Anna Elenbaas Ketting
By Taylor Rebhan
Anna Martha Elenbaas was born at the turn of the twentieth century in a small immigrant town in West Michigan. She attended the local high school and college, worked as a teacher in Nebraska, and married a pastor from New Jersey late in her life. On the surface level, she lived an ordinary life. But Elenbaas was an extraordinary woman, born into a tumultuous world that was straining with both growing pains and the aches of old age. She separated herself from the mundane by rejecting cultural and societal expectations, elevating herself from a life of convention. Most remarkably, Elenbaas blazed a trail that was both of her time and removed from it. She attained an advanced education and subsequently threw herself into the rural American West, bringing her faith and knowledge with her. During an age when the pressure to marry was blisteringly fierce, Elenbaas lived nearly half of her life as a single working woman. Through all of this, Elenbaas remained deeply tied to her hometown community.
Anna Martha Elenbaas was born on November 22, 1900 in the small Dutch immigrant town of Zeeland, Michigan. She was the last of seven children born to Pieter A. Elenbaas and Hendrika Schipper. Elenbaas’ grandfather was one of two Elenbaas brothers who moved from Baarland, Netherlands, to settle in Zeeland in the mid-nineteenth century. Throughout her childhood, Victorian-era standards and expectations for women were challenged and upended. The battle for women’s suffrage was raging, and opportunities for women were slowly but surely inching forward in education. The tide of the New Woman movement was throwing open many doors as she moved from childhood to adolescence.
World War I proved to be a tumultuous time for the Elenbaas family, particularly Anna Elenbaas, who was attending Zeeland High School for the duration of the war. In winter 1916, her mother, Hendrika Elenbaas, passed away just two months after Anna Elenbaas’ fifteenth birthday. Her older siblings Anthony, Arthur, Mae, and Peter Elenbaas were already married and out of the house. Many of them had young children. Anna Elenbaas’ older sisters Gertie and Nellie Elenbaas were on the verge of independence; Gertie Elenbaas was married in Chicago that summer, and Nellie Elenbaas soon after. In many ways, Anna was the only Elenbaas young enough to still be considered a child.
Elenbaas graduated from Zeeland High in 1919, the summer after the war ended. The atmosphere following World War I was optimistic and full of hope. It was a time of growth, both for the nation and for Elenbaas. Women’s rights took a long-awaited stride forward with the passing of women’s suffrage in the summer of 1920, a few months before Elenbaas’ twentieth birthday. Just as she was entering her own womanhood, the work and dedication of many women before her gave her a voice.
Education at Hope College
Perhaps to support of her widowed father, Elenbaas remained at home for two years until she enrolled at Hope College in the fall of 1921. Located in nearby Holland, Michigan, Hope College was quite progressive for its time and place. Before the turn of the century, and even during the years of Elenbaas’ childhood, many still held to the opinion that intellectualism damaged women’s abilities to reproduce – and that it should therefore be discouraged. Hope College took a progressive stance against this opinion. Founded in 1866 with the support of the Reformed Church of America, Hope College allowed co-education in 1878 and graduated its first class of women in 1882. Hope College was dedicated to educating and training women to bring the gospel to the world – an attitude that Elenbaas deeply embraced. By the time she enrolled as a freshman, hundreds of women had attained degrees from Hope. Some went on to become global missionaries, no doubt inspiring Elenbaas in her own call to the mission field.
Elenbaas was an English major and took on many roles during her college years: photographer, literature lover, student government leader, and member of the Dorian Society. Established during her freshman year in 1921, the Dorians became an official sorority twenty years later, adopting the Greek letters Kappa Beta Phi. The Dorian motto is “simplicity of manner, strength of purpose, and beauty of character.” After rushing Sigma Sigma and Delta Phi – two other prominent societies for women at Hope – it was these qualities attracted Elenbaas to pledge Dorian. Her Dorian sisters – as well as her other friends and peers at Hope College – overwhelmingly supported her desire to go into the mission field.
Career in the West
After graduating from Hope College, Elenbaas stayed away from opportunities that arose for women in clerical work and telephone operation in the 1920s and 1930s. During a time of suburban expansion and thriving city life, Elenbaas moved against the grain. She packed her bags and her English degree, traveling over six hundred miles to a new life in northeastern Nebraska. Tucked into the far corner of the state was the home of the Winnebago Tribe of Native North Americans. There she spent the next fifteen years of her life assisting in missionary work to the Native population, teaching English at the Winnebago Mission School and organizing community activities. Elenbaas followed in the footsteps of westbound women before her, shedding a life of comfortable domesticity for the demanding routine of a single working woman. While most women’s reform was focused on urban America, Elenbaas turned her gaze toward bringing education to rural America.
