Click the image to learn more. Two people walk west on Wisconsin Avenue in the early twentieth century towards the Gimbels Department Store.  Their dress suggests their gender identity as a woman [left] and a man [right].

The people who have lived in the Milwaukee metropolitan area make up a diverse population—they inhabit a wide variety of social and economic dimensions, including, but not limited to the following: ancestry and ethnicity, economic situation, age, living arrangements, political and religious views, and gender. An examination of all these identities and categorizations, each providing an incomplete view on their own, sheds light on the living conditions and experiences of Milwaukeeans. Here we use gender as the starting point of an exploration of social and cultural identities to provide a view of the geographical area under investigation that both reveals and challenges how we have come to know the area through time.

Our culture typically relies on a binary to describe and interpret gender, meaning that perceived sexual difference, often understood to be determined by biological factors, is used to categorize (predominantly) two kinds of bodies: female and male. Therefore, when one observes the city and region from a distance and relies on this cultural interpretation of biological difference, one sees people roughly divided as half male, and half female.

Yet gender is a richer analytic concept, a social construct, meaning that gender is not a natural or biological certainty related to one’s assigned sex, but rather is a set of expectations and assumptions that are the result of our interpretation of bodily difference. This interpretation can, and does, change, meaning that throughout the course of history what is meant by “gender” and what expectations and norms are linked to bodies, frequently sexed as male and female, are also subject to change over time.

A systematic analysis of gender as a form of difference in the lives of Milwaukeeans over time does not yet exist. But it is not hard to envision what such an analysis might address. We might see how people with different gender identities experience the city differently. We might see how ideas about the appropriate roles and identities for men and women, and the changes in those ideas, have shaped the city and region. We might see how the physical landscape shapes the way people behave and how changing ideas of gender, including expansion beyond the binary, are in turn reshaping the physical city.

An investigation of Milwaukee and its surrounds, one that uses gender as a category of analysis, can allow us to see how the social reality of gender inequality directs how people experience space differently.[1] Such an analysis would look back to the early nineteenth century as Milwaukee was founded, when patriarchal social relationships were the normal framework for American society, and then identify landmarks in the long history of the emancipation of women.[2] Furthermore, it would note how the successful women’s suffrage campaign laid groundwork for further social justice initiatives, ones that identified discrimination on the basis of gender and sexual orientation, and worked to fight systematic oppression, embedded in society, law, and physical spaces. Perhaps, depending on the evidence available, it could look much further into the past and investigate how Native populations negotiated gender and gender roles and how these systems were impacted with the arrival of fur traders and other colonizers, who had their own ideas about gender identity, expression, and appropriate roles. Finally, it would identify how the normative understandings surrounding sex, gender, and sexual orientation have changed over the past two centuries.

Nineteenth-Century Milwaukee

Historian Genevieve McBride notes the near erasure of Milwaukee’s “founding mother” from accounts of the early settlement of Milwaukee and from contemporary local mythology that narrates the lead-up to the city’s founding. A Métis woman with property rights of her own, Josette Vieau Juneau married her father’s employee, Solomon Juneau. While her husband spent little time in Milwaukee, leaving Vieau Juneau to run the day-to-day operations of their store and stockade, in addition to raising their fourteen children, he gets unequivocal credit as the city’s founder.[3]

The City of Milwaukee and the state of Wisconsin were founded in the heady days of western expansion, revolutionary uprisings in Europe, and a surging abolitionist movement vowing to end race-based slavery in the United States. Wisconsin became a state in the same year that Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels wrote the Communist Manifesto in Europe and Elizabeth Cady Stanton wrote the Declaration of Sentiments declaring that “all men and women are created equal” in Seneca Falls, New York. In the years leading up to Wisconsin’s 1848 statehood, legislators discussed giving married women property rights as well as the right to vote in the state’s constitution. Ultimately, and as the product of heated public debate, the radical proposal was replaced with one that maintained women’s disenfranchisement and subordination in patriarchal family relationships.[4]

