by Julia Bouwkamp for The Greater Grand Rapids Women’s History Council
In March of 1918, Cornelia Steketee Hulst was at the center of a wartime controversy. A prominent author and teacher, she had critiqued Britain’s motivations for entering into World War I in a 1916 article entitled, “Our Secret Pact.” For two years, her article went largely unnoticed by the people of Grand Rapids, but by 1918 wartime enthusiasm had taken hold. Her critique of Britain was cited as an attack against America. Branded unpatriotic, the Grand Rapids Board of Education swiftly asked for her resignation.
Why were Hulst’s ideas so out of step from those of her fellow citizens? Her identity as an American of Dutch descent offers one explanation. Dutch-Americans generally harbored considerable ill will against the British after witnessing the events of the Second Boer War in which the British prevailed over the Dutch in a bitter struggle for power and influence in South Africa. This conflict brought about many civilian casualties, and Britain’s use of concentration camps during that period remains controversial today.
Informed by that recent history, Steketee Hulst used her article to outline a pattern of British imperialistic strategy and a possible secret pact between the American government and Britain. In publishing this argument, Hulst did not intend to make an unpatriotic statement. Defending herself in an open letter published by the Grand Rapids Press, she cited her writing in fact as a patriotic duty. She was, she protested, anti-Imperialist not anti-American. Moreover, she was disturbed by the wartime impulse to censor her work. Amid the backlash that prompted her dismissal, secret service agents were assigned to her case and swiftly banned her article in the city.
Her article banned, newly unemployed and under a cloud of suspicion, Hulst found herself in need of a way to demonstrate loyalty to her country. Around one month after her resignation, she registered for volunteer war service with the Woman’s Committee of the Council of National Defense. Founded upon the U.S.’s entry into the war in 1917, the Woman’s Committee organized women’s war work at the national, state and local levels. The Grand Rapids chapter of the Woman’s Committee was particularly active and there were many locations at which Hulst could have registered. But she chose the busiest and most public location — “The Hut” in Campau Square. Previously, in her published letter of defense, Hulst had explained that she was doing little war work because of her poor health. However, just one month later when she registered at “The Hut,” she suggested an opposite situation.
On her registration card, filled out by a trained volunteer registrar in a process reported to take on average thirty minutes, Hulst indicated that she was available for war work at any time, anywhere and for “as much time as possible.” For Hulst, this very public process of registration was likely part of a strategy to rehabilitate her image. And it seems to have worked. About a year after she registered, Cornelia Steketee Hulst was engaged in a well-advertised lecture series on ancient myths. Her ordeal seemingly in the past, she continued writing and sharing her ideas. Her later publications were far less controversial.
WWI Women’s Registration Cards
In late spring 1918, the Grand Rapids chapter of the Woman’s Committee of the Council of National Defense registered nearly 23,000 women. Women from all walks of life — from cigar rollers to Board of Education members — registered with the over 1,000 registrars operating throughout the city. The cards, now digitized and searchable on the Grand Rapids Public Library website, asked for basic information like name, age, address, occupation, marital status, nationality, health and volunteer services offered. But they also went deeper, asking women to identify their talents from the over 100 skills listed on each card. Steketee Hulst, for example, singled out her talents as a writer, author and teacher. Find Cornelia Steketee Hulst’s card in the collection at grpl.org, in Grand Rapids History’s digitized collections, page three.