Who is this Woman? Thoughts on Family History and Oppression of Women

She stares off to the right, her head turned in an attempt to hide the deformity. The jutting of her lip, the sad look on her face, these things tell me something.

I think they do, anyway,

But I still see it, past the the curve of her nose. The closed eye, silent and unseeing.

The sight of that eye chills me. It might be the sign of a stroke. My heart constricts a bit as I examine the photo, which came in a passel of other photos that a cousin sent to me a few months ago. I know what it means to have eye problems.

I turn the picture over. On the back I see my grandfather’s name written in an unfamiliar hand, but with his first name crossed out. Just the last name. No date.

How I wish someone had taken the time to identify this person!  Going through boxes of old pictures, I come across this failing over and over again: no names/dates on photos, no identifiers. Rendering people nameless, anonymous.

I wonder who she was. I’m going to call her Mandy, just because.

The only other clue is the photographer’s stamp – Muscoda, Wisconsin. Close enough to Avoca, in southwestern Wisconsin, where my great-great-grandfather Duane ended up with his new bride. I’ve never learned why he moved there from Manchester, Vermont, stopping to marry Elizabeth in Cook County, Illinois. I’m guessing a train ride and an elopement figured into the equation somehow.

Maybe even something else. I’ve never counted the months. I do know that eventually my great-great-great-grandmother moved to be near the young couple and their four children. She’s listed in the 1860 census. Chloe, such a nice name.

Then came the Civil War. Duane marched off to the war with the 33rd Wisconsin, only to die of disease at Vicksburg in July 1863. My great-grandfather was 8 when his father died. I traced his name with my index finger on a Union monument in Vicksburg, where he’s listed as a musician.

Bugle or drum, I guess. I don’t know that, either.

There’s no good picture of him, but there is one of his four children and their half-sister, born when Chloe married an Irishman after Duane’s death. I wonder if woman #3 could be the unknown woman in the portrait? The man standing in the center is my great-grandfather. Again there’s no date, it could be close to 1900. But someone took the time to identify the people, so I know that woman #3 is Eliza, who lived with her husband in Chinook, Montana.

But back to Mandy, the woman in the portrait. If she’s not my grandfather’s aunt Eliza, could she be one of my grandfather’s cousins? Both of his siblings died in infancy, so he became an only child. His mother died when he was 8, the same age as HIS father when his father Duane died. I wonder what scars those two men carried, losing a parent at such early ages. Did that trauma stay with them as they meandered through life, touching everyone who came later?

Great-grandmother and great-grandfather wedding photo

I remain here completely at a loss. With no way to ever know the truth.

And, of course, Mandy’s face prompts me to think about the plight of women, primarily here in the United States. If Mandy never married, she would live a life devoted to taking care of aging parents and then be shunted off as a spinster to any siblings or other family members.

Oppression takes many forms. So how has oppression looked to women in the United States?

  1. Lack of access to basic education
  2. Lack of ability to study at university level in all subjects
  3. Inability to work at jobs considered to be men’s
  4. Treated like children
  5. Unable to own property in the same way that men did, especially after marriage
  6. Lack of right to vote
  7. Lack of credit and ability to procure loans
  8. Treated as sexual objects, birth control forbidden
  9. Physical abuse and rape, a man’s right in marriage
  10. Treated as childbearing vessels
  11. Submission to male authority, with punishment for rebellion, such as being placed in mental institutions or homes for wayward girls
  12. Keeping silent and in the private sphere
  13. Ridicule and shaming, constant reminders of inferiority
  14. Opinions ignored as irrelevant, intelligence denigrated
  15. Children and wives = property of husbands
  16. Nameless in family histories and family trees

Things have changed, and continue to change, but many cultural attitudes still hold sway. And no amount of legislation is going to change that. At least not overnight.

For more, see “American Women: An Overview” and “Gender and Oppression” – there’s a huge body of literature on this topic, so these two links just offer a jumping-off place.

5 thoughts on “Who is this Woman? Thoughts on Family History and Oppression of Women

  1. Thanks, Cathy. It’s is SO frustrating to try to guess who the people are! And I will take a look at The Forsyte Saga – have heard of it, but read the book or looked at the film versions.

  2. Hi Pat, thanks, yes, I did get his service records/request for widow’s benefits, etc., but there was no mention of what instrument he played. You get to the point where you wish there’d been FB back then, because then you’d be able to possibly find out those pesky details! I did get a copy of a letter he wrote to Chloe, as a distant cousin was in touch for a while.

  3. Cindy, you can get service records on your great-great-grandfather from the National Archives. My sister obtained these for our gg grandfather. It answered some questions and brought up others, such as, why did he enlist in NY when he lived in PA? Family history is fascinating. Btw, I enjoyed this post.

  4. Enjoyed this Cynthia. I have several tintype images from Bill’s great grandmother’s trunk with no identifying information. I hate not knowing who they were. Plus, I just finished The Forsyte Saga, you may have read the novel. It’s on Masterpiece Theatre and I think only until June 30. This ownership of the wife is running theme throughout the story.

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