Trailblazing Women of Dearborn

Detroit Free Press special feature on Lila Neuenfelt

Ratified on August 18, 1920, the 19th amendment gave women the right to vote; and during that decade, several local women rose to positions of political prominence. One such trailblazer was Lila Neuenfelt. A native of Lewiston Michigan, Neuenfelt graduated from the University of Detroit Law School at age 20 and reportedly became the youngest lawyer in the United States. At age 25, Lila Neuenfelt was elected associate judge of Fordson and became the first ever local female judge. To win the election she visited homes all across the city and had the help of Judge Leo Schaefer. Once elected, relations with Schaefer fell apart and she ended up in some major political battles with him and other parties. In 1929, Schaefer had illegal alcohol planted in her car while Neuenfelt likely helped organize a recall campaign against him. Both Neuenfelt and Schaefer both unsuccessfully ran for congress against each other in 1932. In 1935, Neuenfelt faced another battle when Dearborn’s corporate counsel ruled she had to use her married name for reelection. After several appeals she was able to keep using the Neuenfelt name. In 1940, one of Lila’s most notable rulings as local judge involved her declaring Dearborn’s anti-union ordinance prohibiting the distribution of handbills unconstitutional. This made it much easier for the UAW to organize at the Ford Rouge Plant. Lila served as a municipal judge until 1941 when she was elected as Michigan’s first female circuit court judge. She served on the circuit court until retiring in 1968.

Video of Lila Neuenfelt’s initial swearing in taken by the Detroit News can be seen on the Wayne State Libraries digital collections here:

April 2017 photo from the Third Circuit Court Facebook page showing a portrait of Lila Neuenfelt and the 28 female judges on the court at the time

The 1920s also saw the first woman in Michigan to receive a pilot’s license – Evangeline Cote Dahlinger. She received her pilot’s license in 1927, and was long associated with Henry Ford, ever since she began working at the company in 1909.

Dahlinger was known for her fashion sense – her hat and a pair of her shoes are featured below.

Other 20th century trailblazers include Dearborn school teachers, who have shaped the minds of the next generation of children for decades. One of Dearborn’s most famous teachers and community activists was Iris Becker. Born in 1912, Iris Becker served as a Dearborn teacher for 43 years primarily at Salina School. She served as an activist for numerous local causes ranging from helping save Southeast Dearborn from demolition, to serving as March of Dimes Chairman, and helping start the Dearborn Community Arts Council. A 1983 oral history of Iris Becker can be read on the museum’s Dearborn History Resources page.

Iris Becker had a school named after her, and received numerous awards during her lifetime, two of which are pictured below.
Iris Becker looking over books at the Haigh Mansion for the Dearborn Historical Museum before it was demolished in the 1950s

Iris Becker with Dearborn Historical Museum curator Jim Barbee in 1956

Businesswomen have often been trailblazers in the Dearborn community. In 1947 Alberta Muirhead, alongside her husband John, opened Muirhead’s, a toy store that would later expand into a department store. Both co-managed the store until John passed away in 1983 and Alberta fully took it over. A noted philanthropist, Alberta championed numerous local organizations, from the Dearborn Animal Shelter to the Dearborn Area Chamber of Commerce.

Alberta Muirhead showing off the planned parking entrance to her store around 1984

As the 20th century progressed, so too did women’s participation in local politics. Dearborn’s first female City councilwoman, Marguerite Johnson, was elected in 1947. Johnson served in numerous non-profit organizations before being elected to the City Council. In 1951, she was appointed Director of Public Safety and was in charge of both Dearborn Police and Fire Departments. At the time, she was the only woman to hold such an office in the United States.

Marguerite Johnson at a fashion show, Oct. 4, 1956

Another prominent member of the City Council was Lucille McCollough, who moved to what is now East Dearborn in 1925 and became involved in numerous local causes from school construction to neighborhood groups. She served on the Dearborn City Council from 1950-54 and was elected to the Michigan House of Representatives in 1954. McCollough served in the House until 1982 and became the first woman to chair its Education Committee. Her son Patrick joined her in the legislature after being elected to the Michigan Senate in 1970.

Lucille McCollough

Another major presence on the City Council, Marge Powell served as president of the Dearborn Parent Teacher Association Council for over two years before being elected City Council President in 1977. Strong support from Parent Teacher Association members and women in general helped elect Powell and reelect her in 1981. In 1985, Marge Powell became the first major female candidate for Dearborn mayor. She ended up losing to Michael Guido in one of the most contentious elections in local history.

Marge Powell, c. 1985

As the 1980s drew to a close, Suzanne Sareini was elected as Dearborn’s first Arab American City Council person in 1989. At the time, she was managing the popular Uncle Sam’s Village Café, which was one of the area’s first Arab American restaurants. Sareini served on the council six terms until 2013.

Suzanne Sareini
One of Suzanne Sareini’s recipes, posted in the Detroit Free Press May 23rd, 1984

An experienced attorney and community activist, Susan Dabaja was elected as Dearborn’s first Arab American City Council President in 2013. She also has experience serving as co-chair of the Dearborn Education Foundation, Dearborn Rotarian, and as a volunteer for Dearborn Goodfellows and neighborhood clean-ups.

Susan Dabaja at the South End Community Clean-Up Day, May 2014
Susan Dabaja with Nancy Hubbard, who served on the Dearborn City Council for 24 years.

Nancy Hubbard had worked as a secretary for Ford Motor Co., the Department of Public Works, and the Department of Building and Safety before becoming a council member in 1990 and eventually retiring in 2013.

Thanks to passionate involvement in community organizations, Leslie Herrick and Erin Byrnes were both elected to the Dearborn City Council in November 2017 and continue to serve today.