Thursday, May 27, 2010

The Changing Roles of Women in the Lipa and Mizera Families

To honor the mothers on my family tree, I'm taking this opportunity to look back at their roles in the societies in which they lived. It is only in looking back, in historical context, that it becomes apparent just how far we ladies have come. We wear many different hats these days!


13th Through 18th Centuries

For many centuries, the role of women in my family stayed essentially the same. As wives of peasant farmers in Poland, their roles in life would have been to raise their children, cook and clean their modest mud huts, sew the family's clothing, and tend to the family's livestock (if they had any) and their garden plot. They might also gather firewood, mushrooms, berries, and the like from neighboring forests. It's possible that a few might have also provided nursing services (medicinal herbs) to other members of their village or been midwives. And it's also possible that a few might have been nuns, beggars, or "ladies of the night". Prior to the Industrial Revolution (which came late to Poland) and emancipation from serfdom (Duchy of Warsaw/Poland 1807, Congress of Poland 1864), "peasant farmer's wife" was the role of my female ancestors in Poland.

First Generations in America

So what happened to the role of the women in my family in Poland after the Industrial Revolution and emancipation from serfdom? Nothing, really. At least not for a few more generations. The women, like the men, were largely illiterate, and knew only of the farming life in their remote little villages. I'm not sure when women's roles in Polish society changed but I know they were behind their American counterparts, at least as far as the women who lived in remote farming villages were concerned. For those who left the farms for America, things changed a bit quicker.

My paternal great grandmother, Ludwika Knot Lipa, came to the U.S. in 1881 at the age of 23, already married with 2 children. She would have been the first from her family to experience a world where women had some alternative roles besides those she was accustomed to. However, I have no evidence to suggest that she adopted any different roles here in the U.S. than centuries of women before her in Poland. She is not listed as employed outside the home in any city directory or U.S. Census. According to a family biography, she did own a cow and her daughter Josephine delivered its milk to neighbors before school each morning. I'd call that entreprenurial even if it wasn't necessarily employment outside the home. I'm not sure if Ludwika had any formal education while growing up in Poland. She could very well have been illiterate.

My maternal grandmother, Zofia Mizera Lisowska, came to the U.S. in 1913 at the age of 19. While I have no documentation to prove it, family members report that Zofia told them she had been "recruited" to come work in the U.S. I'm not sure just what that means but I've read articles explaining that certain U.S. companies sent representatives to villages in Poland (and other countries) to get workers to come to America. In some instances they paid for and made arrangements for worker's transportation. In most instances though they were merely public relations agents.  According to some family members, Zofia "was sent by her parents" to work in the U.S. and was expected to send money back to the family in Poland for support. On her ship manifest she is listed as "h. maid" (house maid). I take that to mean that she was not employed outside the home in Poland. When she arrived in Detroit, she worked as a seamstress for a men's clothing store. She was a very skilled seamstress and made both men's suits and women's and children's dresses. She married my grandfather in 1916 and immediately afterward my grandfather and his friend bought a small neighborhood bakery in Detroit. My grandmother worked by their side every day in that bakery, especially after they expanded it in 1920. In 1929 she is listed in the Detroit City Directory as treasurer of the Polonia Baking Company. My grandparents sold the bakery in 1935 and I believe my grandmother was a traditional housewife and mother after that. Zofia did receive some education in Poland but I don't believe it was a formal education in a school building. Perhaps she was home-schooled. She was able to read and write (in Polish) when she came to America.

Second Generations in America

Ludwika's Daughters

When Ludwika's daughter Mary married in 1895, there was no employment listed on her marriage record. Nor was there for Katie who married in 1900, or Sophie who married in 1909. I have found no indication that these three oldest daughters were ever employed outside the home. That doesn't mean they weren't... but I can't find any supporting documentation. So I'm making the assumption that they weren't. Ah but things would be different for Ludwika's three youngest daughters...

When Carrie (my paternal grandmother) married in 1907 at age 17, she is listed as employed as a cigar maker. As far as I am able to determine, she is the first woman in my paternal family line to be employed outside the home. In the 1910 U.S. Census, Carrie, then married with 2 children, is listed as employed as a "washer woman, by the day". I'm assuming she was taking in laundry at home since there was no place of employment listed. There is no occupation listed for Carrie in the 1920 or 1930 Census' so I assume she became a traditional American housewife and mother. However, the family owned a 2-family house in Detroit and rented out the upper flat. So as landlady, she may have also done cleaning or decorating to the rental unit between tenants.

