19th Century Minnesota Roots
I come from a mixed marriage: Norwegian Lutherans and German Lutherans.
My mom’s family (her mother’s side) came from Norway in the 1840, joining a chain migration from Dane County, Wisconsin, to Dodge County, Minnesota, to Woonsocket, South Dakota, and ending up in the Twin Cities. These migrants were the younger siblings who did not inherit the farm, who came in search of land, to re-create what their parents had in Norway. The land they settled on in South Dakota (like that in Wisconsin and Minnesota) had originally belonged to the Native Americans.
In Woonsocket, these families grew diverse crops — flax for weaving, wheat, and corn. They had a few sheep and goats, a cow or two. A little for the market, but mostly for themselves—a subsistence-plus existence. Their kids went to school.
Woonsocket today is a bar, a place you can get your car fixed, a library, some houses, and cemeteries. It was a rail hub for a while (1880s) when the railroad went through, but people began to leave after a period of decreasing rainfall by 1890s. What had been crop land slowly became grazing land. My grandmother (Myrtle) hated the place, and she left South Dakota when she could—after going to Normal School in Madison, SD.
The other side of my mother’s family came in about 1895, first settling in Crawford County, Wisconsin, near the Saint Croix. But my great-grandfather (Bersven) was a cabinet maker, so they moved to the Twin Cities where he could practice his trade. There they experienced a great tragedy: his wife —my great grandmother Malena — was killed in a fire. As a result Berven split the family up. His son Mel, who became my grandfather, ended up back in Wisconsin and later in South Dakota working as a harvest hand. I believe he was a Wobbly, (member of the IWW — Industrial Workers of the World).
Grandpa was an ambulance driver during World War One. After the war, he came to the Twin Cities, re-united with my grandmother (They met, I believe, in South Dakota), and they married promptly. My mother Yvonne was born about a year later.
On my father’s side were the “territorial pioneers” of Minnesota, something I did not know growing up. The Hohensteins came in the 1850s, and Henry Faue came in about the same time. Henry Faue was a “Freiegemeinde” or Freethinker, a religious liberal. These people founded their own congregation in Medina, Minnesota, in rural Hennepin County. They built their own cemetery, which is still there. Henry Faue enlisted in the Union Army late in the Civil War (1864) as a private.
His son, my great grandfather Louis, inherited land in rural Hennepin and Wright counties, but he was a “wastrel” (so says the family story) and so he lost it all. His children at best felt conflicted about him; some hated him. My grandfather Louis, the second oldest son, was thrown out of the house when he was quite young and went to live with an uncle. Louis became a carpenter and mechanic—a fixer of creamery machinery. His carpenter skills were legendary. He built a dining room table with 800 separate pieces of wood, fit together into a mosaic design. Louis became the manager of a cooperative creamery in St. Michael — until he was fired during the agricultural depression in the 1920s. After that, he worked as a traveling machine fixer for creameries and dairies.
The family moved into a small house in North Minneapolis on Bryant Avenue. That is where my father Vince was born and where his older siblings (five of the six) went to North High School. His sister Vernetta, also born in Minneapolis, went to Patrick Henry after the family moved farther north. My Dad didn’t go to high school.
My mother Yvonne was born just blocks away from my Dad, in a tiny house not too far from Victory Memorial Drive and close to Camden. Her father worked as a Minneapolis public school janitor. When he got his veterans’ bonus, they bought a bigger house — on 43rd and Sheridan, two blocks away from Victory Lutheran Church, where my mother, and all of us, were baptized.
Victory Lutheran was a Norwegian congregation. My grandfather was one of the charter members, and my mother was one of the first children to be baptized in the unfinished church (the baptismal font was in the basement). It was sold some time back. It think it’s a Baptist Church today.
My parents met when my mom was 14 and my dad was 18. He decided she was the world. Shortly after they met, he went into the CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps). Then he was drafted in 1940. After basic training, and before he was shipped off to Europe, he got permission to take three days off to go home and get married.
