The New-York Historical Society engages students and scholars of all ages and abilities, from our “stroller tours through history” to fellowship programs for academic historians. A major part of our programming includes a wide variety of programs for high school students, which draw on our unique institutional status as both a major museum and a research library. These programs introduce students to the practice of conducting research with rare archival materials and objects, and also to the process of curating these materials to tell stories for a public audience. At the Center for Women’s History, we teach our students how to find women in the archives and how to communicate our message that women’s history is American history.
In the last week of May, the Center for Women’s History welcomed four seniors from the Chapin School in New York City 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. Their mission was to create new “profiles” that will eventually be incorporated into our Women’s Voices digital installation, pictured below.
As Senior Curatorial Scholar Sarah Gordon, who oversaw the Chapin Students, explained in her recent blog post on Women’s Voices, this exhibit began with two questions: “How do you introduce museum visitors to women’s history without falling back on a “hall of fame” of individuals that essentially replicates old-school history? Instead, how could we integrate big themes, groups, and moments with biographies?” In order to show our student interns that women’s history is everywhere, Dr. Gordon compiled a list of potential profiles that include notable individuals, but also groups of women, organizations, and even places. The students each chose and researched a topic, wrote a summary, and found relevant images. Some of them encountered women they had never met before, while others saw places they knew well — the Cooper Union, for instance — through a new lens, that of women’s history.
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 of their work!
Ann Lowe (1898-1981) was the first African American woman 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, Lowe was the granddaughter of a enslaved woman and a white plantation owner. Her interest in fashion was inspired by her grandmother and mother, both of whom worked as seamstresses. In 1912, at the age of thirteen, Lowe married her first husband, Lee Cohen. After he passed away, she remarried, but her second husband eventually left her, claiming she committed all of her time to her work. As Lowe told Ebony “He said he wanted a real wife, not one who was forever jumping out of bed to sketch dresses.”
Ann Lowe is best recognized for designing and sewing Jacqueline Kennedy’s wedding dress in 1953. When the dress was ruined by a burst pipe just 10 days before the wedding, Lowe created a new masterpiece. Despite her connection with the future first family, Lowe remained mostly unrecognized and under-appreciated for her accomplishments and talent during her lifetime. She died at age eighty-two in 1981, alone and poor, lacking the credit she deserved.
— Emma Berkman
Women’s Prison Association
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, demanded that there be female matrons in state penal facilities that held women. 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. but a former social worker at the prison, Sarah Harris, called it a “snakepit.” Her novel, Hellhole, 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
The Cooper Union
The Cooper Union is a private, non-sectarian college established in 1859 by Peter Cooper. It became one of the most important institutions for women’s education and public speaking in New York City. 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 at the Cooper Union, though 95 percent 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. It was the largest non-religious meeting room in New York at the time, and became a site for many meetings about social reform and women’s rights. In 1861, Elizabeth Blackwell and Louisa Lee Schuyler (featured in Women’s Voices) met in the Great Hall and established the Women’s Central Relief Association. Their Association 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 (also featured in Women’s Voices), a Ukrainian immigrant working in the textile industry, gave a speech in the Great Hall encouraging her fellow workers to go out on strike. The “Uprising of the 20,000” that began soon afterward was instrumental to industrial labor reform in New York City’s textile factories.
[Editor’s note: You can hear a reading of Lemlich’s speech in our women’s history film, We Rise, showing daily in the Robert H. Smith Auditorium.]
— 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. Its curriculum differed dramatically in comparison to other black schools established in the United States in the 19th century, because it adopted a formal model of education rather than a vocational one. Vocational schools for black children often perpetuated cyclical socioeconomic disenfranchisement. Although the curriculum at 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.