Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Women in the White City

I was researching a story when I came across a fascinating entry related to the World's Columbian Exposition of 1893. The Exposition was held in Chicago to commemorate the 400th anniversary of Columbus' discovery of America. This is one of those events that I wish I had been around to see in person. I would have gladly joined the 28 million other visitors who came to the Exposition during its six-month run from May to October of 1893. The Exposition was a World's Fair that was meant to celebrate the achievements of mankind since the days of Columbus. It was called The White City because of the white marble-like facade of its so-called Great Buildings. At over 600 acres, the Exposition was larger than Disney World's Magic Kingdom, Hollywood Studios, and Epcot combined.

The Great Buildings were designed by a Who's Who of the best male architects in America. All of the buildings, that is, but one. Everything about the Women's Building was left to the Board of Lady Managers who planned, built, and selected all of the exhibitions. Because there were so few women architects at the time, the Board held a competition to identify a woman architect to design the building.

Sophia Hayden (later Bennett), the first female architect to graduate from MIT (in 1890), won the honor. She was 23 years old at the time. She designed a graceful Italian Renaissance villa which was very reminiscent of her thesis project at MIT.

When she won the award in 1891, she was employed as a drawing teacher in the Boston schools because no architectural firm would hire a woman. She was paid approximately a thousand dollars for her design, one tenth the fee paid to male architects.

Her design was hailed for its fine lines but it was also assailed as being obviously the work of a woman. Despite her success with the Women's Building, she retired from architecture following the Exposition as she still could not find suitable employment. She married and lived a quiet life in Massachusetts, dying in 1953.

The Women's Building was instrumental in advancing women's rights on many fronts including women's suffrage. All of the exhibits were deliberately designed by the Board to be non-competitive, although women did compete with men working in their fields in other buildings at the Exposition. The Women's Building was filled with examples of women's work in every field imaginable, selected from submissions from all over the globe. It was certainly the most graphic example up until that time of women capably matching every aspect of the achievements of their male counterparts.

I wonder what might have become of Sophia Hayden had she been recognized as she surely deserved? Times are somewhat better today for women but there is still much more room for women to gain equality with men.

Postscript: The Women's Building, like virtually all of the buildings at the Exposition, was torn down shortly after closing day. The only building to remain in its original location is the Palace of Fine Arts which is now the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry.

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