This week we thought that we would highlight the Geraldine DeFant papers, a small but fascinating and important collection. Geri DeFant grew up in Chicago, where poor conditions during the Depression caused her to become interested in politics and especially the labor movement. After graduating from high school in 1933, she spent several years volunteering and then working as a union organizer. She came to Marquette County in 1948 to organize the strike at the Gossard factory in Ishpeming. She stayed in Marquette after the strike and married attorney Michael DeFant (who had been the lawyer for the union) in 1950. After Michael DeFant became county probate judge, Geri had to stop working as a labor organizer.
She remained active in politics, however, serving as the Chairwoman of the Democratic Party for the 11th Congressional District and an aide to Senators Philip Hart and Donald Riegle. She also earned a bachelor’s in political science from Northern Michigan University, was a director of the Manpower Training Program in the Upper Peninsula, served as a Marquette County Commissioner from 1982 to 1991, and served on the Marquette Women’s Center Board of Directors, the Michigan Women’s Commission, the Michigan Civil Service Commission, the Friend of the Court and Childcare Taskforces, the Alger/Marquette Community Mental Health Board, and many more organizations and boards. Geri died in 1996 at the age of 79.
Our collection contains an oral history interview (which is online!), documents relating to the 1949 Gossard Strike, a scrapbook, photographs, newspaper articles, and her resume. The oral history interview documents her early life and the 1949 strike in great detail, but does not give much information on her later political activities. At the interview in 1990, contemplating the vast scope of her life’s work, Geri DeFant commented,
…My basic value system has not changed from…when I was 17, 18. It still is pretty much the same. It’s taken different routes. I was a feminist then I believe, and I am certainly feminist now, and have been active. I believed in participatory democracy and I do now, and I have been active in the political arena. I’ve been a county commissioner for ten years and I’ve looked for ways in which I could make a change in terms of benefits and the ease of living and support of those groups in our community that need support. So I feel I’ve been a fairly consistent woman in what I’ve tried to do.
While our materials from Geri DeFant are limited, many other collections at the archives shed light on the 1949 strike and other elements of her life’s work. We have an article on the Gossard strike, photographs from the strike, and a legal file about the strike in the John D. Voelker collection. Newspapers from the time would also provide much information. A copy of Bruce K. Cox’s book Gossard: The Great Bra Factory Strike of 1949 is also available at the archives. Our collection of County Commission minutes include both paper and audio records for the period in which DeFant was a commissioner, and the official minutes can be found online. We also have a collection of oral history interviews from the Marquette Women’s Center which are also available online. Many of the interviewees mention DeFant’s role in the Women’s Center and note that she was a mentor to many of the younger women involved in the Center’s founding.
Other Sources on Geri DeFant:
Tribute to Geraldine DeFant from the Congressional Record
Interested in viewing any of these collections? You can look at them at any time at the archives! Our hours for this semester are Monday/Wednesday/Friday 10 AM-5 PM and Tuesday/Thursday 10 AM-7PM.
Written by Annika Peterson