Q & A with Dr. Genevieve G. McBride
Wisconsin Historical Society Press: Why do we need "Women's Wisconsin"?
Genevieve G. McBride: History doesn't just happen; people make it happen. And women have been more than half of the people who made history happen here, even if they are only here and there in some histories.
Fortunately for Wisconsinites, fine historians here wrote wonderful state histories with many women in them — but none with so many women's stories in a single source, as in this anthology. Those state histories provided the resources for my contextual commentary in this anthology for readers to understand the rest of our story — the stories by and about women who have been the majority of Wisconsinites for most of its history.
Their stories build a different story of the state, seen from the perspective of women who built not with bricks and mortar but with social institutions. For our students — girls and boys, women and men — who will make history here in future, "Women's Wisconsin" teaches that women always have made history, so that they can do so again. And we all need women as well as men to do so again, because our once-progressive state has fallen behind in the educational and economic status of that majority of Wisconsinites.
WHS Press: Who do you hope reads "Women's Wisconsin"? Why?
GM: If I could give a copy of this anthology to every girl growing up in Wisconsin, that would be a start for a better future for us all. If I could give a copy to every boy, that might further our progress to a far better future. I write — or edit, in this case — what I want to read, what I want to know about and wish I had read about when growing up here. History is defined as "making sense of the past" — and that so much was accomplished here with so few mentions of the majority of Wisconsinites throughout our history simply didn't make sense to me, based on the women I saw from journalists like my mother to pioneering legislators like Ruth Bacchuber Doyle to the first African American woman ever elected statewide to an executive office, Vel Phillips — or even women like my Girl Scout leaders, including my mother, and my many excellent teachers.
I hope that the women and men who are our leaders in Wisconsin today also find a few moments in their busy lives to look at the table of contents and pick an excerpt of some article, only a few pages, in this anthology. And then I hope they return to their important work for us all with a wider understanding of why women's success is as important to our future as it was to our past.
However, I also hope that less well-known women and men also will read this book, because it is about them more than anyone. They still live these sorts of stories in their localities, from Girl Scout leaders to grade school teachers, so they also had their foremothers here in the women who did the work of community formation in their schools and organizations across Wisconsin. So I hope that the women and men who still are doing that work daily in Wisconsin read this anthology as recognition of that work in any era.
WHS Press: What is special or unique about Wisconsin women's history?
GM: I might have answered with women's role in the progressive movement that arose in this state, until I began research for this book that took me back hundreds of years to the history of our Native and métis women whose stories are even more intrinsic to the history of this state. Most of us who grew up here and had Wisconsin history from fourth grade on have learned so little about Native history, sadly, and even less about the first Wisconsin women; I recall only an illustration or two of faceless Native women in fields or near streams.
Those women had names, and some names are not lost to history. This anthology starts with the story of the Glory of the Morning of Wisconsin, the translation of the name of Hopokoekaw, a woman civil chief of the Ho-Chunk three hundred years ago. Her métis descendants still lead the Decorah clan, as their name is a form of Descaris, the name of the fur trader who married Hopokoekaw but then abandoned her and took their daughter with him. However, Hopokoekaw stayed to lead her people for decades, as did their sons and their descendants since.
And the first article in this anthology is on the métis Therese Marcot Lasaliere Schindler; she and her sister Madeleine Marcot Laframboise both were among the most successful fur traders in the land that was Wisconsin hundreds of years ago. Yet as students, we never heard of women traders — or of women lighthouse keepers, women innkeepers, or immigrant women who kept the ways of their culture in Wisconsin. Their work, whether volunteered or paid, was significant in Wisconsin history and is unique to the regional history of the Great Lakes.
WHS Press: Did you find yourself having to debunk some myths about Wisconsin history while working on "Women's Wisconsin?" Can you name one?
GM: An anthology brings together the work of many other historians, and I am just the fortunate editor, after all. However, the evidence in this anthology does continue to confront a myth that was central in my first book about the Wisconsin woman suffrage movement, especially in the Progressive Era. I am reminded of the funny skit on "Saturday Night Live" in which Mike Meyers mocks a final exam question in history: "The progressive movement was neither progressive nor a movement. Discuss!" We need to discuss the progressive movement in Wisconsin history in different ways, because it was a movement — but a movement mainly of white men whose legacy has unintentionally worked against progress for women and minorities.
While the progressive movement reached mythical proportions here, with a "Wisconsin exception" that made provincial about our past and prevented us from comparing the status of all Wisconsinites to that of residents of other states, women and minorities fell farther and farther behind the national norms in the century since the progressive movement peaked. For example, as most people of color in the state came to live in Milwaukee in the last century, our largest city became the most segregated in the country, according to some studies. At the same time, as women — of color or others — attempted to win political office, the state with the motto "Forward" became among the most backward by that measure. We were the last state to send a woman to Congress, Tammy Baldwin, and not until the end of the last century. We were among the last states to elect a woman as lieutenant governor, Barbara Lawton, and not until the new millennium. And we never have had a woman governor, as in many states, nor have we ever sent a woman to the U.S. Senate — more than a decade after another state sent two.
More of concern, again, most women in Wisconsin remain below national norms in education, in income, and many other measures of our status compared to that in other states. Yet as I raised this in my research, in my newspaper articles, and in my speeches across the state for more than fifteen years, I often was met with the statement that this couldn't be so. Why? Because "Wisconsin is such a progressive state." Well, it was not progressive for many of our foremothers a century ago, and it has not progressed sufficiently since even to keep up with most other states' in terms of the status of women and minorities. So the sooner that we debunk the myths about the progressive movement — while recognizing the realities of the progress that it did make for us all — the sooner we truly will move forward for all Wisconsinites.
