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Women's History Month: Key Roles In Ypsilanti's Industrial And Community Development

Women have played an important part in Ypsilanti’s 200 year-old industrial heritage.  During the late 19th century and early 20th century, women were hard at work in mills throughout the region. They worked for low wages while often standing for long hours in silence.  We took a history tour to reveal how important women were in developing a future for the Ypsilanti area. 

"First of all, where we are right now, sitting right here, this is the Louise Mitchell's boarding house."

We're near the parking lot for the Riverside Arts Center.  Women who worked in mills and factories used to live in a boarding house that stood here. It's a stop on the Ypsi Working Women Walking Tour and where we meet local historian MattSiegfried.

"Ypsilanti is six to seven thousand people in this period. There are about 350 women who go to the Normal College in that period and maybe up to 700 working in these mills."

Ypsilanti resident Lisa Voelker took part in the tour.

"That does surprise me how many working women were in industry work."

Ypsilanti had 33 mills and factories in 1909.  Many women, like men, had been leaving farms for decades as work dried up.  The women were usually young, single and known as Factory Girls around town.  Many worked at  the Ypsilanti Dress Stay Factory that stood across the street from the Riverside Arts Center.  Matt informed the group the two-story building was replaced by a parking lot. 

"The Stay Factory right there, they would have had the pinkers, which is the largest group of people and they are cutting things, would've made sixty-sixty cents in about 1898,1890. It would have been small wages but would have been wages."

And those wages were significantly lower for women.  Matt says that disparity led the women to take action.

"A lot of these plants would have seen strikes in sort of ad hoc, and it would have happened the morning that wages were set, and the women decided that that wasn't fair at that point and walk out. But there weren't strikes generated by unions."

Local activist ShoshannaWechter, who is also with us on the tour, is glad to hear that women fought for equality.  

"Because it gives a grounding and it shows that Ypsilanti and this whole area is a place where there is a long history and a tradition of women's activism."

As we walk closer to West Cross Street on North Huron, Matt points out several of the homes where the owners of the mills and factories lived.  Many women also worked in those homes as cooks, nurses and caretakers.  We eventually make it out to Frog Island through Riverside Park.  

Mills were popular along the Huron River because they generated power for the factories.  One of those mills was the YpsilantiUnderwear Company.  Matt says a painting of a half-naked woman on the side of their three-story building caused quite a stir.

"At the top of Forest Avenue, literally a quarter of a mile away, at the top of the hill, there is Eastern Michigan University, where women don't even show, the wrists are not even shown on their clothes, they are sanctified, dignified middle-class women going to the university to be teachers. At the bottom of the hill are working class women, Factory Girls whose sexuality is advertised on the side of the building for everyone to see. Totally different attitudes toward what it means to be a woman between the middle class women and the working class women separated by about a quarter of a mile."

By the 1920's, most of the mills had closed as technology advanced and cheaper labor was available down south.  The Peninsular Paper Company was one of the last to close in the early 2000's.  The union shop managed to keep customers like the Chicago Tribune, who would only work with unionized factories.  

Parking lots have replaced the buildings, and the women who worked in them are long gone, but the Ypsi Working Women History Tour keeps their memories standing tall.

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— Jorge Avellan is a reporter for 89.1 WEMU News. Contact him at 734.487.3363 or email him javellan@emich.edu

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