Biographical Sketch of Sabina M. West

Biographical Database of NAWSA Suffragists, 1890-1920

Biography of Sabina M. West, 1867-1954

By Ciera Casteel and Liette Gidlow, Wayne State University, Detroit, MI

Educator, Fraternal Society Founder, Suffrage Activist

The eldest of five children, Sabina West, most often referred to as Bina, was born in 1867 in Columbus Township, Michigan. West inherited from her family a variety of skills and attitudes that would serve her later in life. Her mother, Elizabeth, was a descendant of the first governor of Massachusetts, Roger Conant, and encouraged in Bina a sense of independence and care for others. Her father inspired resilience and boldness. Injured while fighting in the Civil War, Albert West returned to his parents' home where he met his neighbor and soon-to-be wife, Elizabeth Conant. After their marriage, Albert made a name for himself as a lumberman. Meanwhile, Elizabeth raised their family.

West attended high school in Capac, Michigan, and was later educated at the St. Clair County Normal School. By the age of eighteen, she was already teaching in a classroom and soon became the assistant principal of a high school in her home town. At twenty, she made history as one of the first women to hold elected office in the State of Michigan on the Board of County School Examiners.

In June 1891, West and her Aunt Nellie attended a picnic held by the Knights of the Maccabees (KOTM), a fraternal association that offered life insurance to its all-male membership. West believed that families needed the protection of life insurance for women and immediately began work to establish a ladies' auxiliary branch of the KOTM. As a teacher, she had witnessed how two student's lives changed after the death of their mother. The children's father was unable to support his children alone and both children left school and were placed in a home for impoverished children. Distraught by this premature end to the education of two of her students, West worked to create an organization to provide funds to keep families together after tragedy struck. The Ladies of the Maccabees (LOTM) was founded by West in 1892. Ten years later, the organization boasted 100,000 members, making it, in the words of researcher Keith Yates in An Enduring Legacy, "the largest Order in the world composed wholly of women and under the management of women." By 1948, the LOTM had opened branches in 55 states and provinces in the United States and Canada.

West's work was not limited solely to involvement with the LOTM. In 1900, along with two other LOTM officers, West attended the annual convention of National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA), pledging her organization to the cause of woman suffrage. Between 1901 and 1911, she served as the chairman of the Committee of Ethics for the National Fraternal Press Association. Tireless in her work for women, in 1908 West was chosen to represent the National Council of United States Women in Geneva, Switzerland, at the International Council of Women (ICW).

Back at LOTM headquarters, in 1911, after the resignation of Lillian M. Hollister due to illness, West was unanimously elected as Supreme Commander. At the outbreak of World War I in 1914, West and the staff of The Ladies Review (the LOTM publication) printed President Woodrow Wilson's message of peace. The Order organized Red Cross and sewing groups along with agriculture and thrift clubs to support the war effort. Through the war, the LOTM continued to change. In 1915, those in attendance at the Supreme Hive Review meeting changed their name to the Woman's Benefit Association (WBA) to demonstrate their work to better the lives of all women. By 1921, the association had built its landmark home office in Port Huron that offered hospital services, a Girls' Club, and its own print shop.

In a celebratory text written by one of her contemporaries, A Golden Anniversary Tribute to Bina West Miller, Founder and Supreme President Woman's Benefit Association, West said, "Too many people fail because they are afraid of other people's opinions. Especially is this true of women. The only thing to do is to go ahead." Her work as an organizer made her a trailblazer forging a path for the women around her. The Port Huron publication The Keel remembered West as "an outspoken advocate for women's suffrage." Throughout her career, West traveled the world speaking out about a woman's right to vote. After the Nineteenth Amendment was ratified, West and the members of the WBA posted a celebratory message in the September-October Review issue in 1920 and reminded women that they could also vote absentee if they could not make it to the polls on election day. Furthermore, the WBA assisted many other women's groups in promoting the Get-Out-the-Vote campaigns of the 1920s.

In appreciation for her lifetime of work, West obtained a variety of accolades. On June 16, 1924, the University of Michigan awarded West an honorary master of arts degree. The following year she was elected the first woman president of the National Fraternal Congress. In her fifties she was appointed by President Herbert Hoover to the Planning Committee for Child Health and Protection. Gaining recognition by the public, in 1928, a poll conducted by the Detroit Free Press named West "Michigan's top businesswoman." That same year, the Associated Press called her "one of the five greatest women in America."

