The Museum of the City of New York’s new exhibit, “Rebel Women: Defying Victorianism,” highlights the contributions of local women in the Victorian Era. This was a time before the suffrage movement become mainstream, when women were laced into rib crushing corsets and told to keep quiet. Rampant sexism, racism and classism kept generations of women in lower rungs of social status, but not all women of the time stayed silent.
The exhibit displays the stories of self-sustaining and determined women along emerald green walls. The exhibit fills one long hallway leading to the entrance to the museum’s soon-to-be closing “Beyond Suffrage” exhibit, which looked at the suffrage movement from 1917 to Hillary Clinton’s run for presidency. In essence, “Rebel Women” is a prologue to the history of American feminism as we recognize it.
To walk through the hallway is to immerse yourself in the the limitations placed on 19th century women. On display with the photos and archival material is a painful looking corset, a delicate parasol, a glove that required a maid’s assistance to put on and a red satin shoe which signaled a woman who wasn’t afraid of drawing attention to herself. Popular sketches at the time lampooned outspoken women trying to fight for the right to vote. Advertisements played into racist ideas about women of color as being less feminine and painted working-class Irish women as lowly and lazy servants. The women and girls who left home to support themselves were portrayed in the media as loose and wild.
A few of the figures, like Victoria Woodhull, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony may sound familiar, but many of the women featured in the exhibit are not as easily recognized.
Curatorial fellow Marcela Micucci says she wanted to make the exhibit intersectional in order to bring up stories time may have forgotten.
Susan Smith McKinney Steward’s name may not ring a bell, but she was New York City’s first black woman physician. Born in Brooklyn and a graduate of Manhattan’s New York Medical College, she was only the third black woman in the country to receive her medical license in 1870.
Likewise, Micucci highlights the contributions of Elizabeth Jennings Graham, who made history as “New York City’s Rosa Parks.” On her way to church one Sunday, Jennings Graham hurried onto a segregated streetcar on July 16, 1854. When the conductor couldn’t get her to leave, she was removed by the police. The incident galvanized the black middle-class community, and the streetcar company faced a lawsuit made on the schoolteacher’s behalf. Jennings Graham won, and a few years later, segregated streetcars were abolished in 1860. Later in her teaching career, Jennings Graham helped establish the city’s first kindergarten for black children.
Madame Restell has a much more daring, if tragic, story to share. Born Ann Trow Lohman, she fashioned a new identity for herself as Madame Restell to perform abortion and sell birth control. “She mostly catered to middle-class women who could afford her services, but she made a very lucrative career out of doing so especially as abortion laws were hardened in the 1870s,” says Micucci. Restell became such an in-demand figure at the time, that at one point, she was one of the richest women in the city until she was arrested by Anthony Comstock, the man behind the Comstock Law that forbade birth control. Micucci says Restell got “in her bathtub in her commissioned Fifth Avenue mansion with every piece of jewelry that she owns and slits her throat,” rather than face jail time.
Acting maybe seen as a well-regarded profession today, but in the time of Adah Isaacs Menken, actresses were seen to be on the same level as women in burlesque shows. It was not a profession those craving social status would pursue. Menken left New Orleans to pursue acting in 1859, and became known as a rebellious spirit. She wore her hair short and once performed in a play that required her to wear a flesh colored suit, making her appear naked on-stage. She became a sensation in town, making her the best-paid actress in her profession at the time. “Not only do we have so many great photographs of her,” says Micucci. “We also have her handwritten poems.”
Known pejoratively as “The witch of Wall Street,” Henrietta “Hetty” Howland Robinson Green took her inheritance and gambled wisely on the stock market. She amassed such wealth that one of the exhibit’s paintings of her showed her to be the only woman in a roomful of financiers like J.P. Morgan, Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller. “She even bailed out New York in 1907,” says Micucci. Green urged other women to take charge of their finances, which made her an unpopular figure at the time. “I am able to manage my affairs better than any man could manage them,” she said. “And what man has done, women do.”
Investigative reporter Nellie Bly once told a paper that passed her over for a male candidate, “Start the man, and I’ll start the same day for some other newspaper and beat him.” That spirit carried her from her beginnings at the Pittsburgh Dispatch to writing for the New York World, for which she went undercover as a patient at an asylum to expose the facility’s poor treatment of women. She investigated several other New York City institutions, like state government and factories, before embarking on a trip around the world in 1889. She broke the then-record of completing the trip in 72 days.
Helen Jewett has a special place in the heart of the exhibit’s curator. Instead of letting her reputation as a courtesan shame her as a “fallen woman,” Jewett climbed the social ladder and picked her clients independently. “She made her own schedule, and gets a reputation as being middle class,” says Micucci. She points out that Jewett’s illustration shows her with the Victorian ideal of proper dress, parasol, tiny hands and feet. “She was characterized as being charming and beautiful.” Sadly, Jewett became the center of a sensational trial when she was found murdered and her accused killer was acquitted. “I think it’s important for people to see that a female a prostitute wasn’t always this shunned individual, and that she could turn her career into a source of power,” says Micucci.