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

By , Alexandra Johnson is a free-lance writer

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.

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.

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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.

Spearheading this group was Bertha Palmer, a Chicago social leader with an ironclad will for achievement. A shrewd power broker skilled in political networking, Mrs. Palmer proved a formidable challenge to her chief rival, Phoebe Couzins, a lawyer, ex-US marshal and suffragist. Mrs. Palmer's victory over Miss Couzins for the presidency of the Board of Lady Managers dashes any naive notions readers might told about women's altruism in the political arena. So fierce is the in-fighting, the jockeying for political power, that readers will wince in fascination.

However questionable Mrs. Palmer's tactics, one cannot deny her considerable achievements, not least of which was realizing the Woman's Building from start to finish. Out of her determined efforts for quality there emerged a coterie of women -- architects, sculptors, inventors, and social activists -- whose talent is indisputable. While far more talent abounds today, one wonders if in fact a project like the Woman's Building would ever get off the ground today.

What makes many of the achievements so remarkable is the relative inexperience of the women themselves. denied work forums -- women artists were still excluded from life- form classes, lawyers from the political arena -- women improvised through their careers. Perhaps most remarkable of all, though, was how young these pioneering women were. Sophia Hayden, the building's architect and the first woman to graduate from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology architecture school, was all of 21 at the time. Similarly, Alice Rideout, the San Francisco-born sculptor who completed the building's sculptures , was only 19.

When the World's Columbian Exposition opened on May 1, 1893, the Woman's Building came in for shots from the press. Sophia Hayden's Renaissance design was described by critics as if it were a spinster rather than a building. "Gracefully timid, peaceable, chaste," was one critic's description. If the critics held back from the Woman's Building, the public did not. It flocked in the droves to the Gallery of Honor, a long hall festooned with art work by artists such as Rosa Bonheur and Mary Cassatt, the later of whom was still not appreciated in her native country.

While, to be sure, the decorative arts dominated may of the rooms, two of the most visited rooms testified to women's more serious talents. Most notable, perhaps, was the Inventors Room, which displayed everything from blueprints for safety elevators to decodifications of Aztec calendars to new comet sightings. Despite the intellectual accomplishments in that room, visitors weren't prepared for the Library, whose shelves were filled with thousands of books by women. Ranging from original manuscripts by Jane Austen and Charlotte Bronte to contemporary legal studies, the Library left no are of professional life untouched. Most significant, it housed the first statistical compendium -- compiled for the Women's Building -- on women in the work force.

It didn't take that book -- or later speeches by Susan b. Anthony and Julia Ward Howe -- to convince visitors of the importance of two annex buildings: the Woman's dormitory, where for 40 cents a night women could stay, and the Children's Building. The latter was one of the most popular -- and most radical -- buildings at the fair. An early day-care center, it was a model of pioneering education for young children. Equipped with a gymnasium and woodworking shop, the center conducted one of the first kindergartens in America.

Given the breadth of accomplishment -- not to mention the wealth of assembled talent -- it would be nice to related that the Woman's Building had a radical impact on the women who created it. On the whole, it didn't. Its influence, as time has attested, was broader. It sparked a consciousness of women's potential which, only slowly, ignited into social change.

But as I read "The Fair Women," I couldn't help thinking about the Alice Rideout who was never heard of again, the Sophia Hayden whose career atrophied after the fair. Ms. Weimann has written a source book from which, one hopes, biographies and studies of these and other remarkable women will issue. Their story too must be told.

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