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Odd Wisconsin Archive

Lives of the Obscure

March is Women's History Month, and this year we're focusing on the lives of women who didn't make headlines — the silent majority of women who worked on farms, in shops, on assembly lines, at telephone switchboards, or at home. Their voices are preserved in candid interviews, dull government hearings, hand-written diaries, minutes of community meetings, yellowed newspaper clippings, and other obscure sources. By following the links below, you can glimpse the lives of the women who didn't found institutions, write books, or reform the world -- people like you and me -- but whose stories deserve to be told.

Working-Class Women

For example, in 1913, the Wisconsin Legislature established a committee to investigate the causes of vice (by which they meant prostitution). To understand what "leads young girls astray," committee members held hearings in Green Bay, La Crosse, Milwaukee, Oshkosh, Sheboygan and Superior at which women answered questions about their lives.

Witnesses included machine operators, store clerks, paper mill workers, laundresses, and employees in other occupations. They told the committee about their wages, their working conditions, how they spent their leisure time, their home lives, and much more.

Anna Sauer, a La Crosse department store clerk, and Dohna Ledman, employed at a laundry in the same city, provided details about their workdays and social lives that aren't easily found anywhere else. Anna Lancaster, the supervisor of 40 "factory girls" working in the Diamond Match Co. in Oshkosh, told investigators about the 10-hour days her staff spent in a plant where safety was always at risk. Jennie Simmons, a machine operator at the Northern Glove Co. in Superior, described the tasks she had to perform in order to earn $3 a week. Together their testimony brings vividly to life the options available to young women who had to support themselves a century ago.

The committee of legislators didn't turn up any surprising information about prostitution in their report. But they preserved the voices of dozens of women whose lives would otherwise be forgotten today.

Learn More

For more information about Wisconsin women, read our short history, view hundreds of pictures, or explore the anthology, Women's Wisconsin: From Native Matriarchies to the New Millennium.

To find more first-person accounts by women in Wisconsin history, simply go to the main page of Turning Points in Wisconsin History and type the word "female" (without the quotes) in its search box. You'll find more than 100 original documents in which Wisconsin women have described their lives over the last two centuries.

:: Posted in on March 7, 2012
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