Woman's Building and Columbian Exchange: Building Equality

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Due to limitations of time and space, this essay will be using the Women’s Building at the 1893 Columbian Exchange as a lens to examine the changing role of gender in America and the representative qualities the Columbian Exchange had for the nation’s future. The Victorian era had strongly constructed views of gender and the roles of men and women in society. An emphasis on domesticity meant a proper woman was responsible for the keeping of her family’s health, house-keeping, and perhaps the gentle education of her children through games (De Stasio, 42).

The turn of the century saw the growth of feminist circles, including the suffragettes, as women began to enter new spheres. However, despite the lobbying of these groups, mainstream society clung to the understanding of women they were willfully comfortable with. 1890 saw the publishing of a “moderate feminist paper,” titled Women- who’s motto was “Forward! But Not Too Fast”. Edited by Arnold Bennett the newspaper did little to celebrate women outside their traditional roles. Even moderately progressive columns, such as one intended to provide a personal interview with female authors played into gendered perceptions as the women were interviewed in their homes to display them, “in their two roles as women and as writers,” as though the two identities were mutually exclusive (De Stasio, 44). Perhaps Bennett’s greatest sin against women’s progress was writing multiple columns under female pseudonyms due to his belief that women were significantly behind men in terms of writing. Ironically, Bennett complained in his later life that women’s newspapers were harmful to men because they excluded them from partaking in areas of journalism that covered topics like, “fashion, grooming, etc.” (Di Stasio, 45).

The issue of women’s work and how their success should be compared to and interact with men’s became a divisive topic in the formative planning of the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. In light of their lack of visibility at the 1876 Centennial Exposition, suffragettes venomously fought for representation on the organizing committee of the Chicago World’s Fair which would oversee the planning and execution of the fair’s exhibits. As a political compromise, the National Committee allowed for the creation of the Board of Lady Managers who would oversee the construction, design, and maintenance of the Women’s Building (Sund 444). The constructions about gender that were formulated under the roof of the Women’s building were representative of America’s future as there was a certain duplicity in its role. In an attempt to map their understanding of gender roles into the geography of the Chicago World’s Fair, the National Committee unknowingly provided women the space to interact with the fair on a larger scale and progress the role of women in the public sphere.

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Largely funded by wealthy white men of industry such as Charles Schwab, John Whitfield, Milo Richardson, Lyman Gage, and Thomas Bryan, the Chicago World’s fair heavily reflected their opinions about social and political issues of the time. The physical planning and construction of the fair actualized the idea that the world could be neatly categorized by culture, race, gender, and intelligence (Palm 124). Despite the National Committee’s desire to physically and symbolically compartmentalize the influence of women, the very construction of the building resulted in a direct increase of single women traveling to the fair without the accompaniment of a husband or father to view the exhibit. To accommodate the number of women visiting the fair the relatively conservative Board of Lady Directors raised money to construct a low-cost, “safe respectable lodgings for women (Palm, 135).” Here, single women could have a safe, respectable space to claim in the urban environment surrounding the fair. The Women’s Building and the Woman’s Dormitory acted as socially sanctioned spaces for women to interact with the fair and the city of Chicago at large. Participation in cities meant women had more opportunities to pursue education, relationships, independent incomes, and work in jobs as seamstresses, typists and, stenographers (Palm, 134). In her book The New Woman: Fiction and Feminism at the Fin de Siècle, historian Sally Ledger acknowledges that while not necessarily a conscious movement towards progress the transition of women into city space inarguably had an effect on gender roles stating that, “while not all untethered female figures in the modern city fit the topo’s of the New Woman, all did enter the public domain and in doing so encroached upon the traditionally masculine spaces of the city (Ledger, 155). Ultimately, while the Woman’s Building was meant to compartmentalize the achievements of women, it inadvertently contributed to the participation of women in public sphere where they began traversing and navigating a previously masculine space.