Milwaukee remained a hotbed of radical efforts to press for revolutionary change. German immigrant to Milwaukee, Mathilde Franziska Anneke, for example, was exiled from her homeland after the failed 1848 revolutions. She continued her revolutionary work by trying to found a women’s newspaper, the Deutsche Frauen Zeitung in Milwaukee; she conspired in a failed attempt to free anti-slavery activist Sherman Booth from jail on July 4, 1860. During the Civil War, she propagandized in Europe for northern victory, but she returned to Milwaukee for good in 1865 to found a girl’s school and campaign for woman suffrage.[5]

German Americans, women as well as men, were relatively wealthier and better educated than other immigrant groups, especially the Irish. In the mid-nineteenth century, Irish women were far less likely to marry and more likely to be employed outside of the home, though usually as domestic workers. Almost no scholarship addresses the lives of Irish women living in Milwaukee and the region, perhaps because labor in the domestic sphere, or “Bridget-work,” was and is not regarded as highly as more public actions, like founding schools or newspapers. Clearly, based on ethnic and class divisions, the acceptable spaces where women could live and work in Milwaukee, even during the same time period, could vary widely.[6]

Nevertheless, there were models for how people did and should live. The life situations for men and women in the Milwaukee area in the late nineteenth century reveal a world where adult men in the prime of life were household heads, breadwinners, and husbands while women were wives with primary responsibilities in the home. Census accounts of the work and family situations of men and women aged 30 to 65 (prime adult years) indicate that 94 to 95 percent of men were in the labor force; 88 percent (1880) and 75 percent (1910) were household heads; and 85 percent (1880) and 74 percent (1910) were married with a spouse present in the household. Almost three quarters of women in this age group were married living with their spouse. A mere 6.7 percent of women in 1880 and 16 percent in 1910 were in the labor force, and between 11 and 13 percent of women headed their own households. In other words, the overwhelming living arrangement for families was a married couple household headed by a working man.[7]

Such was the context through the mid- to late-1800s, when temperance, abolition, and suffrage reform issues were taken up by a wide swath of the population of Milwaukee and its surrounds.[8] Women figured prominently in organizing, creating more than just groups auxiliary to existing men’s organizations. Women’s traditional relationship to the home figured centrally in resistance to slavery; Caroline Quarlls was the first fugitive slave to escape through Wisconsin and was assisted by a woman living on a farm in rural Pewaukee.[9] Several women’s organizations sought to assist the poor, recognizing how women, often immigrants, were often disproportionately affected by poverty. The Female Moral Reform Society, founded in 1839 in Prairie Village (now Waukesha), helped “fallen women” and addressed issues like prostitution and sexually transmitted diseases.[10] These efforts not only sought to aid women in need, but also provided opportunities for agency: women could address perceived injustices from within their own homes as well as exercise autonomy (if still enacting feminine characteristics like mothering and care-giving) in the public sphere.

Observing the organization of space on a larger scale both shapes and complicates how we understand space to be gendered. Using categories like urban and rural or public and private calls us to examine how gender functions inside each space, noting parallels and marked differences. For women and men living in rural areas, the outskirts of Milwaukee County, and Waukesha, Ozaukee, and Washington counties in the nineteenth century, boundaries between work and home were blurred, as labor and everyday living occurred within the same confines: the family farm. For these people, women’s labor was rooted in the home, but so too was men’s labor. However, salient gendered divisions came into focus when individuals traveled into the local hamlet to conduct business.

Woman Movement and Suffrage

In the Civil War and Reconstruction Eras, women’s suffrage campaigns were subsumed by other social justice initiatives. By World War I, women’s suffrage efforts, spurred by Milwaukee’s Socialist politics, the women’s club movement, and women’s significant involvement in the war effort, came into its own. The Wisconsin state legislature granted women the right to vote in school elections in 1901. Suffrage activists like national leader Carrie Chapman Catt, and local activists like Mary Blanchard Lynde and Theodora Winton Youmans, ensured that the movement coalesced organizationally.