After my Dad returned to Fort Knox, he was sent to Northern Ireland and then to North Africa. He became part of a reconnaissance unit in North Africa — a half-track gunner in the First Armored Division led by General Patton. He hated Patton. After that campaign, I believe he did not want to kill any more. He volunteered as a stretcher-bearer at Casino but went instead to Anzio. He served as a medic in Italy until the army go to the River Po. After 30 months of combat duty, the Army stationed him back home in Hot Springs, Arkansas, at an army hospital, where his job was making prosthesis for injured soldiers. My mother went to live with him there. After the war, the army offered him a permanent place. He said “hell no” and came back to the Twin Cities.
When my parents came back to Minneapolis, they started having kids right away. First, Jeff, and then five years later, my oldest sister. Eventually there were six of us. I was the fourth.
Dad had PTSD after the war, although they didn’t call it that then. In other ways, the war affected him. He wouldn’t go camping because it reminded him of the army. He always supported his government, but he never liked war. We never had a gun in the house. No toy guns either, until my brother Greg came along. My older brother, who grew up when no guns were allowed in the house, became a firm pacifist. Greg, on the other hand, had a romance with the military, joined the Navy, and served in the first Gulf War. While he was serving in that conflict, Dad started having his post-war nightmares again.
Two Generations of Janitor-Engineers in Minneapolis Public Schools
My mother’s father helped Dad get a job working for the Minneapolis school system as a janitor engineer. It’s a job most people don’t understand. The custodians stoked and maintained the furnaces and (later) cooling system. Part of the job is quite technical — the kind of expertise you now have to go to college to obtain. Grandpa was there to give Dad advice as he rose through the civil service ranks. (Both of them being veterans, being quiet men, they always got along. And, to think of it, they both had shortened education; my grandpa only finished the eighth grade.) The technical parts of the job of Stationary Engineer are coupled with everything from cleaning the floors and windows to —well— everyone’s been in an elementary school. The janitor is the one who talks to the kids who don’t have anybody to talk to.
When he started, Dad got moved around to a lot of schools. To get the right number of points to advance to a good position, he got assigned a junior high — the hardest job. He worked as third man, second man, and did night shifts. When he got the seniority, he settled at Cleveland Elementary in North Minneapolis. (The school closed, and the building is a Post Office now. A block away, in Cleveland Park, is Lucy Laney Elementary).
Dad loved being a school engineer at Cleveland Elementary. Not the cleaning — he told me how much he hated some of those tasks. What he loved was being his own boss. He got along with his second man, Stan, and they both made good overtime.
My maternal Grandfather — who was a member of a farmer-labor club in the 1930s — was a founder of the union —Local 63 of the International Union of Operating Engineers. The union’s slogan was “Janitors Carry School Houses on Their Backs.” My father became a member. The two were never leaders, but they were joiners. They participated in a janitors’ strike in 1951 that I have written about. Dad used to say, “What Labor Has Fought to Win, Labor Must Fight to Keep,” echoing the sentiments of his beloved Minnesota Farmer Labor Governor, Floyd B. Olson.
The job quality of janitor/engineer has been eroding in recent years. There has been a continual pressure to privatize, create a two-tiered system with benefits and pay, and force speed-ups in the work. I cannot think that it would have allowed us the life we had.
Me, Growing up on the North Side
I grew up near Brooklyn Center and went to Patrick Henry High School. It was a quiet, post-war neighborhood, built on the site of a former truck farm. With six children, we were a bit cramped in our small cape cod house. My younger sisters Anna and Debbie and I shared a room throughout almost all of our childhood. They have been an important part of my life and not just because we shared close quarters.
My family was not deeply religious, but we were churchgoers. Almost all of us sang in the junior choir as children. I worked Sundays watching toddlers at Victory Lutheran after I was confirmed. I didn’t like the services, but I liked the music and could hear it in the nursery.