Despite the progress made by women, there were many social expectations Elenbaas had to consider when she made the crucial decision to move to Nebraska. Elenbaas lived in an age where marriage was an expectation, not an option. For a girl from a small, highly religious hometown, the pressures were only intensified. For a single working woman, the tension between career and marriage was even higher. To complicate the issue, increasingly sexualized messages were sent out to women in the 1920s and 1930s. Rather than being encouraged to remain chaste and pure, they were bombarded by advertisements suggesting that their marriageability and worth were determined by their ability to attract a man.
The Winnebago Mission
Long before Anna welcomed her first students into the classroom, the United States government and Native American tribes established a tumultuous relationship. The legislation and events that made it possible for her to teach in Winnebago, Nebraska were put into motion at the time her grandfather was making a life for himself in Zeeland. Policy changes in 1871 refocused the efforts of the government “from relocating Native Americans to the previously unsettled West to segregating them on reservations and treating them as government wards.” Shortly thereafter, massive government funding was poured into education for Native children on reservations. Reports from the field insisted that Native American assimilation was best achieved through the education of younger generations. Encouraged by the purported success of institutions such as the Carlisle School in Pennsylvania, more and more schools adopted a rigid, English-only teaching style. These changes had far-reaching consequences. On the one hand, it opened up many opportunities for women like Elenbaas to teach on reservations, on the other hand the effects of allotment and assimilation into white culture for the Native American tribes were only mildly successful at best and deeply ethnocentric at worst. The ultimate purpose of the education was to stamp out the Native language and religion.
Missionary schools, however, tended to counter the approach of English-only education. Between 1837 and 1893, the Presbyterian Church’s Board of Foreign Missions sent over four hundred and fifty missionaries to nineteen Native American tribes across the nation. Having had years of experience teaching English in foreign missions, most missionaries believed it was hopeless to attempt to educate Native children without at least some integration of their vernacular.
The Reformed Church of America had several branches of Native North American missionary outreach. Elenbaas taught English at the Winnebago Mission, which was established in 1911. For several years, the Mission operated its own schools but in 1930 it transitioned to sending the children to the non-segregated public school. Elenbaas noted a distinct difference in the confidence and ability of Native children, saying, “They are rapidly discovering that they need not stand back for any white child.”
In March of 1930, Elenbaas wrote about her work for Winnebago Mission in a news bulletin produced by the Women’s Board of Domestic Missions. Entitled “Transplanting,” it is an informative piece reflecting compassion and pride for her students. In the bulletin, she likens the work in Winnebago to transplanting a tree: “As the new life of the tree is within its rootlets, so the new life of the Indian people is within its children, and they are absorbing the modern, progressive methods of living and ideals of democracy through the American public schools.” Elenbaas was a product of her time, privilege, and upbringing. She believed strongly that a missions-based education was the most effective way to give the children of the reservation what she called “a better chance.” Elenbaas spent fifteen years at the Mission at a time when most schools were shutting down and an economic crisis was shaking the country to its core. She was proud of her work, particularly of the progress she saw in her students. “In fact,” she writes in the Mission report, “in several instances our Indian children lead their classes and do very commendable school work.”
Elenbaas attended a missionary festival at the Fifth Reformed Church in Holland in the summer of 1933, likely while she was on summer vacation from teaching in Winnebago. Elenbaas was an honored guest and appeared in a pageant curiously entitled, “The Other Mary.” Elenbaas strove to stay connected to her roots in West Michigan, and the community was highly supportive of her throughout her time in Nebraska.
The Great Depression struck the United States in 1929 with a ferocity that lasted for a decade. Native children enrolled in public schools were particularly at risk, with major budget cuts eliminating programs that benefited them specifically. The Winnebago Mission had to be flexible according to the desperation of the financial crisis and so did Elenbaas. However, like other Native educators of her kind, Elenbaas may have found comfort in the community-based culture of the Native Americans. It provided a stark contrast to the moral and financial turmoil occurring across the United States. Though the reservation was no oasis, Elenbaas came from a similarly tight-knit religious community in Zeeland, and she likely took comfort in the parallels of home.
After a total of fifteen years of teaching at the Winnebago Mission, Elenbaas returned to West Michigan in 1940. Her father Pieter Elenbaas lived long enough to see her marry the Reverend Arend Ketting in March of 1943. Her father died shortly afterward in October. With both parents now deceased, Elenbaas dedicated her life to teaching in Jonesville, Michigan and supporting her husband in his ministry. Originally from New Jersey, Ketting pastored a church community in Michigan for over thirty years. Elenbaas taught in Jonesville for nearly a decade – remarkable, considering that in the 1940’s only thirteen percent of communities would hire married women as teachers. She and Ketting had no children, but many nieces and nephews.
Always deeply connected to her roots, Elenbaas attended the sixtieth reunion of the Hope College class of 1925, when she was eighty-five years old. She made sure to save the program materials – the last of her treasures. Elenbaas outlived her siblings and husband, passing away in November of 1992 at the age of ninety-one. She is buried in Zeeland City Cemetery, close to many other members of the Elenbaas family.