Wisconsin suffragists experienced a setback in 1912, when a state referendum that intended to enfranchise women was voted down—by the then male-only electorate. Local brewers provided strong voices of dissent to this proposal. They feared that the intersection of temperance and suffrage campaigns would mean the end of their industry—that women, armed with their right to vote, would call for the prohibition of alcohol. However, the movement, validated by its resilient activist base, refocused suffrage efforts on the national campaign for a constitutional amendment. In 1919 Wisconsin became the first state to ratify the Nineteenth Amendment, which gave women the right to vote.

Women’s political enfranchisement did not, however, immediately lead to radical restructuring of gender relations in the city and region. Traditional gender roles and women’s subordination remained the dominant organizational framework for Milwaukee life. Twenty years after the political enfranchisement of women, the household and family relationships of the nineteenth century remained in place. The 1940 census revealed that 93 percent of Milwaukee area men aged 30 to 65 were in the labor force; only 25 percent of women in this age group were in the labor force. Seventy-eight percent of these men were married living with their spouse; 74 percent of women were married living with their spouse.

An examination of the organization of space in the home can tell us a great deal about gender and gender relations. For instance, the home is a gendered space that is very familiar to most. The arrangement of rooms, who typically occupies them, what activities or functions they are used for, and the kind of furniture they contain can tell us a great deal about how a space is gendered. Think of a dining room: does the “man of the house” sit at the head of the table or in a chair that is larger or more decorative than the other ones? Who usually takes responsibility for how the room is decorated or for preparing the food that is placed on the table? How do people seat themselves around the table? The gendered notions associated with the home and traditional roles within it are both upheld and challenged by exceptional figures in Milwaukee’s history like Lizzie Black Kander.

Kander organized a settlement house which served Russian Jewish immigrants in Milwaukee’s Haymarket district. Though her work was rooted in the home and focused on developing domestic skills to produce a successful homemaker and assimilated citizen, Kander lived her life prominently in the public sphere. She was elected to the municipal Board of School Directors and represented Wisconsin in the 1939 World’s Fair, held in New York. Additionally, Kander had an active writing and speaking career; she authored a column for the Milwaukee Sentinel and made money to support reform efforts by publishing The Settlement Cookbook. The cookbook, wildly successful, and still in print, contained recipes as well as lessons in other household duties, like how to build a fire. Its subtitle, The Way to a Man’s Heart, captured the accommodations that women’s activists in the first half of the twentieth century made to improve the lives of the poor and disfranchised, while not upsetting the patriarchal applecart.

After World War II

Things began to change after World War II. A baby boom, the dramatic movement of adult women into the paid labor force, the expansion of the suburbs, and the arrival of new migrants, particularly people of color, presaged the emergence of a new period of critique of gender relations, both nationally and locally. What came to be called “second-wave feminism” of the 1960s and 1970s once again mounted a serious challenge to gender relations in the city and region, built new institutions to support women’s activism, demanded gender equity for women, and fostered a rethinking of what male/female, masculine/feminine mean, or whether they are binary categories at all.

In 1970, things still looked a lot like they had in earlier years for men. Ninety-three percent of Milwaukee area prime age adult men (aged 30 to 65) were in the labor force; 83 percent were married with a spouse present. Women in this age cohort were still overwhelmingly wives, living with their husbands (76 percent). But on closer inspection, by 1970, the situation for women had begun the shift dramatically. Fifty-two percent of women in the area aged 30 to 65 were in the labor force, and that proportion grew to 77 percent by 2010, even as men’s proportion in the labor force began to drop slightly, down to 84 percent in 2010. Sixteen percent of women in this age group headed their own households in 1970; 52 percent did so in 2010. By the twenty first century, fewer adult Milwaukeeans lived in married couple households. In 2010 60 percent of men aged 30-65 were married and living with their spouse; the proportion was 57 percent for women.

