The New-York Historical Society offers a variety of programs for high school students. Last week, the Center for Women’s History welcomed four seniors from the Chapin School for a three-day intensive mini-internship. After an orientation with our wonderful librarians, the students jumped right into archival research in the New-York Historical Society Library. They each chose and researched a topic, wrote a summary, and found relevant images. Their work will eventually be incorporated into the Women’s Voices digital installation, pictured below.
The students did a wonderful job. While it will take time to integrate their work into the exhibit, we are pleased to offer the following sneak preview!
Ann Lowe (1898-1981)
Ann Lowe was the first African American to be considered a noted fashion designer. Lowe sought wealthy women as customers, telling Ebony magazine “I love my clothes and am particular about who wears them….I do not cater to Mary and Sue. I sew for families of the Social Register.” Born in Alabama in 1898, Lowe was the granddaughter of a enslaved woman and a white plantation owner. Her interest in fashion sprouted from her grandmother and mother, both of whom worked as seamstresses. In 1912, Lowe married her first husband, Lee Cohen, at the age of thirteen, who later passed away. Her second husband eventually left her, claiming she committed all of her time to her work. Lowe told Ebony “He said he wanted a real wife, not one who was forever jumping out of bed to sketch dresses.” Lowe is most recognized for designing and sewing Jackie Kennedy’s wedding dress in 1953. When Jackie’s dress was ruined by a burst pipe just 10 days before the wedding, Lowe created a new masterpiece. However, Lowe remained mostly unrecognized and under-appreciated for her accomplishments and talent throughout her life. She died at age eighty-two in 1981, alone and poor, lacking the credit she deserved.
— Emma Berkman
Women’s Prison Association (founded 1844)
In response to sexual harassment, assaults, and unusual punishments that took place in prisons across the United States, the Prison Association of New York was established in 1844 by abolitionist Isaac Tatem Hopper. In 1853 the Female Department separated from the Prison Association and formed the Women’s Prison Association, which pushed for justice by visiting mixed gender jails and reporting their conditions. Hopper’s daughter Abigail Hopper Gibbons and demanded there be female matrons in state penal facilities that held women, but sadly this did not occur until 1887. In 1931, when the House of Detention for Women opened in Greenwich Village, the Women’s Prison Association paid for a part time psychiatrist and psychologist. The “House of D” was intended as a model of reform and nursing but a former social worker, Sarah Harris, called it a “snakepit.” Harris wrote a novel called Hellhole in which she described sexual harassment and abuse of prisoners by male examiners. The House of Detention for Women was closed in 1974 due to allegations of racial discrimination and abuse. The women’s prison association continues to advocate for women in prison and their right to fair treatment.
— Josephine Johnson
Cooper Union (established 1859)
The Cooper Union is a private, non-sectarian college established in 1859 by Peter Cooper. Cooper was inspired to open a school with the belief that higher education should be available to people of all races, religions, sex, and social status. Women were treated equally with men, though 95% of the students were male. Adults were offered day and night classes, and Cooper soon opened a Women’s School of Design where women were taught painting, engraving, photography and typewriting among other skills. In 1858, one year prior to the opening of the institution, Cooper opened the Great Hall at The Cooper Union. The Great Hall, the largest non-religious meeting room in New York at the time, was a site of many meetings about social reform and women’s rights. For example, in 1861 Elizabeth Blackwell and Louisa Lee Schuyler met in the Great Hall and established the Women’s Central Relief Association, which organized the first formal training for women nurses in the country and spurred the government to form the United States Sanitary Commission. In 1909, Clara Lemlich, a Ukrainian immigrant working in the textile industry, gave a speech in the Great Hall that ultimately helped incite a strike that was instrumental to industrial labor reform.
— Coco Schaaff
The African Free School
The African Free School created spaces in which free black children in New York could obtain an education that would prepare them to become contributing members of society. The curriculum offered by the African Free School differed dramatically in comparison to other black schools established within the 19th century United States because it adopted a formal model of education rather than a vocational one: vocational schools for black children often only contributed to continued cyclical socioeconomic disenfranchisement. Although the girls’ schools also incorporated sewing and knitting, both boys and girls were taught reading, writing, arithmetic, geography, and English grammar. Margaret Addle delivered a valedictory address in 1822, proving that girls at the African Free School were provided with the opportunity to excel, and were rewarded for doing so.
— Summer Thomas
Top image credits: Women’s Voices at the New-York Historical Society.