New Paths to Power
Karen Manners Smith
In the summer of 1893, more than 27 million women, men, and children from all over the world visited the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, the United States’s unabashed proclamation to the rest of humanity that the young democracy had arrived and was ready to join England and France and Spain as a great world power. President Grover Cleveland laid claim to the nation’s new status when he opened the Chicago fair on May 1, 1893: “Surrounded by the stupendous results of American enterprise and activity … [we] stand today in the presence of the oldest nations of the world and point to the great achievement we here exhibit, asking no allowance on the score of youth…. We have built these splendid edifices, but we have also built the magnificent fabric of a popular government, whose grand proportions are seen throughout the world.…”
Smallest among the “splendid edifices” was the Woman’s Building. The lengthy struggle to build it—and, indeed, the whole battle to include women in the planning and administration of the fair—were proof that there were persistent inequalities under President Cleveland’s “magnificent popular government.” In fact, the women seeking space at the Exposition fared better than 9 million African Americans, virtually excluded from the fair except for displays of handcrafted items in two small exhibits. Few African Americans could be seen attending the fair, though it was open to all who could pay admission, and even black porters and janitors were in short supply.
Women had begun lobbying for a role in the world’s fair in 1889, when Congress started to plan the four hundredth anniversary celebration of Columbus’s arrival in the Americas. A coalition of woman’s rights activists and working women demanded exhibit space for women equal to that being given to men, as well as assignments for women on all the governing boards of the fair. An equally determined group of public-spirited socialites and clubwomen, mostly Chicagoans, pressured Congress for a place at the fair that would include a separate women’s building. An act of Congress created the World’s Columbian Exposition and awarded the fair site to Chicago. A small amendment inserted at the last