My parents were quite conventional believers. All of my sisters still attend a similar church. As for me, I lost my faith after being confirmed. This was after I thought about being a minister. For a while I was a raving atheist. By the time I was 19 or 20, I decided that the only reasonable approach was to be an agnostic, to know what I did not know. It was also in some ways more compassionate and respectful to not insist on having a monopoly on the truth. In the vein of my favorite ancestor — the Freethinking Henry Faue — I’m a Unitarian now.
Our household was pretty normal for our neighborhood, though more bookish. We had books all over the house. My mother was an avid reader. My dad read the newspaper, from page one to the end, every day. The oldest brother’s college books, classic children’s fables, two encyclopedias, and cereal boxes and games—These were my library, along with the Bookmobile. My parents had all the Reader’s Digest condensed books. I read that version of Nicholas and Alexandra: The Classic Account of the Fall of the Romanov Dynasty by Robert K. Massie. I was dazzled. I was fascinated with Russia and other places and times exotic to me. I studied the Byzantine Empire, listened to the music of Tchaikovsky and Mussorgsky.
I decided by the time I was 11 that I was not going to have my parent’s life. With my two oldest siblings gone, my brother Greg bullied me from time to time—mostly verbal teasing, and that made me want to run away. My parents were busy grieving my older sister, who disappeared for a few years. They didn’t pay any attention to us, giving my brother the opportunity to boss his younger sisters around. We later resolved all this; but as a teenager, I felt besieged. My way of escaping was to delve into far off exotic lands. I read all the time.
It was sometimes difficult for me to get my needs met in the family. At ten I told my mom I needed glasses. My mom said, “We don’t have money for your foolishness.” So I went without glasses a few more years. I would find ways to work around it: go up to the black board after class to write things down …I got through faking it until 10th grade. Then my German teacher asked me to read something on the black board. I said,“ I can’t see the board.”
It was clear that she was mad. Her anger was important to me. She was mad at a system in which a student would not have glasses. It was empowering. I loved that teacher — Liz Borders. Everyone did. She wore turtlenecks and short plaid skirts and looked like a tall Liza Minnelli. She would take small groups of us on hikes along the Mississippi and planned field trips to the German restaurant. She took me and a group of other German students to Minneapolis Institute of Arts to see an exhibit on Albrecht Duerer. That was not my first but one of the most important museum visits. And because of it, we all wanted to be her.
After school that day, I went home and said “I have to have glasses. I can’t see the board.”
Mom said “Money is really tight right now. If you can wait until March, we will get you glasses.”
I think now, if I had told my mother earlier, I would not have spent so many years squinting at the board; but I knew that we did not have lots of money. Still, when I finally got glasses, it was transformative. I had really long thick hair at the time. I got my glasses and got my hair cut in a shag. I was a new person.
Two years later, when I was a senior and angry at not being able to go on a trip abroad, Liz Borders asked me to stay after class one day. She said, “If there is anything I can do, you should tell me.” I felt as if I could not tell her. It seemed an extraordinary thing I wanted—I felt unjustified in wanting to go, but her words mattered. Someone cared enough to listen me.
I had a few other great teachers. Francine Moskowitz —my English teacher in 7th and 9th grade. She kept in touch with me. We went to a coffee shop (Florence and Millie’s) near Henry to talk. She took me to dinner on occasion and to a play. She read my poetry and talked about ideas. She took me to the University to see it before I began college. And she was, in many ways, my big sister and mentor. Another teacher in high school, Doreen Savage, who read everything I wrote—poetry and prose—through high school and college, watched over me. She also paid most of my way on that school trip to England.
If any teacher did that today, wouldn’t they end up in court?
In high school I was in college placement classes with the bankers’ and professionals’ kids. My father had a ninth grade education. My mother had a high school education but knew nothing about college. They were smart, and she was well-read; but they were not people who knew the world I was entering. They weren’t simple people, but they weren’t people who had a whole lot of knowledge about how you navigate the world outside north Minneapolis. By the time I was 10 my mom had me making calls to billing companies and Sears and Roebuck. She was that uncomfortable with the world. To have been her must have been difficult. To be her daughter was to know that you had to help out.
