Biographical Database of NAWSA Suffragists, 1890-1920
Biography of Clara Jane Bryant Ford, 1866-1950
By Linda Avery
Clara Bryant Ford was born in Wayne County, Michigan, on April 11, 1866, to Melvin S. Bryant and Martha Bench. In 1888, she married the automotive pioneer, Henry Ford. They had one child, Edsel. Her father was a farmer and also a state senator in the 1870's. She grew up in the Detroit area and attended Greenfield Township District No. 3 School.
She became an avid gardener and horticulturist, serving as the president of the National Farm and Garden Bureau for eight years and was named the first president of the Garden Club of Dearborn, Michigan. From 1924-1932, she was the president of the Women's National Farm and Garden's Association. During this time, she began a "Roadside Market" program enabling women to earn their own income by selling their home grown produce at roadside stands.
Clara was known for avoiding the public spotlight but she did hold power in the Ford company. She was with Henry Ford at the first test of the gasoline engine in 1891 and he is quoted as calling her a "believer" saying that she was the only one who believed in his idea of a motor carriage.
Clara became an outspoken activist for women's suffrage. As a woman who was born into privilege and also married into privilege, she realized that not all women had the same opportunities afforded to her. She believed women needed to have the right to vote in order to gain full participation in society and have a voice about the issues that affected their lives.
In 1918, she was elected Vice-Chair of the Equal Suffrage League of Wayne County. One of the goals of this organization was to secure the right for women to vote in Michigan. Achieving this depended upon persuading men to vote "yes" to amending the state constitution. Clara Ford often held meetings at her Fair Lane estate and, in October of 1918, they held two meetings at the Ford tractor plant in Detroit where they distributed literature, pins, and stickers to the more than 7,000 attendees.
In 1921, she served on the Board of Directors of the Michigan League of Women Voters. She was inducted into the Hall of Fame of the Michigan Women's in 2017.
Clara Ford's doctor was Sarah Gertrude Banks, another suffragist. Ms. Banks was one of the earliest women to graduate from the University of Michigan medical school and went on to become only the second female physician in Detroit.
The spring 2019 issue of the Dearborn Historian wrote that Clara Bryant Ford had made it her life's mission to improve the life and welfare of women and those in poverty-stricken areas across the country. She and her husband established and funded many programs focusing on women's rights, education, healthcare, and environmentalism. These included Vista Maria, originally an orphanage for girls, the School of Nursing and Hygiene at Henry Ford Hospital, and Planned Parenthood from 1945 until her death on September 29, 1950.
Damps, Shirley R., "Celebrating 'Clara' Bryant Ford's Contribution," The Dearborn Historian 56, no. 3 (Spring 2019): 6-8. https://dearbornhistoricalmuseum.files.wordpress.com/2019/11/historian_allpages_nov2019.pdf
Find a Grave, database and images, (accessed 08 February2021), memorial page for Clara Jane Bryant Ford (11 Apr 1866-29 Sep 1950) Find a Grave Memorial no. 8513421, citing Ford Cemetery, Detroit, Wayne County, Michigan, USA; Maintained by Find a Grave. https://findagrave.com/memorial/8513421/clara-jane-ford
Find a Grave, database and images, (accessed 06 February 2021), memorial page for Melvin S. Bryant (1835-1917) Find a Grave Memorial no. 19195707, citing Woodmere Cemetery, Detroit, Wayne County, Michigan, USA; Maintained by Joel Hurley (contributor 46599534). https://findagrave.com/memorial/19195707/melvin-s.-bryant
Lewis, Norma. 2017. Wild Women of Michigan. (Mount Pleasant, South Carolina: Arcadia Publishing). https://books.google.com
Kimes, Beverly Rae. 2015. The Cars That Henry Ford Built. (New Albany, Indiana: Automotive Heritage Publishing and Communications.) 14.
"Michigan Women Forward," Hall of Fame Timeline: Clara Bryant Ford, accessed February 6, 2021, https://miwf.org/timeline/clara-bryant-ford/
"The Henry Ford," Women's Suffrage Meeting, Henry Ford and Son Tractor Plant, Dearborn, Michigan, October 18, 1918, accessed February 6, 2021. https://www.thehenryford.org/collections-and-research/digital-collections/artifact/184998
"Medicine at Michigan," In Her Own Right, accessed February 6, 2021. https://medicineatmichigan.org/history/2019/summer/her-own-right
"Jane Addams: Digital Edition," Ford, Clara Jane Bryant (1866-1950), accessed February 6, 2021. https://digital.janeaddams.ramapo.edu/items/show/8374