WHS Press: Can you identify one of your Wisconsin woman heroes from "Women's Wisconsin" and explain why you admire her?
GM: No! There are so many whom I admire for the lessons they taught me that comes to mind almost every day. On my way to work in the Milwaukee Downer-College buildings, I walk past a historical landmark sign about Lucy Seymour Parsons, who founded the school that became the first college for women here. I think about what faces me that day and know it can't be half as hard as what she faced. In my building, I walk past a portrait of Dr. Ellen Sabin, who made the merger happen that made the college famous and raised the funds for the buildings. I hope that I have half as much impact on even a few of my students as she did on many, including one who wrote a memoir of her and the campus a century ago in this anthology.
Downtown in my hometown, I may think about Josette Vieau Juneau, the "founding mother" of Milwaukee who raised fourteen children here — while she was a working mother. I marvel at how all of our foremothers managed, since it was so hard for me to raise only two! At the Milwaukee Public Library, I think about the last meeting there of the Wisconsin Woman Suffrage Association in 1919, when Theodora Winton Youmans renamed it as the Wisconsin League of Women Voters. On my way home, I go past the site of the first Milwaukee City Hall, where that suffrage organization was founded in 1869 by Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Milwaukeeans including the marvelous Mathilde Fransziska Anneke, an immigrant and internationally known feminist and journalist. And every election day, I think about those woman suffragists and thank them — I really do — and about all our foremothers who worked so hard for us to live the lives that we are so lucky to live today.
Raised as I was by a mother in Wisconsin's politics and press who taught at my campus, too, I am admiring — because I understand their milieu — of suffragists and journalists and educators. However, I also have learned so much from women whose girlhoods were far different from mine, whether in poverty or in wealth. I think about another girl who grew up to be a grande dame in Milwaukee, Martha Curtis Fitch, whose delightful memoir in the anthology about her girlhood in my city more than a century and a half ago is one of my favorites. And she grew up to be one of the founders of Milwaukee Children's Hospital, which literally saved my life almost half a century ago — and then was there for my daughter little more than a decade ago.
I guess I walk with ghosts, good and friendly ghosts. We all do, everywhere in Wisconsin — and some of us are fortunate enough to see them, because we know even some of our good and wonderful history. When I travel my state, the women whose stories I know now come alive for me in every city, village, and town. Those women made many hospitals, schools, playgrounds, parks, and other institutions and organizations happen; they were the women who built far more than the buildings I see. I hope that everyone reading this anthology can see the Wisconsin — women's Wisconsin — that I see in their cities, villages and towns and in their lives today.
WHS Press: Interpretations of the past change as time passes. Did you run into this when drawing on secondary source material for the book? Examples?
GM: Of course, we can only work with the evidence left to us — and fortunately for us as well as our readers, we uncover new evidence that lead us to new understandings every day. Or sometimes, we simply become capable of encountering in a different way the evidence that has been before us all the time. For example, who truly "founded" Wisconsin and its largest city? In my research for this anthology, I found that the first historians of Wisconsin were far more likely to recognize Native Americans and women than were the historians of a century ago or so, when most were male. They reframed that debate by criteria that could only result in one answer: that the "founders" were white men. Or those historians framed the "founders" as white men even if they were métis, the French term for the "mixed" peoples here, descended from Native foremothers who married French Canadian fur traders.
Their children combined both cultures in colorful and subtler but significant ways that still are evident in our state today, although only recently is there resurgence in research on the métis. That research suggests rethinking of interpretations of our past, such as in state histories that label Charles de Langlade as the "father of Wisconsin" and as French Canadian. However, his mother — perhaps the "mother of Wisconsin" — was Ottawa. Her métis descendants, the Grignons, were in the forefront of society here. However, as shown in one of Virginia Glenn Crane's fine works excerpted in this anthology, the métis were less welcome in their own homeland by the mid-19th century, and many of the Grignon girls never married.
I also have met a métis descendant of Josette Vieau Juneau, who ought to be called the founder of Milwaukee more than her fur trader husband, Laurent Solomon Juneau, but for historians of a century ago who followed criteria set by a Milwaukee Sentinel editor. After all, Juneau was a footloose fur trader in French Canada while his wife was born in Wisconsin and grew up at her family's trading post that became the center of the city. ndeed, she might have inherited the post rather than her husband, had women then had property rights and full citizenship.
This shows how our historical interpretations often have to change because we examine their basis, whether explicit criteria or implicit assumptions. Those often are more enlightening about the agendas of the historians' eras — or, in the case of the Juneaus, the journalist who came up with the criteria and then the historians who followed his — than about the era under study.
WHS Press: Your final chapter consists of an essay you wrote covering the years from Wisconsin's centennial of statehood through passage into the new millennium in which you survey women's progress and barriers to progress. In your perfect world, where will Wisconsin women be in a century?
GM: I hope to see a woman governor in my lifetime, as that would return us to the world that was Wisconsin hundreds of years ago when Native women served as chiefs! That raises the question of whether we who live on their ancient lands have truly brought "progress." At least as we neared the end of the last century, we finally had our first woman "sub-chief" of Wisconsin, Margaret Farrow — if only by appointment. And then in this new millennium, we finally elected a woman "sub-chief" with Barbara Lawton as lieutenant governor. They are two of the many reasons why I proposed that final chapter to bring the story into the present, as we actually have made some progress politically for women in Wisconsin.
However, as I mentioned, our so-called progressive state — although never truly progressive for women and minorities — has fallen far behind for women in education and income, because we are below the national norms in both of those measures of women's status and many more. So I hope for Wisconsin women as well as Wisconsin men that they achieve full equality in every measure, beginning with affordable access to advanced education for all. That is the way to achieve the work life with more than a living wage that makes so much else possible, as women's history and true progress teach us so well.