A Guest Blog Post by Taylor Mills on The New Women of Chicago’s World’s Fairs (1893-1934)

I was fortunate enough to get in contact with Taylor Mills, current curator at the Chisholm Trail Museum and recent graduate of the University of Central Oklahoma, who wrote her MA thesis on the women of the Chicago’s World’s Fairs from 1893-1934. She spoke of her interest in the topic, what her research focuses on, and her thesis process.

Picture: Arnold, C. D., “Looking West From Peristyle, Court of Honor and Grand Basin of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition (Chicago, Illinois).” Official Views Of The World’s Columbian Exposition

My recent research focused on women’s roles in world’s fairs and the connection these roles had to women’s transitioning roles in society. I studied Chicago’s 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, 1925-1928 Woman’s World’s Fairs, and the 1933-1934 Century of Progress Exposition to determine the correlation between women’s representation within the fairs and the evolution of the new woman in the United States between 1893 and 1934. I was particularly interested in the concept of the new woman, which evolved from concepts of true womanhood, real womanhood, and public womanhood. Women’s roles in society and the expositions, I found, depended on and influenced the transformation of society’s understanding of womanhood.

My interest in this topic emerged from a fascination with world’s fairs, specifically those in Chicago, Illinois, during the Gilded Age and Progressive Eras. Paired with an interest in the women’s rights movement, it was only natural that I would find interest in women’s roles within the expositions. In my readings, though, I had noticed that women were often consigned to the sidelines of the narrative; furthermore, the research that recognized women’s roles were either too narrow or too broad in scope. For instance, Jeanne Weimann’s The Fair Women: The Story of the Women’s Building at the World’s Columbian Exposition, Chicago 1893 (1981) details women’s roles within the sphere of the Women’s Building, which unfortunately limits the research to an aristocratic focus.[i] Several other resources within the historiography either resembled this manner of studying women in relation to world’s fairs, or they presented broad studies of the fairs with limited mention of women’s roles within the fairs. Examples of this would be Abigail Markwyn’s Empress San Francisco: The Pacific Rim, the Great West, and California at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition (2014) and Robert Rydell’s All the World’s a Fair: Visions of Empire at American International Expositions (1984), 1876-1916, World of Fairs: The Century of Progress Expositions (1993), and Fair America: World’s Fairs in the United States (2000).[ii] In these monographs, the authors examined the overall significance of world’s fairs, which unfortunately limited the amount of research focused on women involved within those fairs.

In response to this historiography, I argue that it is impossible to understand the significance of the world’s fair without fully understanding the influence it had on women’s roles in society. In 1893, the Board of Lady Managers controlled their own space within the World’s Columbian Exposition; though it was a space designed specifically for affluent and influential women, it was fully owned and operated by women. This, I argue, produced a clear image of the new woman in 1893 as representing women’s advancements in education, industry, and reform. By 1933 and 1934, the new woman embodied personal freedoms alongside those elements of the 1893 new woman; I argue that spaces within and immediately outside the 1933 Exposition—Chicago Woman’s Club Building, the Social Science Hall, the Hall of Science, the Illinois State Building, the Streets of Paris—provided women with a space to demonstrate their progress and preview future progression. I conclude the thesis by arguing that it is imperative to recognize this growth of the new woman in order to study both women’s rights and world’s fairs, for the two studies go hand in hand.

[i] Jeanne Weimann, The Fair Women: The Story of the Women’s Building at the World’s Columbian Exposition, Chicago 1893 (Chicago: Academy Chicago, 1981).

[ii] Abigail Markwyn, Empress San Francisco: The Pacific Rim, the Great West, and California at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2014); Robert Rydell, All the World’s a Fair: Visions of Empire at American International Expositions, 1876-1916 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984); Robert Rydell, World of Fairs: The Century of Progress Expositions (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993); Robert Rydell, John E. Findling, and Kimberly D. Pelle, Fair America: World’s Fairs in the United States (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution, 2000).

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