The quintessential Victorian woman was dedicated to her home and husband, and focused solely on raising children. She was respectable and she was not involved in the public sphere. Although this ideology is characteristic of Western women of the Victorian Era, undergraduate researcher Holly Nelson found evidence of American women breaking these gender norms in the late 1800s.
In her senior thesis, Nelson discusses the representation of American women in the 1876 Centennial Exposition and the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition. These were the first world’s fairs to be held in the United States, and they were a chance for America to demonstrate its industrial power to the world.
In the 1876 Centennial, women were not given a space to present their work with their male counterparts. Undeterred, the women— led by President of the Women’s Centennial Committee Elizabeth Duane Gillespie— organized and fundraised to create their own building, the Women’s Pavilion, that showcased inventions by women. Their actions were controversial at the time because women were not considered a part of the public sphere.
The 1876 Centennial set the precedent for American women to have their own building in the world’s fair, so in the 1893 Exposition, Sophia Hayden, the first female graduate of architecture at MIT, designed the Woman’s Building.
Nelson argues that despite maintaining a conservative image, in these instances, women were fighting for their right to participate in society. Primary sources that include letters of internal correspondence and speeches revealed how these women wanted to help solve the social and economic problems that plagued American society. They may not have known it at the time, but these women demonstrated feminism in its earliest beginnings.