Sunday, April 25, 2010

Women Pioneers


While wandering the collection at the Brandywine River Museum, an inspiring discovery caught my eye. The above painting is called The Women in Business, which was painted in 1897 by Alice Barber Stephens. It was an illustration for a cover of The Ladies Home Journal in 1897 for a series called "The American Woman." Women in the late 19th Century were entering the work force in a number of roles (other than as servants) and this illustration is a social commentary on the lives of women at that time. It was acceptable in those days for women to be clerks, without male chaperones, in upper class departments stores like the old Wanamaker's in Philadelphia where women of leisure spent time. The customers could sit, but clerks were required to stand. She features a plainly-dressed little girl in the foreground who is a gopher for the store and is contrasted with a privileged, well-dressed little girl in the background. There were no child labor laws in this country until 1938. Sometimes women in jobs of that era were required to be unmarried or subjected to other controlling laws. The dictates of society required lots of rules to control those women, or who knows what could happen.

Alice Barber Stephens (1858-1932) was a trail blazer in her time in history. Born a Quaker in New Jersey, she was a full time student at the Philadelphia School of Design for Women (now Moore College of Art). She became proficient at engraving, an important skill in the days before photo-mechanical reproduction.  In 1876, she enrolled at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, where she studied under Thomas Eakins. She even began a class where women could learn to draw the human form from nude models. 1879 - Female Life Class:


Many of the works of this fascinating artist can be viewed at the Library of Congress, American Memory location. It is easy to see her uniquely female view of society and the role of women in it. She focuses on domestic subjects such as a women giving piano lessons, or children, and husbands,
or women gardening. In 1918, she painted Somebody has to raise everything you eat, do your share:

She also illustrated books written by other women of her time period such as The Mayor's Wife, by Anna Katharine Green (1846-1935). It is a wonderful story that can be read online. She was another impressive woman pioneer.


Having grown up in the middle of the 20th Century, following World War II, it was very apparent to me that women were getting the message to give back the jobs gained during the war so men could take those jobs to support families. Many women didn't drive automobiles, or work outside the home. They moved from their father's home to their husband's home. Even during the Fifties and Sixties, car loans were to be co-signed by males and a woman signing an apartment lease was a rare occurrence. I remember in 1966, I went to a grocery store along with my fiance to buy some things for my mother. I was student teaching at a school nearby and ran into a teacher from that school. She grilled me on who he was, where he lived and why were we in a grocery store buying groceries because I might be living with him "in sin" as the underlying implication. It was none of her business, but I wanted my college degree, so I couldn't tell her that. When I look at the circumstances of women today compared to a hundred years ago (or even fifty years ago), we've come a long way thanks to the efforts of women pioneers like Alice Barber Stephens and Anna Katharine Green. 


  1. Living in sin, indeed. Excellent post.

  2. Thanks, Willow. Because of the painting, I've become obsessed with women's history from 1865 to the present. There are some great books available so I am plowing through them--it's fascinating.

  3. Thank goodness for the women pioneers paving the way.

    Appreciate your comment at my blog about Eva's feature and my header.


  4. What a wealth of information! I can't wait to come back and dive into these links. Some might be really supportive for my Lila Minkler blog. Same era. The photos were phenomenal. THANK YOU for this post!