Within the walls of the Woman’s building the Board of Lady Manager’s worked closely with the American Library Association to create a library that curated, “a unique collection of printed materials authored, illustrated, edited, or translated by women from all over the world (Wiegand & Wadsworth, 699.” Traditionally a masculine space the Woman’s Building’s library represented the progress of gender’s role in America because it showed that a woman’s achievements did not have to be measured by how well they reflect how a man would have done the same thing. While the library’s aesthetic played off traditional library design elements such as busts lining the length of the hall, it simultaneously promoted the identity of educated, professional, and politically interested women as the busts were of notable women in history and the contents of the library were evidence of the hard work women had been doing for generations in the production of knowledge (Wiegand & Wadsworth, 702). Unplanned by the National Committee, the physical collection and curation of the items in the library also elevated the status of women as the Lady Board of Managers was foraging international relationships to procure the books and materials that were to be displayed in the library. While the American Library Association did not form a Women’s Section until 1970, the engagement of librarians across borders and communities to produce the exhibit created exchanges and recurring lending programs on the topic of women’s writing (Searing, 46). Meticulously designed by Candace Wheeler, the library diverged from traditional design as it married a traditionally masculine space with feminine design as Wheeler believed a library, “is not only to hold books but to make the family at home in a literary atmosphere (Wheeler, 199).” The popularity and success of the exhibit was evidence that women could design and create in a way that is pleasing to the public and inherently different than traditional masculine standards.

The praise Candace Wheeler won for her design of the Women’s Building’s library was deserving yet unique because she purposely played on the gendered nature of libraries to create a new design aesthetic. Conversely, female artist, architects, and musicians were subject to transparently gendered criticisms of their work and judged as their work was competing directly with their male counterparts (Palm 136). Similar to the construction of the Woman’s Building the gendered criticisms of female works maintained a certain duplicity. While the critics were based off a male value structure, the public engagement with the art worked against the notion that to be a successful artist it would have to be in spite of the artist’s gender. In her essay The Female Experience and Artistic Creativity, Joelynn Snyder-Ott reflects on the experience of gender perception in art by comparing Renoir’s painting of a mother and child with that of Mary Cassatt. Renoir’s painting depicts a mother breastfeeding her baby, yet she is looking at the painter while doing so. Cassatt’s painting shows the mother and child interacting with each other in a significantly more emotional manner (Snyder-Ott, 17). The comparison shows how gender can be leveraged to convey different experiences of the same affair. Despite the intentionally gendered nature of the criticism they received, the fair provided the female artist greater public visibility and more opportunities for commissions and jobs (Palm, 136).

A significant portion of the progress women at the world fair was in spite of the actions of the National Committee. While championing their success, it is also necessary to acknowledge that the Board of Lady Managers was content to omit the contributions of minorities within their own ranks as the National Committee was content to omit women from the fairs, “allegorical kitsch (Lovell, 46).” The works of art on display in the Woman’s Building derived their legitimacy by being exclusionary and contextualizing them with European art. Despite American trader’s willingness to exploit Indian tribes like the Navajos for rugs and jewelry, and the Navajo women’s long tradition of making beautiful carpets, no Native American Art was displayed in the Woman’s Building (Lyon, 241). Any hint of cultural diversity was shaded by European influence such as the portrait of Pocahontas handing above a fireplace in the library in which she is depicted wearing, “a lace ruff and holding a quill pen (Wiegand & Wadsworth, 704).” The exclusion of minorities from the Women’s Building suggest that even within the women’s movement there were prejudices and forms of discrimination.

Ultimately the Women’s building acts as an effective lens to examine the progress of women through the gilded age into America’s future. Working outside mainstream narratives the women of the Chicago World’s fair had to take advantage of unconventional means to achieve progress in the forms of social mobility and economic opportunity. The physical constructions of the building as well as the intellectual decisions within its walls provide metaphors for the biases modern women still have to work against. Gendered criticisms and comparisons continue to permeate history and reappear in presidential elections, academia, and the music industry to name a few.

Furthermore, the lack of representation minorities received in the Women’s Building sheds light on how deeply engrained exclusion is, even within a movement constructed under the ideals of equality. Recognizing the high points and dark sides of the construction of the Women’s Building at the Chicago World’s Fair is important in understanding the transformation of gender roles in America’s futures. Wars, protests, celebrations, and marches have engaged with the role of gender and in order to truly champion equality it is necessary to work through previous inequalities in the pursuit of a brighter future.

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