Caroline Ham

Kalamazoo's First Woman Mayor

First elected to the Kalamazoo City Commission in 1975, Caroline Ham has the distinction of being the city’s first woman Mayor, having beat out several other candidates in 1981 in one of the closest mayoral races in city history. Her win came with a difference of only 49 votes.  After the city’s board of canvassers officially announced Ham the winner over fellow commissioner candidates John Vander Ploeg (second place) and Francis P. Hamilton (third place), Ham celebrated her victory by modestly suggesting that the historical significance shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone. “We’ve had a woman mayor in Portage (Betty Ongley), a woman is chairman of the Kalamazoo County Board (Sandra Noteboom), and we had a woman president of the Kalamazoo school board (JoAnn Milligan)…it’s nothing new.”

Ham grew up in the Kalamazoo area as Caroline Richardson. Her family roots in the Kalamazoo area reach back to the 1830’s. She married Dr. Elton Ham in 1948, a former chair of Kalamazoo College’s Political Science program before he passed away in 1975. A graduate of Kalamazoo College, Ham was the assistant director of the Lee Stryker Management Center at Kalamazoo College at the time of her mayoral victory. She served on several boards and volunteered for local organizations such as Women’s Symphony Association, Junior League and the League of Women Voters. In a Kalamazoo Gazette feature from 2003, she pointed to her interest in local politics as having peaked after the death of her husband. “I did what I did after he died because I’d heard so much about it (Kalamazoo’s political scene)”. Also adding “Between my own involvement in the League of Women’s Voters and Elton being involved in the city and downtown, I was certainly tuned into the city, and I did whatever I could.” In 1981, she helped to establish the Kalamazoo Network, a local group focused on supporting women involved in business and politics.

Article written by Ryan Gage, Kalamazoo Public Library staff, April 2022

Sources
Articles

“Caroline Ham Is First Woman Elected Mayor”

Kalamazoo Gazette, 4 November 1981

“Mayor-Elect Takes Her Win In Stride”

Kalamazoo Gazette, 4 November 1981

“First Woman Mayor Honored”

Kalamazoo Gazette, 9 June 2003


Local History Room Files

Name File: Ham, Caroline Richardson

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