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"Milwaukee Journal Sentinel" Book Feature

This book feature, by Getta Sharma-Jensen, appeared in the "Milwaukee Journal Sentinel" on October 29, 2005

Women's tales, told by women

Josette Vieau Juneau was Milwaukee's first "first lady," married to Laurent Solomon Juneau, the city's first mayor. She ran their family store and stockade, was fluent in French and after the Erie Canal opened around 1825, welcomed "distinguished visitors." But did you know she was of mixed blood, and proudly carried her Menominee heritage?

Full-bodied stories such as hers are the enticements in "Women's Wisconsin: From Native Matriarchies to the New Millennium," which Genevieve G. McBride edited and the Wisconsin Historical Society Press just published.

The anthology is among several recent books that spotlight American women at different stages in the nation's history. They are a fascinating and important window to the lives and accomplishments of women. Four such books that I found in the piles around my desk would make wonderful gifts.

McBride, an associate professor of history and director the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee women's studies program, set out to collect, as she writes, "in one place a remarkable historical record by and about women's place in Wisconsin" as published in more than 350 issues of the Wisconsin Magazine of History as well as other publications of the state Historical Society.

The result is a rich tapestry of biographical and other stories - from "the first women" in the late 1700s, many of them powerful American Indians, to those on the frontier in the 1800s and to those during World War II and after. A look into the future ends the collection.

McBride's canvas was big. She succeeds in filling it admirably, without leaving out even such sometimes-forgotten groups as black and American Indian women during the war years. There's also a chapter titled: "Remembering the Holocaust."

Another look at women comes from the Milwaukee County Historical Society. Written by Mary Kellogg Rice, "Useful Work for Unskilled Women: A Unique Milwaukee WPA Project" recounts the seven-year project to give jobs to unskilled women on public assistance in Milwaukee County.

Rice helped start the program in 1935 and served as its art director until just before the program ended. Though her book focuses on the project itself and individual women are rarely spotlighted, it allows a tangential understanding of the lives of poorer women during that time.

"Sisters: The Lives of America's Suffragists" by historian Jean Baker (Hill and Wang) unspools the lives of Lucy Stone, Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Frances Willard and Alice Paul as it unfolds the story of the women's rights movement. The story, itself compelling, becomes more so in Baker's skillful hands. No reader can walk away from this without understanding, and being moved, by the tremendous accomplishments of these women.

And finally, the 824-page "Women's Letters: America from the Revolutionary War to the Present" (Dial Press) gives an almost panoramic look at our history and culture through the eyes of American women. The 400 letters that editors Lisa Grunwald and Stephen J. Adler included become a thermometer of morals and culture of the past 99 years or so.

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