pension Act, providing public funds for keeping underprivileged children in their homes rather than institutions.
After being defeated in the 1922 three-way Republican primary, Hamilton left the Michigan Senate and remained socially active. When Hamilton died in 1948, she was still the first and only woman to have served in the Michigan Senate. No woman was elected to Hamilton’s Grand Rapids Senate seat until state Rep. Winnie Brinks (D) won in 2018.
Hamilton’s selection is especially apt as the nation celebrates the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage, Hurns said.
“Eva McCall Hamilton was a tireless advocate for women’s right to vote, and when that battle was won, she immediately rallied those rights to serve as a voice in the state Legislature for women and children,” Hurns said. “She accomplished many vital reforms in her two years in office, but the fact that no other woman held Hamilton’s seat for nearly 100 years shows me this nation still has a long way to go until we reach true equality of representation. We hope women will be inspired by Eva’s example to become public servants, advocates and policymakers.”
About the Michigan American Council on Education Women's Network
The Michigan American Council on Education Women’s Network is the professional network for Michigan women in higher education. We work in concert with the ACE Office of Inclusive Excellence Group nationally to identify, develop, encourage, advance, link and support women in higher education. The MI-ACE was formed in 1978, one year after the national program was inaugurated.