Gendered Perspectives on Detroit History

By Wolcott, Victoria W. | Michigan Historical Review, Spring 2001 | Go to article overview

Gendered Perspectives on Detroit History


Wolcott, Victoria W., Michigan Historical Review


When Detroit celebrated its 250th anniversary in 1951 the city's women put on a pageant. On 21 June four hundred participants acted out thirty-three scenes from "Courage Was the Fashion," a theatrical extravaganza that depicted the women of Detroit's contributions to the city from its earliest days to the birthday celebration. To create this event a Women's Achievement Committee wrote three thousand letters to women's organizations in Detroit and interviewed dozens of their aging members. Committee members invited Alice T. Crathern, an assistant professor of English at Wayne University, to write a history of Detroit women in order to make this research available to future Detroiters. Crathern took on this project eagerly. She consulted with the well-known women's historian Mary Ritter Beard and crafted a book that publicized the fact that "from the beginning men and women, side by side, had built this great city and together had woven the pattern which had made it world famous and distinctive" (p. vi).

Crathern's book, In Detroit Courage Was the Fashion, recognized the pioneering role played by the Women's Achievement Committee as well as the shortfalls of previous histories of the city. "Taught by tradition that woman's place is in the home and that history is made by man, Detroit historians have for the most part failed to note the gradual emergence of women into the business, professional and industrial worlds," Crathern lamented (p. xvii). By tracing women's roles in the family, neighborhood, workplace, and voluntary organizations she wrote women into the official history of Detroit. Yet as we celebrate Detroit's three-hundredth anniversary there is no comparable academic work on the city's female inhabitants. This fact is even more startling when we consider that Crathern was writing when post-World War II domestic ideology dominated political and social life. In this atmosphere public pronouncements celebrating women's professional and political achievements stand out as daring acts. Contrast that environment with 2001 when women's history is an accepted subdiscipline and we are living with the legacy of second-wave feminism, the movement in the late 1960s and early 1970s that called for gender equality in all facets of public and private life.

In part today's intellectual climate is responsible for the lack of a single history of women in Detroit. As I will discuss, much recent work on labor, immigration, and African-American history has incorporated the analysis of women's lives and contributions rather than treating it as a separate subject. In addition the broad category "Detroit women" is itself suspect as scholars pay closer attention to the specific conditions of race, ethnicity, and class. Unsurprisingly, the primary actors in Courage Was the Fashion are native-born white middle-class women who were prominent in women's clubs and reform organizations in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. These public women left the most extensive records and were part of the city's political elite. Crathern's discussion of African-American women is limited to those leaders who participated in the club, suffrage, and temperance movements. In contrast, much of the current literature about Detroit's women focuses on working-class activists in the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) unions and on black migrants who arrived in Detroit during and after World War I. Even so, Crathern's attempt at a synthesis is a remarkable achievement and one that can still teach us the value of listening to women's voices.

The current historiography of Detroit's women is fragmented into a variety of subfields. The strongest of these are women's labor history and an emerging literature on African-American women. Largely absent from the literature is any extensive discussion of women's role in constructing urban institutions and shaping urban space. This kind of contemporary synthesis of women's urban experiences has, however, been undertaken for other cities. …

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