My parents did not let their children down when it came to food, clothing, housing or basic education. Still, when I was emotionally troubled or faced worldly obstacles, my parents had no idea what to do. So those teachers—and my big brother Jeff—they brought me through.
I was aware of the class differences and racial differences in our high school. I don’t remember any African American students in my college prep courses (They constituted 3 or 4% of the entire class), and I know they were treated differently. The top 3% of our class was all White. I shared a lunch table with a group of Black girls my age in junior high school. They were so much better read on politics.
During high school, I was able to take advantage of a program called the Twin City Institute for Talented Youth. Every summer they had a program at Macalester College. You would take a specialty topic in the morning and spend the afternoon at the library, or a play, or attend a workshop. It was great! It got me out to the house, which was really important. I took Russian language with Larry Buckland and Gene Adamchik. We also learned Russian folk dance.
I don’t know why I ever dropped doing that dancing. I really loved it.
There is a popular quote from T. H. White’s The Once and Future King: “Learning is the one thing that you can never lose.” It is a quote that hints at the joy we get from learning new things. That was the three summers at Macalester for me. Creative writing and Russian and extracurricular events. The time spent learning opened me up to new ideas and possibilities. I met Catholics who hated the Catholic Church. I met young Marxists. I met deeply conservative people. The program brought public and private school kids together so I met kids form Northrup and Blake, all of whom were college bound. In my high school less than a quarter of the students went to college.
College. Seeking the Exotic, Coming Back to my Roots
When I went to the University of Minnesota. I thought, since I had this Russian thing going— and since it was the 70s and we were talking Détente with Russia, that I would major in Russian and journalism. But during orientation someone said. “You like writing, I’ll put you down as an English major.” I wound up majoring in English, although I took Russian and Modern Greek.
During college, at Doreen Savage’s urging, I read Report To Greco by Nikos Kazantzakis. Inspired, I signed up to go to Greece with the SPAN program (Student Program for Amity among Nations). I spent two summers there (including one at the Balkan Institute), and the year studying everything Greek.
I still think of myself now — at 60 — as a shy person, but it was much worse in those days. Greece was an important part of the process of learning how to talk again. I had an awakening there—I discovered who I was and a little bit of what I wanted. I also found people to talk to. My friends Jill and Patrice and a kind Swedish student who called me a butterfly, emerging from her cocoon. It was that and more.
Greece is a different kind of beauty than we have in Minnesota — It was warm and beautiful, and the food was amazing, and you could eat vegetables and bread and be happy.
The biggest mistake I made was continuing to live at home when I returned. Because I had taken those steps out on my own, and then I walked back into a family crisis that lasted few years. My parents leaned on me to get them through. It was not a good time for me. So when I started graduate school I was depressed and confused. And learning woke me up again.
Feminism and Graduate School
I had my first feminist awaking at 15, when we were all talking about the Equal Rights Amendment. But then I forgot I was a feminist — until I took a class from Tony McNaron on Virginia Woolf. It was eye-popping. I wrote my honors thesis on Emily Dickinson and her way of seeing the world. It was the beginning of women’s studies for me.
I wanted to keep my job at the library, so I graduated with more than a year of extra college credit! During my last semester, I signed up for a 17th century literature class. The professor — whose name I have blissfully forgotten — was rocking himself in front of the class. I was literally getting sick watching him. I talked to my coworker about how I needed to get out of this class. She said, “There ’s this person who teaches women history. She is supposedly pretty good…”
I went to Sara Evans’ class on the second day and went down to the front to get the syllabus. She handed me it to me and smiled! I have to tell you, I had never seen a professor smile. I was somewhere new.
