Four centuries after Columbus “discovered” the New World, the United States put on an extravaganza in Chicago to showcase its national story in front of the world. With the suffrage movement already underway, women insisted on–and received–a huge presence in the “public sphere,” emerging in an organized fashion from social restrictions that earlier in the century generally kept them within the confines of home. The Columbian Exposition of 1893 boasted women in positions of authority (there was a Board of Lady Managers); as artists (impressionist painter Mary Cassatt, among others, created a special mural); even as inventors (a whole exhibit of female-designed contraptions was on display).
Though minimal, the presence of women in ministries was hard to miss. A World Parliament of Religion was part of the fair’s programming. Its Women’s Committee was headed by Augusta Jane Chapin, a circuit-riding Universalist minister from the Midwest, who was also a charter member of the American Woman Suffrage Association. Chapin was so passionate an advocate of dismantling barriers to women that she reminded the audience at the opening session of how, in her memory, there had been “not one well-equipped college or university open to women” and no women preaching outside of the Quakers.
Jewish women held a congress of their own within this framework. From Sept. 4-8, 25 speakers discussed the overlapping themes of women, religion, reform and tolerance. The congress chair, Hannah Greenebaum Solomon, was a close friend of Chicago’s own immigrant rights and feminist activist Jane Addams. The opening prayer was delivered by Ray Frank, known in the newspapers as “The Girl Rabbi of the Golden West,” who offered sermons but did not perform official rabbinical duties in California.
New York’s Julia Richman, who would become the city’s first female superintendent of schools, spoke about wage-earning women and immigrants. A social worker named Sadie American would go on to be an international worker against sex trafficking. One afternoon session was devoted to discussing how to organize against “persecution,” by which the organizers meant anti-Semitism. The congress closed with a talk by Henrietta Szold, who founded the first night school to teach English to Russian Jewish immigrants in Baltimore, Md.
Yet the celebration of women and the signs of progress on parade in Chicago were limited by the blinders of race, class and consciousness of the time. The “world’s religions” invited to come together specifically excluded Native American religions and any African Americans who were not Christians. The “help” extended to immigrants by Julia Richman and others included a demand that they speak only English and the punishment of a soapy mouth-washing if they reverted to native tongues.
One person who saw the limitations was journalist and anti-lynching activist Ida B. Wells. With abolitionist Frederick Douglass, she created a pamphlet protesting the exclusion of “the colored American” at the fair and handed it out to visitors. Soon afterwards, Wells moved from Tennessee to Chicago and continued the work she started on the fairgrounds.
There was much to boast of for American women in 1893, but the recognition of rights, talents and achievements of Native Americans, African Americans and the “foreign born” were still to come.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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