When I decided to become a career woman, I thought I had no role models in my family. My parents (who sometimes considered me the black sheep) would have agreed. Imagine my surprise to find a matriarchal family and three generations of businesswomen women among my Swedish family in Kansas City!
My great-aunt Edith who was a stenographer, secretary, and notary public was a fixture at family gatherings. When I knew her, she was living in California with her two brothers who also were not married. Until their father died, they had lived their whole lives in the family home in Kansas City. I sensed that though my family respected my uncles, they felt sorry for Aunt Edith. It certainly was never suggested to me that instead of getting married and being supported by a husband, I could become a self-supporting working woman like my aunt.
When I began to research my family tree, I left the Swedish branch for last, perhaps because I already knew where my grandfather’s paternal relatives came from in the old country, as he had visited Sweden in the 1950s.
In my search for female strength among my ancestors, I had already discovered Irish immigrant Annie Corliss Inglis who raised her 9 children in the tenements of New York City virtually alone while her husband was at sea, and German immigrant Anna Maria Hemmerlein Christ who supported herself and her son working as a tailor in Brooklyn and continued to support herself after he married. But there was more.
Irene Ingrid Mattson Olson was born in 1829 in Överhogdal, Härjedalen, Jämtlands län in north central Sweden. She emigrated in in 1869, with her husband and four children, one of them an infant. There are few records of the family’s first ten years in the US. In 1879 Mrs. Irene Olson was supporting herself and her family by running a boarding house in Kansas City. In 1880 she was living with her 3 daughters, one of them newly married, the daughter’s husband and his two sons, in the boarding house. Her husband had returned to Sweden. Mrs. Irene Olson continued to run a boarding house for another decade or more. After she married in 1885, my great-grandmother Sarah Olson Bergman, her husband, and my infant grandfather lived for a time with Irene in the boarding house.
By 1893 Irene had closed the boarding house, begun to refer to herself as Ingrid, and was living with her daughter Belle who was working as a stenographer. In 1900, Irene Ingrid’s oldest daughter Anna Olson Zander, her husband, and their children had moved back in with Irene Ingrid and Belle. Though both Belle and Andrew Zander were working at the time of the 1900 census, Irene Ingrid was listed as the head of the family. Those who have researched census records will know how unusual it is for a woman to be listed as head of the family when there is a man in the house. This is testimony to the place of honor Irene Ingrid held in her family.
My 2x great-aunt Belle was also an unusual woman. The youngest of the three sisters, she was only 10 when her mother began running a boarding house. She grew up with a mother who was supporting herself and her family, so it may never have occurred to her that she needed a man to support her. When she went to work as a stenographer in her early twenties, stenography was not a female occupation: women were only about 20% of stenographers at the time. In her own way Belle Olson was a pioneer for women’s rights. In 1910 Belle was listed as the head of the extended family household.
The family comprised of the sisters Belle and Anna along with Anna’s husband and family stayed together after Irene Ingrid died in 1918. Anna’s older daughter Katherine followed Aunt Belle into the stenography profession, continuing to live in the family home. When she married late in life, rather than moving out to live with her husband, she invited him to move in with her family.
In 1940 Katherine and her husband and the sisters Belle and Anna were still living together. Belle at 71 was making $2700 as an office manager, and Katherine $1570 as a stenographer. Belle was earning nearly 3 times and Katherine nearly 2 times the average male salary for all occupations in 1940.
Belle Olson was a highly successful career woman, working continuously as a stenographer and legal secretary at least from 1890 to 1840. Her nieces Edith Bergman and Katherine Zander must have taken Belle as a role model when they began their own careers as stenographers. Irene Ingrid was also a successful businesswoman. Moreover, she and two of her daughters and one of her granddaughters created a matriarchal family that stayed together for seven decades.
Words fail when trying to describe the kind of power my Swedish female relatives had. They were not independent, self-reliant, or self-sufficient, as they stayed within their families. The best way to describe the roles they had might be to say that they had the kind of lives that are usually reserved for men. They were economic providers who were also cared for within families, for much if not most of their lives by female relatives. They came from families where working women were admired. They honored the strength of women and cherished their bonds with each other, while welcoming the men who shared their homes and their lives.
Carol leads the life-transforming Goddess Pilgrimage to Crete (facebook and twitter) spring and fall–early bird discount available now on the 2015 tours. Carol can be heard in interviews on Voices of the Sacred Feminine, Goddess Alive Radio, and Voices of Women. Her books include She Who Changes and Rebirth of the Goddess and with Judith Plaskow, the widely-used anthologies Womanspirit Rising and Weaving the Visions and the forthcoming Turning to the World: Goddess and God in Our Time. Lesbos where she lives is full of black sheep (the real ones). Photo of Carol by Michael Bakas.