Strong Female Role Models among Swedish Immigrant Ancestors in Kansas City by Carol P. Christ

carol p. christ photo michael bakasWhen 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 Olson0001
Irene Ingrid Mattson Olson

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.

Mattson, Olson, Bergman, Zander families 1900
From left, second row from bottom, sisters Sarah, Anna, and Belle with Irene Ingrid 3rd; first row, Katherine 3rd, Edith 5th–about 1900.

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.

Edith Bergman with the Mayor of Kansas City
Edith Bergman with the Mayor of Kansas City

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.

Author: Carol P. Christ

Carol P. Christ is a leading feminist historian of religion and theologian who leads the Goddess Pilgrimage to Crete, a life transforming tour for women.

20 thoughts on “Strong Female Role Models among Swedish Immigrant Ancestors in Kansas City by Carol P. Christ”

  1. Most people’s lives (I see more and more) don’t fit into the scripted roles society dictates. Your ancestors in this piece demonstrate that. Those with resiliency (and other qualities?) navigate that unscripted space with some degree of comfort. Going outside society’s convention took a toll on my maternal grandmother. She became pregnant out of wedlock (early 1900s) with my mother but managed somehow to scrounge up a man to marry her. She never really did “get it together” as she lived with guilt (manifesting itself in aberrant ways) about the incident all of her days. My grandmother’s sister also became pregnant out of wedlock around that same time period. She committed suicide. Wish my ancestors had kept diaries or journals about their lives. Just some thoughts….thank you for a peek into your family history.


  2. Thank you for this fascinating history! I think that many more women worked in previous generations than most of us are aware of. Because it wasn’t respected, it isn’t always talked about in family histories but these stories are sometimes the most interesting! When my grandmother was about 20 she traveled up to northern Michigan alone and taught children and lumberjacks how to read. When my mother was about the same age, she enlisted for 30 years in the Navy as a nurse (she was later discharged when she married). Louisa May Alcott’s novel Work is an enlightening peak into the lives of Victorian working women (her own mother was one of the first social workers in Massachusetts in the mid-19th century).


  3. What a delightful peek at your family history, Carol. Thank you for sharing it.

    I think there are some typos in the years in case you are publishing it further.


  4. How inspiring this model of both independence and nurture, fulfillment of individual talent supported by and contributing to extended family. A living matriarchal model that demonstrates the community and the individual don’t have to be at odds. Thank you!


  5. Your family history story here has me thinking about the choices and opportunities immigrant women on the frontier had compared to their Old World counterparts who might have been more entrenched in traditional cultural expectations and extended family obligations. The immigrants could ‘make their own world’.


  6. Dear Carol: whenever you write of your family It all feels so familiar… when you wrote of the Hueganauts who moved to our southern states (my fathers family) and now your Swedish roots – the names, appearance and values are all so familiar. I too, thought the women in my mothers Norwegian/Swedish family were so simple (but strong) until I did some family digging. I was required at CIIS to write a paper on the maternal side of my family – until then I thought Mother’s family were all farmers but to my surprize, all my grandmothers sisters had a business or profession of their own; my grandmother made a “choice” to be a farmer and live off the land in Minnesota! That was her profession. In addition, all my female cousins are strong, independent, professionals – whether married or not – I am so proud of my family. Thank you again. Jayne 4


  7. My father’s sister, my Aunt Avis, moved from Crete, Nebraska in the 1930’s to California, and was a stenographer. I had always assumed that, since she continued to work for the same executive, she was doing the secretary as office wife thing. Now I know it may have been quite different– she never married, and only returned to the family home when she was dying of cancer. My father and his brother worked for the family business, and my uncle lived with their mother for her whole life, dying soon after she did. My father was the only one of the three to marry or have children. Thank you for letting me see another side to my aunt– self-reliant pioneer of a new line of work.


    1. Interesting isn’t it, that so many of us were raised with the idea that marriage was the only option, when our own families belied this. I too did not know stenographer was once more than a female helping profession.


  8. My great grandmother, Elizabeth Alma Abrahamson, from Sweden, together with two other women, opened the first restaurant in Nome Alaska at the end of the 19th century. I often wonder what it was like for her to travel by herself from Sweden to Nome during the gold rush. While I never met her, I continue to be inspired by her strength and vision.


  9. I have researched census records and it is not unusual at all for a woman to be listed
    as Head of the household, especially when the male is a son-in-law. Are you applying
    American values to a European family dynamic? The ancestors won’t like that.


  10. Growing up, I alway knew that my mother’s family was headed by a matriarch — my grandmother. She was a strong woman, who when her husband committed suicide kept her family alive with a huge garden in her backyard. When her oldest daughter married, her new husband moved in with Grammy. But, of course, the ideal was for the newly-weds was to live on their own, and when there was enough money, they moved out. In our culture, iI think t’s not just lack of respect for working women — and the assumption that women should marry and be supported by a husband — that leads to this history being lost, it’s also the ideals that money can buy, and having your own home was one of them.


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