Coordinating Council for Women in History 8
In the late 19th and early 20th century, a growing number of women demanded the vote, engaged in social reform, and challenged professional barriers. Our panel examines these struggles for equality and reform from a largely overlooked angle: conflicts over space. It works to emplace women’s experiences and demonstrate that claiming and transforming space was a pivotal part of their struggle to gain political, professional and social rights. To do so, each paper deals with a different type and scale of space, from the home to legal institutions to cities. How did women respond when they were told and felt that they were “out of place”?
Taking a biographical approach, Veronica Wilson’s paper evaluates an Illinois socialite’s decision to design her private home for public and political purposes. Susan Lawrence Dana, with the aid of Frank Lloyd Wright, transformed her residence into a stage for mystics, free thinkers, and feminist activists to promote their ideas—ideas that were ridiculed by the press and considered bizarre by conventional society. Using suffrage publications, newspapers, and essays on architecture, Wilson highlights how Dana’s home purposefully transcended the distinction between private and public and how this increasingly marginalized woman mobilized this transcendent space to push her agenda.
While Wilson’s paper focuses on one individual’s design and transformation of her private residence, Ren Pepitone explores women’s efforts to access professional institutions—the Inns of Courts, extra-governmental associations vital to the British legal profession. In early 20th century England, women were pressing for admission into law, but, as Pepitone argues, they faced spatial barriers, ranging from separate dining tables in the Inns to lack of lavatory facilities in London’s courts, that underscored the profession’s hostility toward their admission. Gaining access to space thus became integral to women’s entrance and success in the legal profession. Unlike Susan Lawrence Dana, these women chose to deemphasize their difference to accommodate themselves to this masculinist environment.
At the most macro-level, Lauren Santangelo focuses on beliefs about women’s place in cities and how these beliefs affected the suffrage movement. New York City attracted the wealthiest Americans, drew in women searching for professional and educational opportunities, housed prominent commercial venues and iconic sites, as well as served as the nation’s communication and information center. However, Santangelo argues that concerns about city living prevented Manhattan suffragists from realizing and mobilizing Gotham’s spaces and resources until the end of the 19th century. Their revised interpretation of the metropolis in the early 20th century, she suggests, was pivotal for the eventual success of the campaign.
In order to become full citizens, women had to respond to being told that they and their ideas were “out of place.” Each paper highlights a different reaction: transformation, accommodation, and reinterpretation. The panel will not only interest scholars studying women’s and gender history, but also those concerned with space, professionalization, design, and urban history.
Our commentator, Sarah Deutsch, and chair, Judith Walkowitz, are both senior scholars whose works have helped to shape the fields of women’s and urban history.