Sara gave a lecture that day on Native American women. It was the best thing I had ever heard. I had taken many history courses, and I had never heard anything about Native American women. Come to mention it, other then Catherine the Great, there weren’t any women at all discussed in those courses. Evans started talking about the “Manly-Hearted Woman” in Native American societies, and … Whoah!
I transferred into the class. When Evans talked about the Lowell Mill girls, it was the first time I had heard anyone talk about workers. All the classes I had taken were about monarchs and writers and revolutionaries — not ordinary people. By the end of the semester, I had decided I was going to study women’s history—and labor and social history. It was clear to me that the way to change women’s position in society was to study their history. We didn’t know enough about women.
In graduate school I had some great mentors. Sara Evans invested in me. She read everything I wrote up through my first book. Mary Jo Maynes taught European social history—She has a capacious mind. Rus Menard was funny, skeptical, and systematic. He knew where the pieces fit together. There were others. I was interested in studying where class intersected with gender. The first step of that had to be looking at the labor movement.
Rewriting Minneapolis Labor History
My first book’s subject was an accident. I wanted to study textile workers in the South in the 19th century, but my committee persuaded me to write a dissertation on the 20th century labor movement and to focus on something local.
Great Depression in the 1930s was a period of labor activism and organization. Minneapolis had this major truckers’ strike in 1934, key to Minneapolis and the state of Minnesota becoming much more liberal and unionized. In that moment of organization, I knew I’d find women organizing. Oral sources were scant. There were some taped interviews about the truckers’ strike or Hubert Humphrey the Minnesota Historical Society did in 1970s. They were not interested in women involvement or gender questions.
Women in the Twin Cities in the 1930s worked in industries where they were not prominent or where unionization was low. The huge Munsingwear plant up on the near North side employed hundreds of women workers. It wasn’t unionized until the late 1930s, and the unionization campaign did not involve much organizing. The Company negotiated with the CIO without much worker input.
About 5000 Twin Cities women worked in various aspects of the garment trade. Relative to other cities that was not a big number. I found some sources on those women in the national ILGWU (International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union) papers. The Minneapolis labor papers then, only provided bits and pieces. I was frustrated. I just didn’t have enough for a book, and I didn’t have a governing thesis.
Then two things happened.
- I was reading the labor papers and taking notes on the cartoons for my own amusement. One day I’m at the Minnesota Historical Society recovering from a headache from reading microfilm, thinking about Joan Scott’s contention that sometimes in women’s history silence speaks louder than words. That is when it struck me. There was no female representation in the cartoons. Social construction and solidarity in the labor movement were all based on male models. They were also racially constructed. I wrote a chapter on these cartoons. It has had the most lasting influence on the field and was the basis of many job talks.
- I was reading two books at the same time: American City: A Rank and File History of Minneapolis by Charles Rumford Walker, first published in 1937 and Mary Heaton Vorse’ s Labor’s New Millions, two entirely different visions of the labor movement. Walker was a proto-Leninist guy who believed a small group of guys would lead the class to victory, and Vorse believed in the people and wanted the workers to get justice. Her vision is of the revolution at Pengally Hall in Flint, where women and children were making meals and walking the picket line with men. Hers is rooted in community, and Walker’s in an elite group (a vanguard) of workers. Both were operative in the 1930s, but only community-based unionism brought the women in.
In Minneapolis in the 1930s women were involved in the movement-building stage; but they were eased out when things became bureaucratized. One of the mechanism by which this happened was the social and psychological casting of labor solidarity as masculine. Born in manhood. This is why women can both be central and yet invisible and excluded at times in labor.
All of it came together in my book — Community of Suffering and Struggle: Women, Men and the Labor Movement in Minneapolis, published in 1991.
Because I haven’t lived here since the book came out, I don’t know what affect it has had locally. I am friends with people at the Historical Society. Labor historian Peter Rachleff — now at the East Side Freedom Library — liked the book and taught it. I see it referred to on web pages about local strikes, women, and the labor movement.
I’ve given talks at the Minnesota Historical Society, but I have never been invited to commemorations of the Teamster’s strike. The truckers’ strike in the book is to show how the Teamsters local was instrumental in helping to organize the rest of the city and played a prominent role in the struggles discussed in the book. So it is there, but it is not central. The cartoons came from a Teamster paper. Sometimes the labor agenda and feminist agenda conflict. A book that points out the discrepancies may not be welcome at a celebratory event.
Half of my second book was set in Minneapolis. It is a biography of a labor journalist Eva McDonald Valesh, who was here in the 1880s and 1890s. I talk about labor and working class culture in Minneapolis, which was quite vibrant. Mainstream Minneapolis newspapers in the 1880s and 1890s were sold to working class, and they covered labor issues. I got terrific stuff on the strike of women garment workers and the Minneapolis’ Scandinavian Uprising (Streetcar strike of 1889) and a good deal about what workers of the time did and thought. My most recent book, Rethinking the American Labor Movement, also talks a bit about Minnesota workers.
Teaching Labor and Women’s History in Detroit
I have been teaching labor history and the history of feminism at Wayne State University in Detroit for 27 years now. Wayne State is an institution with about 30,000 students: 55% White, 25% Black, with a growing number of Latino students, and immigrants from all parts of the world. Most of the students grew up in Detroit or the surrounding suburbs and most are first generation college students.
Politics on campus are center to left, but we also have some White students who come from the suburbs who don’t share those feelings. We have dorms, but many students live at home or independently off campus. Many are returning adult learners. A significant number are not Christian, but Muslim or of other religions.
The Flint Water Crisis in Context
The crisis of 2008 was acute in Michigan. Pervasive gerrymandering is what allowed Governor Snyder—and the Republican-dominated legislature—to win in 2010. As in many states, the Democratic votes are underrepresented and have less power than they should. Snyder’s background experience was as the head of Gateway, overseeing the lay-off of 30,00 workers. He has overseen the privatization of the state. Public lands and resources have been taken over in cities. Bridge and roads left in disrepair. Snyder cut corporate taxes, and his appointed Emergency Financial Managers sold many public assets. They even tried to sell off the treasures at the Detroit Institute of Art—unsuccessfully due to a political bargain. But Snyder appointed financial managers in Detroit and Flint and other cities, and they were able to make decisions without community oversight. The decisions behind the poisoning of Flint water were not entirely about budgets and certainly disregarded the long-term effects on the community.
Comparing Labor Movements in Michigan and Minnesota
The labor movement in Michigan was different than Minnesota. The United Auto Workers (UAW) was and is nearly everything. Minnesota has a mixed economy while Michigan — everything is made or broken by the fate of the auto industry. When the auto industry falters, it is very difficult to organize labor. And the economy seems to cascade downward as it did in the 2008 crisis. Today, the auto industry is doing well, and even the cities are doing better, but we still face real challenges.
Finding Home in Two Midwestern States
When I first moved to Michigan, I traveled a lot. I did not much like the state. I learned over time to appreciate it and its beauty, but it was not until the last year or two that I have begun to call Michigan home. I found a vacation haven in Traverse City 200 miles north of where I live. It dawned on me recently that it was what Emily Dickinson called “the slant of light” there that made it feel like going home. It is the same latitude as Minneapolis — 45th Parallel.
For now Michigan is my home. I have thought about moving back to Minneapolis with my partner in retirement. I would love to be in a city with public transportation and green spaces and many people that I love.
It is good to know that you can make home in more than one place.
Family history is what taught me how rooted I was — figuring out I had a grandpa who was part of the farmer-labor movement and a Wobbly, and another ancestor who was a Freethinker. For years, I pursued the exotic as a way of finding myself when I was young—learning about the peoples and cultures of other lands; but for the past two decades I have steeped myself in the history of chosen ancestors closer to my own roots, finding home in those stories as well.