We Kept Our Towns Going

The Gossard Girls of Michigan's Upper Peninsula

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Pub Date 01 Mar 2022 | Archive Date 28 Feb 2022

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WITH A FOREWORD BY LISA M. FINE, MICHIGAN STATE UNIVERSITY—Michigan’s Upper Peninsula is known for its natural beauty and severe winters, as well as the mines and forests where men labored to feed industrial factories elsewhere in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. But there were factories in the Upper Peninsula, too, and women who worked in them. Phyllis Michael Wong tells the stories of the Gossard Girls, women who sewed corsets and bras at factories in Ishpeming and Gwinn from the early twentieth century to the 1970s. As the Upper Peninsula’s mines became increasingly exhausted and its stands of timber further depleted, the Gossard Girls’ income sustained both their families and the local economy. During this time the workers showed their political and economic strength, including a successful four-month strike in the 1940s that capped an eight-year struggle to unionize. Drawing on dozens of interviews with the surviving workers and their families, this book highlights the daily challenges and joys of these mostly first- and second-generation immigrant women. It also illuminates the way the Gossard Girls navigated shifting ideas of what single and married women could and should do as workers and citizens. From cutting cloth and distributing materials to getting paid and having fun, Wong gives us a rare ground-level view of piecework in a clothing factory from the women on the sewing room floor.

WITH A FOREWORD BY LISA M. FINE, MICHIGAN STATE UNIVERSITY—Michigan’s Upper Peninsula is known for its natural beauty and severe winters, as well as the mines and forests where men labored to feed...

Advance Praise

Phyllis Michael Wong’s new book We Kept Our Towns Going: The Gossard Girls of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula renders visible the voices of the subaltern. One of the myths of US history is that white women didn’t begin working outside of the home until the early 1970s. This myth has been perpetuated by the lack of storytelling about white women working outside the home. Wong’s pioneering book offers a rare glimpse into this invisible world. This is an astonishing book that will challenge and transform your understanding of what we as Americans think about working women.—Angela J. Hattery, professor of women and gender studies and co-director of the Center for the Study and Prevention of Gender-Based Violence, University of Delaware

In my years of study of Upper Peninsula history I often wondered when the story of the Gossard girls would be told. Now, through Phyllis Michael Wong’s diligent and thorough efforts, the story has arrived—a major milestone in the history of women in the UP.—Russell M. Magnaghi, professor of history emeritus, Northern Michigan University, and author of Upper Peninsula of Michigan: A History

This is a brilliant presentation about the cultural and economic history of women in the garment industry in the UP of Michigan. These are important and moving stories, very well researched.—Douglas B. Roberts, former chair, board of trustees, Northern Michigan University; former director, Institute for Public Policy and Social Research, Michigan State University; and former State Treasurer of Michigan

Relentlessly researched, beautifully written, and chock-full of intimate life stories from some of America’s most impactful glass-ceiling breakers, We Kept Our Towns Going is an engaging yet poignant reminder that our nation’s battle for gender equity, immigrant rights, and labor unions is replete with unsung heroes. Unsung no longer, the Gossard Girls profiled in these pages are worthy of study and celebration as our nation aims to finally and fully eradicate the inequities they so courageously faced.—Framroze M. Virjee, president, California State University, Fullerton

Phyllis Michael Wong’s new book We Kept Our Towns Going: The Gossard Girls of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula renders visible the voices of the subaltern. One of the myths of US history is that white...

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Many years ago, we took a side route through Michigan’s Upper Peninsula to drive through the town of Gwinn. One of the saints of our church had been born and raised there. I knew little else about the town.

Gwinn had been built for the mining company workers, a ‘model’ town, a planned town. About the time of our friend’s birth, a building was taken over by the H. W. Gossard company, a manufacturer of ladies undergarments. Gossard already had a factory in Ishpeming. The two factories had a huge impact on local economics. Gossard jobs allowed women to support their families with extra income, or while their mining husbands were out of work, or to save money before marriage. Many girls left school to work and help out the family.

Gossard treated the workers well, even offering free, hot lunches. The piecework sewing was demanding, and physically abusive, but the Gossard Girls were proud of their work and their contribution. They were like ‘family’.

When union organizers arrived, it took years to generate support for a union. It did accomplish a pay raise, but the nature of the work also altered. Over time, the isolated location of the factories became a burden, with transportation costs rising in the 1970s. The factories were closed.

We Kept Our Towns Going by Phyllis Michael Wong is the story of the factories and the Gossard Girls, filled with detailed interviews with the women. The wealth of information may be overwhelming for the casual reader, but for those interested in learning in depth about the nature of the factory work, the growth of unions, and the lives of ordinary working women will appreciate this book. Wong interviewed scores of women who talk about the details of their working lives, rich in details that offer a deep look into decades of women’s history.

I was particularly interested in the use of fabric scraps related in the book. Women made miniature bras for boys to hang in their cars! And, after the factories closed, a stash of fabric scraps were made into quilts! You can find them documented on the Michigan State University Museum Quilt Index.

I received a free egalley from the publisher through NetGalley. My review is fair and unbiased.

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We Kept Our Towns Going is a fascinating and engaging look at the manufacture of women's undergarments in two factories in Michigan in the early twentieth century. The book covers the importance of the industry in a rural area, the importance of the factories for providing work- and especially financial independence for the local women, and the place of these factories in the history of the women's labour movement. 
 Phyllis Wong's history is based predominately on oral history, including interviews undertaken for the book. She treats these stories with respect and sensitivity and weaves them into a wider history of the area and period. 
The book follows a generally logical chronology and brings to life the various jobs and work undertaken at the factory. She highlights the importance of the social relationships between women workers, and emphasizes the support these women provided each other- but also the impact of favouristim in the workplace. Many of the workers viewed the factory and staff as a 'family'  and Wong carefully interweaves narratives of workers, their children and those who knew them. She shows how supportive and considerate managers created initiatives such as providing "free nutritious" meals to workers to help their incomes go further in the wartime years, and contrasts this with how pro-union workers saw this as an attempt to stop unionizing. 
Chapter 4 which focusses on the 1940s, particularly focusing on a 4 month long strike which was rare as a women's pro-union strike, takes up a significant portion of the book, provides an engaging discussion on the strike and its place in the women's labour movement. She touches on stories of workers who were both pro and anti union, and highlights how the strike and union were perceived- particularly by those who didn't really understand the union or have an opinion. However throughout the book there were moments where I wish she would have discussed some of the contrasts of opinions and experiences- for instance she touches on several people who continued to work during the strike and were verbally abused (or physically threatened), yet once staff went back to work, the worker's got along again. There is little discussion of this disconnect. Although she does provide an understanding of the effects of this on one worker- one supervisor who was well liked and respected- yet as they continued to work during the strike people would spit and yell at them- they ended up having to be transferred during the strain. 
The book is short and sweet, and was an interested glimpse of the lives of these women. I think there was potential for some ideas to be pursued further, but on the whole it was a satisfying snapshot of a rural community. 
My thanks to Netgalley and Michigan State University Press for providing me with a copy.

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Thank you to NetGalley and the publisher for providing this book in exchange for an honest review.
This is an in-depth look at the women, and some men, who kept the Gossard undergarment factories running. These factories we're a huge asset to the small mining towns. The women had a great opportunity to bring in income for their families and it gave many teenage girls a good job right out of high school. It is amazing how many years some of these women worked there, essentially making it their career.
The beginning of the unions and the struggles to unionize we're interesting parts in this book too.

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