Ladies of the Lights
Michigan Women in the U.S. Lighthouse Service
Publication Year: 2011
Published by: University of Michigan Press
Title Page and Copyright
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I wish to thank the Michigan Women’s Historical Center and Hall of Fame for providing the opportunity to delve into such a fascinating topic in the process of developing the “Ladies of the Lights: Michigan Women in the U.S. Lighthouse Service” exhibit. The discovery of an...
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Lighthouse keeping in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was a rugged life ‹lled with long hours and hard work punctuated by periods of real peril. Not a profession for the fainthearted, it was thought by many to be unsuitable employment for the “fairer sex.”...
1. Female Lighthouse Keepers: A Brief History
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The story begins in the early eighteenth century, with the illumination of the inaugural “aid to navigation” in U.S. waters: Little Brewster Island lighthouse in Boston Harbor. First lit in 1716, it was manned—literally—by a fellow known as George Worthylake.1 Ten...
2. Michigan: Home to the Most Female Keepers
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By extension, Michigan also recorded the most keepers in the Lighthouse Service and earned another distinction as well: It was home to the most female keepers. Twenty-seven of the state’s women served as principal keepers out of approximately 140 across the country. Another twenty-five Michigan...
3. Typical Duties of a Lighthouse Keeper
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To fully appreciate the challenges that women faced in the light keeping profession, you must ‹rst understand what any keeper or assistant keeper was expected to do. The following excerpt from an 1835 document issued by the superintendent of lighthouses details just a few of...
4. How Did Women Get Appointed to Keeper Positions?
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The wives (and sometimes daughters) of keepers had little trouble being named assistant keepers in the Lighthouse Service; if their relatives requested the appointment, it was generally granted. But getting a woman named the principal keeper at a light? That was another...
5. What Drew Women to This Work?
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It’s a sad fact, but true: Most women became lighthouse keepers to provide for themselves and their children after the death of a keeper husband.1 And some were relatives of keepers who just fell naturally into the profession. One example of this was Caroline Warner—an...
6. What Special Hardships Did Women Face?
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Some lighthouses were built in the most remote places. M. A. Stevens bravely took on Michigan’s most distant assignment when she assisted her husband, William Stevens, at the Menagerie Island (Isle Royale) lighthouse fifty miles out in Lake Superior. Far from...
7. Were Any Female Keepers Also Mothers?
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Many female lighthouse keepers performed their professional duties while raising children, and some had very large families. Among Michigan’s most notable keepers who were also mothers are Catherine Shook with eight children and Katherine Marvin with ten....
8. Were Female Keepers Treated Differently from Male Keepers?
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It was definitely a man’s world in the Lighthouse Service of the nineteenth century. For instance, while men could serve at any light station, women were more restricted in their movements—for their own safety. An 1879 circular from Naval Secretary George Dewey to all...
9. What Were the Contributions of Wives of Male Keepers?
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A keeper’s wife’s primary responsibility was maintaining their residence to the same exacting standards as those of the lighthouse itself. The service’s inspectors visited each light station on a quarterly basis to review the performance of the keeper as well as the condition...
10. How Long Did Female Keepers Serve?
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The 1870s marked the high point of employment of women in Michigan lighthouses, with numbers declining sharply after 1898. In the twentieth century, only thirteen women served the maritime community; of those, nine appeared to be “placeholders” who stayed only a...
11. Sixteen Who Served
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More than fifty women served at Michigan lighthouses as assistant keepers or keepers starting in 1849 and ending in 1954. While all were dedicated to their jobs, sixteen served with particular distinction. Here are their stories, in order of their first year of official service...
12. An Interview with Frances (Wuori Johnson) Marshall
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What follows is an excerpted version of an oral history interview conducted in 2007 with Michigan’s last female lighthouse keeper Frances Marshall. She served at the White River light on Lake Michigan. The interviewer is the author....
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For most Michigan women, though, the record of their lives after lighthouse keeping is incomplete. After assisting her husband Stephen for ‹ve years at Gull Rock light, Mary Cocking ceases to show up in service records. It is thought that she moved with him...
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Geographical List of Keepers
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Alphabetical List of Keepers by Last Name
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Alphabetical List of Keepers by Lighthouse
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Chronological List of Keepers
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Page Count: 136
Publication Year: 2011