Centennial Exhibition Women's Pavilion

(WOMENSENEWS)–Independence Day, 1876 brought over-the-top hoopla at the Centennial Exhibition in Fairmount Park, Philadelphia. There were spectacles, marching bands, a steam railroad, hot air balloons and two different tactical approaches by which women hoped to win equal citizenship. The Woman’s Pavilion showed off the considerable achievements of America’s women in multiple arenas. But activists like Lucretia Mott and Susan B. Anthony wanted no part of proving women’s value; they came to Philadelphia to protest.

Leader of the first group was Elizabeth Duane Gillespie, great granddaughter of Benjamin Franklin. A leading fundraiser for the entire exhibition, she countered the announcement that there wasn’t enough money for a women’s exhibit by redoubling her efforts, organizing a vast chain of grassroots activities and eventually spearheading the creation of a whole separate building.

In spite of famous novelist William Dean Howells’ perplexity about “why the ladies wished to separate their work from the rest of the human race,” Gillespie’s team recruited women like Emma Allison, who tended a steam engine that powered the machines in the Women’s Pavilion, which included a printing press issuing a daily newspaper called The New Century for Women. To snickers that she might hurt herself, Allison replied that tending the engine was less tiring and dangerous than working over a kitchen stove. Gillespie also oversaw the collection of recipes from all parts of the country, publishing 950 entries in what became the first all-American cookbook.

The second group wanted to cook up trouble, or at least confront the self-congratulating government. Members of the National Woman Suffrage Association–including 83-year-old Lucretia Mott, 61-year-old Elizabeth Cady Stanton and 56-year-old Susan B. Anthony–hoped that President Ulysses S. Grant would use the centennial year to announce women’s suffrage. He would not.

Denied a place on the program or seats on the platform for the big Fourth of July ceremonies, Anthony and four others held a counter-centennial outside Independence Hall. They distributed a document that listed “articles of impeachment against our rulers.” Apologizing for the “one discordant note” they brought to the hoopla, Anthony read an indictment of the “series of assumptions and usurpations of power of woman, in direct opposition to the principles of just government, acknowledged by the United States as its foundation.”

Nearly 50 years later, American women won the right to vote.

Louise Bernikow is the author of seven books and numerous magazine articles. She travels to campuses and community groups with a lecture and slide show about activism called “The Shoulders We Stand On: Women as Agents of Change.” She can be reached at [email protected].

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For more information:

Free Library of Philadelphia: Centennial Exhibition Collection:

University of Delaware Library: Centennial Exhibition: