Southern Ladies and Suffragists

Southern Ladies and Suffragists: Julia Ward Howe and Women's Rights at the 1884 New Orleans World's Fair

Copyright Date: 2014
Pages: 256
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    Southern Ladies and Suffragists
    Book Description:

    Women from all over the country came to New Orleans in 1884 for the Woman's Department of the Cotton Centennial Exposition, that portion of the World's Fair exhibition devoted to the celebration of women's affairs and industry. Their conversations and interactions played out as a drama of personalities and sectionalism at a transitional moment in the history of the nation. These women planted seeds at the Exposition that would have otherwise taken decades to drift southward.

    This book chronicles the successes and setbacks of a lively cast of postbellum women in the first Woman's Department at a world's fair in the Deep South. From a wide range of primary documents, Miki Pfeffer recreates the sounds and sights of 1884 New Orleans after Civil War and Reconstruction. She focuses on how difficult unity was to achieve, even when diverse women professed a common goal. Such celebrities as Julia Ward Howe and Susan B. Anthony brought national debates on women's issues to the South for the first time, and journalists and ordinary women reacted. At the World's Industrial and Cotton Centennial Exposition, the Woman's Department became a petri dish where cultures clashed but where women from across the country exchanged views on propriety, jobs, education, and suffrage. Pfeffer memorializes women's exhibits of handwork, literary and scientific endeavors, inventions, and professions, but she proposes that the real impact of the six-month long event was a shift in women's self-conceptions of their public and political lives. For those New Orleans ladies who were ready to seize the opportunity of this uncommon forum, the Woman's Department offered a future that they had barely imagined.

    eISBN: 978-1-62674-073-0
    Subjects: History, Sociology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Preface
    (pp. xi-2)
  5. Introduction
    (pp. 3-14)

    In the nineteenth century, exhibitions like the World’s Industrial and Cotton Centennial Exposition billed themselves as utopian spectacles of current glories and future prospects. In actuality, they revealed more about the ideology and identity of the people who created them than about external reality. Male organizers framed the events, in part, to help assuage fears in a troubled world of booms, busts, and unsettling changes. They painted rosy forecasts wherein political consensus, emerging science, and daring industry would solve the era’s problems; they imposed a kind of order on chaos by arranging row upon row of precisely categorized objects. White...

  6. Part One: Women and the City

    • One What the Ladies Were Saying
      (pp. 17-25)

      According to Howe, the Woman’s Department in New Orleans was “conceived and decided upon” in the spring of 1884 in order to display the “special industries of women.” It was not the first such display at a national event. Women had earlier had a place at the nation’s Centennial International Exhibition in Philadelphia in 1876, where Philadelphia women had led a drive to raise funds for the nation’s celebration and had expected a space to show women’s work. After some disappointments, they did occupy a Woman’s Pavilion there, a gendered space where they displayed arts, crafts, and inventions. In 1876,...

    • Two The Principals
      (pp. 26-38)

      Who was this Yankee woman who could stir emotions in friend and foe? What shaped her and what did she expect to accomplish at the Cotton Centennial? By the time she came to New Orleans in 1884, Julia Ward Howe (1819–1910) was sixty-five and a well-known activist of women’s causes. She was neither the first nor the only nineteenth-century woman to escape domesticity by becoming a zealous clubwoman, but she had polished the role to a fine art. Oliver Wendell Holmes called her one of the most “eminentlyclubbable” women in America.²

      No doubt, New Orleanians knew certain details...

    • Three An Immense Responsibility
      (pp. 39-43)

      Young Lucie Claiborne was “bedeviling” Grace King to “beg curiosities from her acquaintances” to show at the Exposition, but she had no intention of going a-begging, King wrote to her sister May. That was in November 1884, just a month before the Cotton Centennial Exposition was to open. Claiborne was part of a hastily formed commission of predominately Creole women to gather city exhibits: “art treasures, family heirlooms and rare possessions of every conceivable description” that would illustrate the history and progress of Louisiana. Although visitors would indeed be impressed by the artifacts, the exhibit actually helped locals appreciate their...

    • Four The Locals
      (pp. 44-50)

      In New Orleans, many local leaders thought Caroline Merrick (1825–1908) superbly qualified to have headed the Woman’s Department. She was nearest to Howe in age and accomplishment, but the two women’s seminal experiences during the Civil War were poles apart and under separate flags. When Julia Ward Howe was composing her “Battle Hymn” in the middle of a dark night in 1862, Caroline Merrick was singlehandedly managing her brother’s plantation in Feliciana Parish. All the men were at war that year, and her husband had secreted their slaves to another parish. Merrick wrote that, at Myrtle Grove, she was...

    • Five A City for Women
      (pp. 51-60)

      What culture would Julia Ward Howe and other visiting women encounter in New Orleans? To begin with, locals recognized Howe’s clout; they were no strangers to power, and they had seen it seized perversely. There was no timidity in a city where, when occupied during the Civil War, it became legendary that some ladies crossed streets rather than share sidewalks with Union soldiers, exposed their pantaloons rather than their faces to troops below their balconies, and emptied chamber pots on the heads of their enemies. Such defiant acts had prompted Union general Benjamin Butler to issue Women’s Ordinance no. 28,...

  7. Part Two: The Stage Is Set; The Fair Begins

    • [Part Two: Introduction]
      (pp. 61-62)

      Julia Ward Howe and her daughter Maud stepped from the Louisville and Nashville train at 9:00 a.m. on Thursday, December 11, 1884, just five days before the Exposition was to begin. Waiting at the cavernous railroad station at the intersection of the Mississippi River and Canal Street were two officials of the Exposition: board member Dr. Charles Dabney and board secretary Richard Nixon, the man who had defended Howe’s credentials to journalist Catharine Cole. The men then squired the Howes to their temporary quarters in one of the city’s newest and most elegant hotels. Actually, the four-hundred-room Hotel Royal was...

    • Six The Chiefdom
      (pp. 63-74)

      Although Howe was fatigued from her long journey, she granted a short interview to a male journalist from theTimes-Democrat. In it, she began to demonstrate her steadfastness and her priorities.¹ First, however, she looked after her daughter’s violent cough. Homeopathic doctor Julia Holmes Smith was on the premises and examined Maud, found “a lung a little congested, advised mustard leaves, and left medicines.” Male Dr. Holcombe, for whom Howe had already sent, came also and approved Dr. Smith’s remedies. Then Howe turned her attention to the journalist. When he asked if she would stay all winter, she replied that...

    • Seven Thimbles and a Teapot
      (pp. 75-81)

      On December 18, 1884, two days after the grand opening ceremony of the Cotton Centennial Exposition, a core of disconsolate Lady Commissioners and workers met in Howe’s private parlor at the Hotel Royal to discuss hiring policies, the placement of exhibits, and the finances of the Woman’s Department. In a show of solidarity, those who gathered reaffirmed their ambition to “render the Woman’s Department a credit to women from Manitoba to Mexico.” About finances, management had promised fifty thousand dollars to cover women’s expenses, and both theTimes-Democratand thePicayunehad said so in the fulsome details of opening...

    • Eight Great Expectations
      (pp. 82-95)

      By the last days of December, exhibit spaces were finally beginning to take shape. Hope increased. Julia Ward Howe announced that the area was organized enough for her to hold public receptions every Thursday, a nicety sure to attract scores of visitors to the department. Perhaps no woman had greater expectations of the Woman’s Department than Catharine Cole of thePicayune. She predicted that viewers could find “food for thought” that would awaken “new ambitions amongst women.” Although the display of fancywork was lovely, Cole wrote, women should apply the “test of comparison.” They should compete and evaluate publicly. Perhaps...

    • Nine Work, the New Gospel of Womanhood
      (pp. 96-111)

      Soon, Julia Ward Howe began to preach that work was “the new gospel of womanhood,” and Catharine Cole quite agreed. Of course, Howe employed the lexicon of motherhood to persuade women that they need not usurp men’s role or reject gender responsibilities when they shifted from a domestic domain to a professional, industrial, or scholastic one. She seemed to imply that they could have it all. Cole’s language was less convoluted; she frankly told women to go to work outside the home. If they paid attention, the Exposition could widen their orbit as they became active in the Woman’s Department...

    • Ten February Festivities
      (pp. 112-120)

      Spirits seemed to rise and fall with the temperature, and local newspapers habitually linked attendance to climate conditions. During a sundrenched week, Cole wrote that women’s tempers had improved with the weather. Of course, if there were just a few more carpenters, “the work would go on swimmingly.” Apparently, women and workers were still building sets in early February. A week later theTimes-Democratblamed poor attendance at the Exposition on “cold, bleak and overcast” skies and a cutting, gusty wind “that found its way everywhere” in buildings without insulation. Although there were occasional glimpses of spring, New Orleans temperatures...

  8. Part Three: Triumphs and Turmoils

    • Eleven Opening at Last
      (pp. 123-128)

      Tuesday afternoon, March 3, 1885. The large crowd stretched far and away in every direction and “persons of the female persuasion predominated.” Lady Commissioners clustered around the Temperance Pavilion opposite the raised dais, proudly wearing knots of light-blue ribbon as badges of distinction. “The sun shone warmly in the western windows; the air was heavy with the perfume of flowers,” and the Woman’s Department was “in gala dress” with flags, palms, and great bowls of blooms everywhere. Promptly at three o’clock, the band from the flagshipTennesseestruck up “My Queen” and Julia Ward Howe appeared on the arm of...