Despite these successes, Sabina West was also struck by hardship. In 1927, her mother passed away. West had long considered her mother her most significant relationship. Decades later Bina offered this remembrance of her mother in A Golden Anniversary: "My companion was Mother-always Mother." Perhaps the loss of her mother opened a place in her heart for a new companion. On March 28, 1929, West married Chicago attorney, George W. Miller. However, her marriage was short-lived; Miller died less than three years after he and West exchanged vows. Despite the loss of her husband, she continued to work for the organization that had consumed her life. In 1948, after almost sixty years with the organization, West retired from the WBA. After retirement, she enjoyed golfing, gardening, and leisurely walks outdoors. These activities, along with care for her aptly named home, "Westhaven," filled her life until her death in 1954. West remains an activist of note for her relentless work for women and their families. Her legacy lived on in the WBA, now named the Woman's Life Insurance Society.

 

 

Caption: Bina West Miller.

 

Source: "Michigan Women's Hall of Fame: Bina West Miller," Michigan Women's Historical Center and Hall of Fame, Aug. 29, 2017, http://www.michiganwomenshalloffame.org/Images/Miller,%20Bina%20West.pdf.

For additional photographs, see Mary MacEarchern Baird, A Golden Anniversary Tribute to Bina West Miller, Founder and Supreme President Woman's Benefit Association (Port Huron, MI: W.B.A. Print Shop, 1942), https://hdl.handle.net/2027/mdp.39015071152634.

SOURCES:

Baird, Mary MacEarchern. A Golden Anniversary Tribute to Bina West Miller, Founder and Supreme President Woman's Benefit Association. Port Huron, MI: W.B.A. Print Shop, 1942. https://hdl.handle.net/2027/mdp.39015071152634.

Beer, Jeremy. "Infinitely More than Almsgiving: American Charity from the Civil War to the Great Depression Book." In The Philanthropic Revolution: An Alternative History of American Charity. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015, pp.59-84.

Beito, David T. "To Advance the ‘Practice of Thrift and Economy': Fraternal Societies and Social Capital, 1890–1920." Journal of Interdisciplinary History 29, no.4 (Apr. 1999), pp.585-612.

Blundell, John. "Bina West Miller Worked to Make Women's Lives Better." Midland Daily News. Mar. 23, 2014.

"Celebrating 125 Years – A Rich Heritage of Caring." Woman's Life Insurance Society. Accessed Oct. 23, 2017. https://www.womanslife.org/about-us/history/.

Gidlow, Liette. The Big Vote: Gender, Consumer Culture, and the Politics of Exclusion, 1890s-1920s. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004, p. 46-49.

Goch, Lynna. "Focused on Women." Best's Review. 99, no. 10 (Feb. 1999), p. 42.

Harper, Ida Husted, ed. "Michigan." Chapter XXI in History of Woman Suffrage, vol. 6: 1900-1920. New York, NY: National American Woman Suffrage Association, 1922, pp. 303-16. [LINK]

McElroy, Wendy. "Bina M. West: Pioneer." The Foundation for Economic Education. Aug. 29, 2012.

"Michigan Women's Hall of Fame: Bina West Miller." Michigan Women's Historical Center and Hall of Fame. Aug. 29, 2017. http://www.michiganwomenshalloffame.org/Images/Miller,%20Bina%20West.pdf.

Rochon, Angela. "Former Women's Suffrage Leader Inspires Community 125 Years Later." The Keel. Aug. 25, 2016. http://www.secondwavemedia.com/the-keel/features/womans-life-port-huron.aspx.

U.S. Census Bureau. Thirteenth Census of the United States, 1910-Population. Ancestry.com website.

"West, Bina M." in Woman's Who's Who of America: A Biographical Dictionary of Contemporary Women of the United States and Canada, 1914-1915, Edited by John William Leonard. New York: American Commonwealth Company, 1914.

Yates, Keith L. An Enduring Heritage: The First One Hundred Years of North American Benefit Association (Formerly Woman's Benefit Association). Port Huron, MI: North American Benefit Association, 1992.

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