As these patterns developed, the Milwaukee area, along with the rest of the country saw the emergence of the LGBT movement, the founding of new academic fields of women’s and gender studies, protests over continuing examples of sex discrimination locally. Feminists pressed to desegregate all-male spaces, from Heinemann’s restaurants to the factory floor to the board room.[11] They also built women-centered institutions, from bookstores to health centers to provide autonomous spaces for women’s activism.[12]

Challenges remain and have generated “third wave feminism” and political movements beyond. Women’s reproductive rights are still only fragilely protected. American society has yet to build robust alternatives to support the “care work” that women did before they entered the workforce en masse.

Expanding the Understanding of Gender

Though widely-held, the understanding that gender is binary (man and woman-identified) and determined by our biology (which assigned labels like female, male, or intersex) is problematic for reasons that complicate how one can understand gender within the context of Milwaukee and its surrounds, encouraging us to think beyond such a simple/simplistic division. It is theorized and increasingly socially recognized that gender exists on a spectrum. The formulation of the gender spectrum allows for the inclusion of individuals who are transgender, genderqueer, or who otherwise do not rely on a woman/man binary to describe their gender identity. The recognition of the gender spectrum necessarily complicates how we picture the area under investigation, encouraging investigators to think critically not only about the cultural interpretation of bodies, but also interpretations of how those bodies are shaped by and, in turn, shape the spaces they inhabit. While the lives of Milwaukeeans and Wisconsinites who tested and subverted the gender binary are largely unwritten about, one significant example emerged in recent years. In 2017 University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee (UWM) History PhD Brice Smith published the biography of Louis Sullivan, an FTM (female to male) transgender person who grew up in Wauwatosa.[13] In the 1980s and 1990s, Sullivan created written resources for other similarly transitioning people; examples of these “manuals” can be found in the Special Collections Department of UWM’s Golda Meir Library.[14] Milwaukee is also home to other resources that interrogate gender and other categories of identity, including the Queer Zine Archive Project (also known as QZAP), which hosts both a physical and digitized collection.[15] Work exploring gender expression and identity in Milwaukee and its surrounds may just be beginning, though there is certainly no lack of resources for researchers who wish to expand this path of inquiry.

Gender is a social construct, meaning that gender is not a natural or biological certainty related to one’s assigned sex, but rather is a set of expectations and assumptions that are the result of our interpretation of bodily difference. This interpretation can, and does, change, meaning that throughout the course of history what is meant by “gender” and what expectations and norms are linked to bodies, frequently gendered as woman and man, are also subject to change over time.[16] Therefore, any investigation of gender in Milwaukee and its metropolitan area requires explication and investigation of how people learn, adopt, accept, reject, and change their own assigned sex and gender identities and impose standards of gender norms within families, organizations, and communities. Future scholarly analysis and activism will once again reinterpret gender relationships in Milwaukee and its immediate surrounds, and this essay has emphasized the necessity of that further investigation.

Footnotes [+]