    • Twelve When Powerful Women Came to Town
      (pp. 129-145)

      Spring arrived, and with it a host of famous women, drawn to New Orleans by the chance to speak to broad new audiences about the causes of their lives. In the Woman’s Department, workers of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union exhibited clear solidarity of purpose as they employed clever tactics to draw attention to their mission. Their displays could be seen a long distance away because of shining satin banners that blazed with the watchword and “musical refrain of the Temperance Woman’s working song: ‘For God and Home and Native Land.’” The group’s central hexagonal pavilion was “one of the...

    • Thirteen Exhibits Great and Small
      (pp. 146-160)

      Enlightened women had spoken progressive words about jobs, education, suffrage, and reunion, but actual exhibits of women’s work were sometimes as mundane and quirky as they were advanced and muscular. Contradictions abounded. Feminine draperies and billowy banners disguised the hard-nosed determination and quick-witted strategies of temperance women. Reedy native grasses encircled ponderous objects in some areas; heavy velvet portieres framed delicate paintings in others. Flimsy tea caddies and paper flowers shared spaces with robust professional specimens and a set of sturdy false teeth. Tangled messages signified women in flux. Although Julia Ward Howe’s original plan for the Woman’s Department was...

    • Fourteen April Showers of Reproach
      (pp. 161-176)

      No matter how laudatory Catharine Cole could be about exhibits that pleased her in the Woman’s Department, she was rarely prepared to be as generous when it came to Julia Ward Howe. Even as tensions somewhat eased and spring weather brightened the days, rhetorical clouds accumulated over Howe’s head. If the president was distracted by pleasant visitors to New Orleans, her attention would soon be dragged back. If she thought all had been settled in the Woman’s Department, she was mistaken. The glowing unity of the opening was like the calm eye of a hurricane; impending squalls would soon again...

    • Fifteen May Distractions
      (pp. 177-189)

      Fortunately, some notable men surfaced to render optimism and to divert attention from the turbulence around Julia Ward Howe and the Woman’s Department. Howe was able to step out of the glare for a breather. In addition to earlier celebrity women who modeled progressive pathways, these male visitors propagated new visions of advanced women. One lead story in thePicayuneon May 6, 1885, must have caught the eye of attentive readers. It told of an extraordinary witness for woman suffrage: ex-governor John Wesley Hoyt of the Wyoming Territory. Although Hoyt claimed that he had never before made a speech...

    • Sixteen Final Battles
      (pp. 190-199)

      No matter how pertinent the goals or how lofty the rhetoric in the Woman’s Department, ugly images of bickering women kept creeping back in. Contrary to the official Resolution from Lady Commissioners in support of Howe in mid-April, declarations of peace had been illusory. Some predicaments seemed unintentional; the blows came with the territory of leadership. Others seemed of Howe’s own making. In any case, her vulnerabilities were beginning to show.

      It was not long before Director-General E. A. Burke simply quit his post. With just a few weeks left of the Exposition, his sudden resignation claimed that “requirements of...

    • Seventeen Endings
      (pp. 200-206)

      Soon, there began to be talk about a Woman’s Day to close out the Exposition, and thePicayunedeclared that because New Orleans women would take charge, the day’s success was ensured. However, the plan the newspaper outlined smacked more of Old South lore than “New South” progress. It would be alfresco, with “a May pole dance” and a “high-toned darky cake walk,” thePicayunewrote. There would be a “fine fruit cake with a gold coin in it as the prize,” and many of the “colored servants of prominent society women [were to] walk ‘for de cake.’” ThePicayune...

  9. Afterthoughts
    (pp. 207-214)

    If there had been fear regarding the “immense responsibility” of creating a Woman’s Department during preparation for the Cotton Centennial Exhibition, women had indeed confirmed a large measure of competence by its end. Not everything had gone as planned, of course, but they had accomplished an amazing feat, and many women could see that transformation. For those who listened well to visiting luminaries and carefully noted new fields of employment, the year of the Exposition could have been a watershed, a “great divide” between corseted dreams and liberating vistas. Emblematic of what was possible was the shift that Grace King...

  10. Postscript
    (pp. 215-220)

    When the World’s Industrial and Cotton Centennial Exposition closed on the afternoon of June 1, 1885, it had hosted only 1,158,840 visitors, little more than a fourth of the number predicted, and its deficit neared $470,000. It reopened under new management from November 1885 to May 1886 as the North, Central, and South American Exposition but was a mere shadow of the former spectacular. Mrs. Jennie Nixon, who had been Lady Commissioner of Louisiana, headed a less-grand Woman’s Department. People of color decided against a “distinct Colored Department,” choosing instead to place exhibits “under the same regulations as govern other...

  11. Notes
    (pp. 221-250)
  12. Bibliography
    (pp. 251-258)
  13. Index
    (pp. 259-268)