Women's Wisconsin: From Native Matriarchies to the New Millennium

By Genevieve G. McBride (Editor), Foreword by Shirley S. Abrahamson

Paperback: $37.95

ISBN: 978-0-87020-361-9

512 pages, 8 b/w photos and illus., 7 x 9.25"


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"Women's Wisconsin: From Native Matriarchies to the New Millennium," a women's history anthology published on Women's Equality Day 2005, made history as the first single-source history of Wisconsin women. This unique tome features dozens of excerpts of articles as well as primary sources, such as women's letters, reminiscences, and oral histories, previously published over many decades in the "Wisconsin Magazine of History" and other Wisconsin Historical Society Press publications.

Editor and historian Genevieve G. McBride provides the contextual commentary and overarching analysis to make the history of Wisconsin women accessible to students, scholars, and lifelong learners. Dr. McBride is Director of Women's Studies and an associate professor of history at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. A Milwaukee native, she teaches women's history and is the author of "On Wisconsin Women: Working for Their Rights from Settlement to Suffrage." Women's Wisconsin introduces readers to dozens of compelling Wisconsin women, including:

  • Ho-poe-kaw (Glory-of-the-Morning), an 18th century Ho-Chunk woman chief.
  • Juliette Magill Kinzie, whose memoir Wau Bun, the "Early Day" in the North-west describes her life at Fort Winnebago (Portage) in the 1830s.
  • Lavina Goodell of Janesville, first woman lawyer in Wisconsin, in the latter 1800s.
  • Nellie Sweet Wilson, an African American single mother, and Alice DeNomie, a young Ojibwe woman awaiting the return of her soldier sweetheart, who both worked in the defense industry in Milwaukee during World War II.

Dr. Genevieve G. McBride is Director of Women's Studies and an Associate Professor of History at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, where she teaches and researches American history, specializing in women's, African American, and Wisconsin history. A Milwaukee native, she began her academic career only after a 20-year career in the media, including the "Milwaukee Sentinel," "Milwaukee Star" and "Courier," and "Waukesha Freeman," and as public relations director at Carroll College. She also taught at UW-Madison, UW-Waukesha, Marquette, and Carroll College before joining the fulltime faculty at UW-Milwaukee.

Dr. McBride has presented her research at numerous conferences in the United States and Europe, and her scholarly publications include numerous articles as well as the chapter on the history of Wisconsin African-American newspapers for the book entitled "The Black Press of the Middle West." But she is best known as the author of the award-winning book, "On Wisconsin Women: Working for Their Rights from Settlement to Suffrage," honored by the Council for Wisconsin Writers and by the Wisconsin Historical Society. She serves on the Society's Board of Curators and on the Advisory Board of the proposed National Women's History Museum.

Interview with Genevieve G. McBridge

Wisconsin Historical Society Press: Why do we need "Women's Wisconsin"?

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?

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?

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?

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?

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?

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?

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.

"'Women's Wisconsin' is a wonderfully engaging narrative with a comprehensive overview of specific times and historic events enhanced and authenticated by the use of women's journals, letters, and other primary source documents. Wisconsin, as a territory and then a state, is an incredible stage for the challenges and actions of women's lives. Telling the amazing history of the women of Wisconsin as it intersects with American history creates a much better understanding of the vital importance of the female experience. The rich collection of historic pieces woven together by the author's presentations of the historic context greatly adds to the developing story and chronology. There is so much we can learn from the courage, tenacity, and intelligence of Wisconsin women. this is an excellent read for citizens of every state." —Molly Murphy MacGregor, Executive Director and Cofounder, National Women's History Project

"Women's history in Wisconsin has all the right stuff — Native American chiefs, pioneers toting their babies, cookware, and even a piano, educators, suffragists, working class strikers — and a sprinking of prostitutes to challenge the moral reformers. 'Women's Wisconsin' deftly captures the varied experiences of Wisconsin's women from the 1700s to the present through a mix of articles and exceprts from their letters and diaries reprinted from 'Wisconsin Magazine of History' and culminating in an original essay by Genevieve McBride on the least studied last half-century. This is the book Wisconsin history teachers have been waiting for. Here in one volume is the story of the role of women in the development of the state, intertwined with the history of social forces at work influencing their opportunities and choices. I can think of no one better equipped than scholar and journalist McBride to select, introduce, contextualize, assess, and weave the parts into an historical whole that will appeal alike to students, historians, and lovers of history." —Phyllis Holman Weisbard, University of Wisconsin System Women's Studies Librarian

"No serious student of Wisconsin history — male or female — can afford to ignore Genevieve McBride's carefully compiled anthology of writings by and about Wisconsin women. Utilizing numerous articles from the 'Wisconsin Magazine of History,' along with letters, reminiscences, and oral histories, she provides ample evidence to prove that, far from being "outside history," Wisconsin women have always been vital, integral, and complementary actors in their state's growth and development. 'Women's Wisconsin' not only provides new answers to old questions, but also generates a sufficient number of new queries to broaden our concept of what constitutes history in the New Millennium." —John D. Buenker, Professor Emeritus of History, University of Wisconsin-Parkside

"A wonderful compendium of the women of Wisconsin — famous, infamous, and simply interesting — that uses their lives as a window to the history of the state, the nation, and the world. McBride and the many contributors make clear the ways in which local history is connected to global events — colonization, immigration, epidemics, world wars — while never losing sight of the personalities that make investigating women's history so fascinating." —Merry Wiesner-Hanks, Professor of History and Director of Women's Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee

"Wisconsin history needs something like this." —Kim E. Nielsen, Associate Professor of Social Change and Women's Studies Historian, University of Wisconsin-Green Bay

"'Women's Wisconsin: From Native Matriarchies To The New Millennium' is an anthology of essays by learned historians as well as primary sources such as letters, reminiscences, oral histories, articles and more previously published over numerous decades in the 'Wisconsin Magazine of History.' An impressive compendium of women's contributions to Wisconsin history, 'Women's Wisconsin'covers the lives of the first women in Wisconsin, the frontier era, statehood, women's organizations, women's involvement in the war effort during World War II and much more. Many sections feature extensive notes or citations. As enjoyable for lay readers as it is informative, 'Women's Wisconsin' is an excellent contribution to both library and private history shelves, and a valuable resource for state history teachers." Midwest Book Review

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.