Daughter Anna is listed as a weaver for a clothing manufacturer in the 1910 Census, and she was still employed as a weaver in 1917, according to a city directory.  In the 1920 Census she is listed as a machine operator for an auto parts manufacturer but she must not have liked that job too much because when she was married three years later her marriage registry indicates she was a weaver once again. Anna never had children and worked at a number of jobs over the years. In the 1930 Census she was listed as a foreman for a spring manufacturer.

I can find no record of youngest daughter Josephine being employed outside the home but I know she was. A family biography of her indicates she was employed as a cigar maker, and a very good one at that. She even won some gold coins for her fast work! I don't know the exact dates of her employment but I assume it would have been prior to her marriage.

Ludwika's daughters attended the parish school at Sweetest Heart of Mary Church in Detroit, grades 1-8.


Zofia's Daughters

Helen, Zofia's oldest daughter, started working at R. L. Polk Company right after she graduated from high school in 1935. She married but never had children. She became a "career woman" instead. She worked for R. L. Polk for many years as a typist and clerk. In the 1960s she left R. L. Polk and got a job with Burroughs Corporation (now Unisys) working on early computers.

Old Federal Reserve Bank on Fort St. 
Lucy, my mother, also started working immediately after her graduation from high school (1936). She got a job as a clerk with the Federal Reserve Bank in Detroit and worked there until after she married in the 1940s. After she had children she worked part time for R. L. Polk as a typist but she worked from home. Then, in the late 1960s, she started working temp jobs for Kelly Services. After my father died in 1974 she took a full time job as a court clerk for a local district court. She retired in 1983.


Third Generations in America

Ludwika had 16 granddaughters. I'm only aware of the educational and employment background of 8 of those granddaughters. Three graduated from high school and the other five only completed the 8th grade. In terms of work, to my knowledge, all 8 worked outside the home at least part time at some point in their lives. But their primary roles were housewife and mother in the traditional American sense. No career women.

Zofia had only one granddaughter (me). I graduated high school and obtained 2 college degrees. I trained for and worked at a professional career for many years, have owned my own business, and have worked at a number of part time jobs. I am also a wife and mother. :-)

This was an interesting look back. I thought I was going to be able to write this article off the top of my head but it turned out to require more research than I anticipated. I wanted to do the ladies justice after all! Now I'm curious about the roles of the men on my family tree. Perhaps an article about them will be needed in the near future...

[Written for the 94th Edition of the Carnival of Genealogy.]

9 comments:

  1. Jasia,

    What a great piece on the women of your family! I am always amazed at the courage that it must have taken to leave the familiar of the home country. A true leap of faith -- faith in God, and their own abilities. Thanks for this look into the lives of your female forebearers.

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  2. Thank you Joan! I must admit that this article/research got more and more interesting as I went along. :-)

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  3. Jasia,

    This was a very nice look at the females in your tree. I still haven't figured out how to write on this topic and make it interesting, but you succeeded!

    Donna
    What's Past is Prologue

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  4. Thanks Donna. It's really sobering to think about how different my great grandmothers' lives were compared to mine. I mean, I know of course life was different back then but I rarely stop and think about just how different it was. Not only didn't they have modern conveniences and technology but they had limited choices in their life styles too. I wonder if they thought they were better off than their ancestors...

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  5. Well done! What a dramatic change emigration made, along with different attitudes in North America. Stay-at-home moms are probably the minority now.

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  6. This was an interesting post. I like that you began by telling generally about women's lives centuries ago, and then brought it to specific ladies in your family. I don't know if (for me) it would have been harder to be a 23-y-o widow with 2 children coming alone to America or being a 19-y-o sent from home to America alone. What stalwart women you have for ancestors. Thanks for sharing their stories with us.

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  7. Great job of research and writing, Jasia. I like your historical approach!

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  8. brenda nancy and bill, it was so nice of you to leave me comments. thank you! this was 1 of those articles where the more i wrote the more i got into the subject. i can't help but wonder how stressful their lives must have been blazing trails that they did. i admire them!

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  9. Jasia, I really enjoyed your article. So much of what you describe mirrors the lives of my own ancestors, from peasants to workers in America. I was very interested in your grandmother Carrie being a "washer woman." From what I've read, washer women or laundresses had particularly difficult and laborous jobs. Your ancestors sound like strong women. Thank you for your article.

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