Local Bus Tour Shines a Light on Women’s History in Detroit

Take a Wild Women of Detroit bus tour with Detroit History Club’s Bailey Sisoy-Moore to learn about some of the most influential women in the city’s history.
Female cigar-factory workers who marched for fair wages are a subject of Wild Women of Detroit bus tours. // Photograph courtesy of the Walter P. Reuther Library, Archives of Labor and Urban Affairs, Wayne State University

You know that old saying, “History is written by the victors”? While it’s worth noting that most of those victors were men, along the way, there were also a lot of cool women — especially here in Detroit.

Just ask Bailey Sisoy-Moore. She will tell you all about them — the brave, the ballsy, and the downright badass — on one of her Wild Women of Detroit bus tours.

Sisoy-Moore is the founder of the Detroit History Club and Detroit History Tours, which conducts excursions on buses, on foot, and even on tall ships. Upon closing out 2022, Detroit History Tours had given nearly 470 tours, held nine events, and attracted its 300,000th guest since its inception seven years ago.

For Sisoy-Moore, who once lived in a former brothel in Highland Park and whose offices occupy what was once a funeral home in Hamtramck, history is a living thing. And it has become her full-time career.

“You’ve got to have a sense of history to do this job,” says Sisoy-Moore, whose great-grandparents immigrated to Hamtramck from Russia in 1899 and later moved to Detroit’s Warrendale neighborhood. “When you love history, it’s always in your head.”

Sisoy-Moore launched her very first Wild Women of Detroit bus tour in 2014, when the tour- company gig was a part-time job, with weekend tours only. In 2018, she switched gears, leaving a prestigious position as a model maker at General Motors Co. after nearly 10 years.

Traditionally, Women’s History Month is observed nationally in March, but Sisoy-Moore, 36, celebrates women’s history year-round. The Wild Women of Detroit bus tours — always led by Sisoy-Moore herself — spotlight 12 to 15 women. She tells their stories as robustly as tales are usually told about men’s success or notoriety.

Who qualifies as a “wild woman” in this town?

“A woman who, through social, professional, or personal avenues, affected the way Detroit, Highland Park, or Hamtramck exists today,” Sisoy-Moore says.

Their achievements are often obscured. “Most historians have come across research that refers to a woman only as ‘Mrs. husband’s-last-name,’ hitting a barrier to learning even the first name of a woman heavily involved in charity or philanthropy work,” Sisoy-Moore says. “Women have always been part of the story but are often sidelined to present men as having done it all.”

Consider Esther Gordy Edwards, who is discussed as part of the new 2023 version of the tour. Berry Gordy III was Motown Records’ founder and creative force, but it was his older sister, Esther, whose business acumen, financial stewardship, and organization of the talent kept the company viable.

“Esther’s work at Motown was a huge part of their success,” Sisoy-Moore says. “She made sure the bills got paid and that female artists advocated for themselves.”

Other wild women who will be discussed include Rosa Parks, Ruth Ellis, a Black entrepreneur and LGBTQ rights leader in the 1940s; Helen Thomas, known as the “dean” of the White House press corps; Florence Knoll Bassett, whom The New York Times called “the single most powerful figure in modern design”; and the first woman to own a Harley Davidson franchise.

Many of the wild women “wedged doors open so that more women could keep coming through,” Sisoy-Moore says.

Among the women who have been featured in the past, and who are important to recognize during Women’s History Month, are Marie Therese Cadillac — the wife of Detroit founder Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac — who handled administrative tasks and helped tend to the medical needs of soldiers and Native Americans; the “cigar girls of Detroit,” who, through their work at 5-cent cigar factories in Southwest Detroit, helped boost the city’s economy; and Helen McGowan, aka the “Motor City Madam,” who “cleaned up the more criminal sides of prostitution by getting rid of illegal drugs and alcohol. She even provided contraceptives and medical care to the women.”

So, is Sisoy-Moore a wild woman?

“You’ve got to be a little bit of a wild woman to be an entrepreneur,” she says. “I hope my actions and abilities leave me remembered fondly in Detroit, but I’ll leave that to the next generation of historians. I just hope they’ll be celebrating me — and that I’m not a cautionary tale.”

Wild Women of Detroit tours take place on select Thursday nights and on select Saturdays, with matinee and evening tours. Private tours are also available for booking any day and time. For tickets or for more information about the tours and Detroit History Club’s women’s history events throughout March, visit detroithistorytours.com.

This story is part of the March 2023 issue of Hour Detroit. Read more in our Digital Edition