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The Woman's Building: fleeting monument to a capacity for work

By Alexandra JohnsonAlexandra Johnson is a free-lance writer / July 28, 1981

Queen Victoria sent a sample of her own watercolors, Susan B. Anthony, a copy of her "History of Woman Suffrage," Mary Cassatt, a new mural, and Sarah Bernhardt, never one to be upstaged, offered three marble busts sculptured by her own hand. The most notable contributor to the Woman's Building at the 1893 world's Columbian Exposition in Chicago -- the subject of Jeanne Weimann's new book -- though, was Everywoman. It was for and bym her that this unique building celebrating and showcasing the diversity of women's achievements was conceived.

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In "The Fair Women" those accomplishments are celebrated all over again. Given the historic importance, the richness of material, it's surprising that a serious study of the Woman's Building hasn't been written until now. In her book, exhaustive in its scope, painstaking in its research, Ms. Weimann has uncovered one of the most fascinating, though forgotten, stories in the history of women's achievements.

"The Fair Women" exerts a fascination that goes far beyond its historic subject matter. In detailing the history of the Woman's Building, Ms. Weimann has hit upon a subject that speaks with uncommon relevance to the modern reader. It is redolent with the very issues that continue to confront women today. Indeed, it is impossible to read "The Fair Women" without experiencing not only a sense of deja vum -- of having been there before -- but, on so many social issues -- of stillm being there.

There's a disquieting familiarity to the issues that dominated the 1893 exhibit: the merits of paid labor vs. volunteerism: the demand for equal pay for equal work; the need for creative child care; the petitioning for political reform of labor laws affecting women. Add to this the all too familiar splintering of women into feminist and nonfeminist camps. Each, of course, branding the other as extremist. And at the bottom of it all lurks the obvious question: Should a separate forum for women exist in the first place? Or does this merely underscore the division between the sexes that, paradoxically, the forum seeks to rectify? Ms. Weimann remains tactfully mute, preferring instead to pose the questions in the form of her narrative discourse. Thus readers are left to interpret for themselves whether the Woman's Building is merely a relic of time fossilized in history, or a precursor of social change whose effects are still being felt today.

The phenomenon of international expositions during the last century was itself the most obvious register of social change of its own time.Commencing with the Great Exposition in London in 1851 and reaching a standard of excellence with the 1889 Universal Exposition in Paris, the fairs were showcases of commercial progress. It's no coincidence, therefore, that Chicago, a city of industrial power, be selected as the site of the 1893 exposition. Just as a commercial empire had conceived itself in Chicago, so, in time, would a beaux-arts kingdom -- a hothoused fantasy world of pavilions and pagodas -- blossom in the prairie city.

The idea of a woman's building had in fact been realized on a less ambitious scale at the Philadelphia Centennial of 1876. It possessed none of the social vigor the Columbian Exposition sought from the start. Under the congressionally appointed Board of Lady Managers, some 117 in all, the Woman's Building determined to demonstrate women's instrumental role in industry. While it was impossible to avoid the tea cup and lace sensibility that haunted women's accomplishments, rendering them "decorative" in status, the Woman's Building sought to redefine women's work image. Handiwork may indeed mean crocheting. But after 1893 it also meant architecture, 'sculpture, literature, and scientific invention. For the Woman's Building was nothing less than a literal monument to and of women's capacity for work.