  1. ^ Kristine Miranna and Alma Young, “Introduction,” in Gendering the City: Women, Boundaries, and Visions of Urban Life, eds. Kristine Miranne and Alma Young (Lanham, Maryland: Rowman and Littlefield, 2000), 1. This entry was posted on October 7, 2019 and revised on November 7, 2019.
  2. ^ Daphne Spain, Constructive Feminism: Women’s Spaces and Women’s Rights in the American City (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2016).
  3. ^ Genevieve McBride, “The Missing Majority in Milwaukee History,” in Perspectives on Milwaukee’s Past, eds. Margo Anderson and Victor Greene (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2009), 194-5.
  4. ^Women’s History in Wisconsin,” Wisconsin Historical Society, accessed October 16, 2018.
  5. ^ Anneke described her role in the plan to free Sherman Booth from his incarceration in the Milwaukee Custom House in a letter to her husband Fritz. See “Mathilde Franziska Anneke to Fritz Anneke, Milwaukee, July 4, 1860,” Fritz Anneke and Mathilde Franziska Giesler Anneke Papers, 1791–1884, Wisconsin Historical Society, Madison, WI. For Booth’s career and the efforts to free him from jail, see Diane S. Butler, “The Public Life and Private Affairs of Sherman M. Booth,” Wisconsin Magazine of History 82, no 3 (1999): 166–97. For more on Mathilde Franziska Anneke, see Ellen Engseth, “Mathilde Franziska Anneke,” Encyclopedia of Milwaukee, eds. Margo Anderson and Amanda I. Seligman.
  6. ^ McBride, “The Missing Majority in Milwaukee History,” 194-5.
  7. ^ All statistics tabulated from IPUMS-USA, University of Minnesota,
  8. ^ This crossover in reform issues was not unique to Wisconsin; in 1864, the first woman to address Congress was Anna Dickinson, who was there speaking in support of abolition.
  9. ^Women’s History in Wisconsin,” Wisconsin Historical Society, accessed October 16, 2018.
  10. ^ McBride, “The Missing Majority in Milwaukee History,” 196-7; Female Moral Reform Society Prairie Village (Prairieville), Waukesha County Wisconsin Genealogy, last accessed October 6, 2019.
  11. ^ Spain, Constructive Feminism, describes the national patterns.
  12. ^ See for example, Jamakaya (J.M. Dombeck), “The Women’s Coalition of Milwaukee, 1972-1987: Feminist Activism at the Local Level” (MA thesis: University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, 1987), available at:, accessed July 12, 2017; Janet K. Boles, “Local Feminist Policy Networks in the Contemporary American Interest Group System,” Policy Sciences 27, no. 2/3, Feminism and Public Policy (1994): 161-178.
  13. ^ Smith’s book was a 2018 finalist for the Lambda Literary Award See Brice D. Smith, Lou Sullivan: Daring to Be a Man among Men (Oakland, CA: Transgress Press, 2017).
  14. ^ A designated collection area of Special Collections at UWM’s Golda Meir Library, Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Studies hosts materials about “LGBT life and culture, as well as the historical and contemporary Milwaukee-area LGBT community…[t]here is a particular emphasis on gay and lesbian fiction, especially pulp fiction and romance novels. See “Special Collections at UWM Libraries: Collection Development Policy,” University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Libraries, last accessed October 6, 2019.
  15. ^ Lainey Seyler, “The Largest Independent LGBTQ Zine Collection Is Stored in a Riverwest Basement, and You Can See Some of It Online,” Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, July 9, 2018.
  16. ^ See for example, Lisa Neff, “UWM Completes Transgender Histories Project,” Wisconsin Gazette, February 10, 2012; for the interviews, see “Oral History Interviews of the Milwaukee Transgender Oral History Project, 2011,” UWM Golda Meir Library.

For Further Reading

Brown, Victoria. Uncommon Lives of Common Women: The Missing Half of Wisconsin History. Madison, WI: Wisconsin Women’s Network, 2004.

Kellogg Rice, Mary. Useful Work for Unskilled Women: A Unique Milwaukee WPA Project. Milwaukee: The Milwaukee County Historical Society, 2003.

McBride, Genevieve. “Helpmeets, Hausfrauen, Hellions, and the Missing Majority in Milwaukee History.” In Perspectives on Milwaukee’s Past, edited by Margo Anderson and Victor Greene, 192-218. Urbana and Chicago, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2009.

McBride, Genevieve. Women’s Wisconsin: From Native Matriarchies to the New Millennium. Madison, WI: Wisconsin Historical Society Press, 2005.

Smith, Brice D. Lou Sullivan: Daring to Be a Man among Men. Oakland, CA: Transgress Press, 2017.

Sullivan, Louis, Max Valerio, and Ingersoll Gender Center. Information for the Female to Male Cross Dresser and Transsexual. 3rd ed. Seattle, WA: Ingersoll Gender Center, 1990.

Spain, Daphne. Constructive Feminism: Women’s Spaces and Women’s Rights in the American City. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2016.


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