Michigan — which has the longest shoreline of any state — also has the most lighthouses and the most lighthouse keepers.
Thanks to a new book from the University of Michigan Press, “Ladies of the Lights,” we now know Michigan has also had the most female lighthouse keepers.
“Lights” emphasizes lighthouse keeping was not for the faint of heart: Two Michigan women died while serving and, by the very nature of their location on desolate waters, it was lonely work.
“Lights” author Patricia Majher notes that women were required to do exactly the same job as men and were paid equivalent salaries. However, there was one exception: Majher said women could not paint the exterior of the lighthouse.
“Because of petticoats, it was very unladylike position for them,” she said.
The author said she was inspired by an article on a female lighthouse keeper in Michigan History magazine. Majher said she filed the idea away, and when she became the assistant director of the Michigan Women’s Historical Center and Hall of Fame in 2007 she turned the idea into an exhibit.
In assembling the exhibit (now touring the state) Majher worked with libraries, archives, lighthouse keepers’ descendants and experts such as Jeff Shook, the president of the Michigan Lighthouse Conservancy and a descendant of the state’s first female lighthouse keeper, Catherine Shook.
The vast majority of the female lighthouse keepers got their positions by default: Either their husbands had died or were off fighting in wars.
Majher said once the female lighthouse keepers left their posts “they faded into oblivion. They were difficult to track down.”
Now the editor of Michigan History, Majher has done a great job detailing 16 female lighthouse keepers in her book. Singled out for special attention are the first and last female lighthouse keepers; the keeper with the longest service; the one with the largest family; and one who died on duty.
Catherine Shook raised eight children while serving, but Katherine Marvin has the record with 10 children. Elizabeth Van Riper Williams accumulated 41 years of service at a number of lighthouses on Lake Michigan; many details of her work are in her 1905 memoir, “A Child of the Sea, and Life Among the Mormons.” Williams also lost her husband to the lakes while he was trying to save sailors from a floundering ship.
“It was not enough for women to just be lighthouse keepers,” Majher said. “Many of them had large families to raise. They did everything a woman would do, plus keeping the light.”
That meant long nights of trimming wicks, keeping the fire burning and the lighthouse lenses rotating.
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