Birthday parties tend to bring out both the best and the worst in those being celebrated, so perhaps it should be no surprise that America’s 100th birthday party, the Centennial Exposition held over the six months between May and November of 1876 in Philadelphia’s Fairmount Park, was nothing if not profoundly divided in all sorts of complex ways. I’ve written at length (in the Intro to my first book) about the most defining such division, between the Exposition’s ostensible purpose (to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence and thus reflect on America’s historical origins and identity) and its central focus and tone (a thoroughly forward-looking celebration of the nation’s material and cultural prowess and possibilities for continued upward progress). But on any number of specific issues and themes the Exposition displayed similarly multiple personalities: for example, it featured the first American statue dedicated to an African American figure (African Methodist Church founder Richard Allen) but also included a restaurant known as the Southern Plantation where a group of “old-time darkies” continually serenaded patrons with happy songs of the antebellum South.
Of the many such divisions and contradictions present on and around the Exposition grounds, though, I don’t know that any were as striking as those connected to women’s identities, perspectives, and issues. The Exposition was the first World’s Fair to include women’s voices in a central way, both in planning (through an all-female Women’s Centennial Executive Committee) and on the ground (through the Women’s Pavilion that was created as a result of that committee’s efforts and fundraising). The Pavilion was certainly a striking success in many respects, featuring work created and designed solely by women; yet it was equally striking for the near-complete absence of political perspectives or issues, including the most prominent such issue of the period, women’s suffrage. Since the inception of the Women’s Committee organizations such as the National Woman Suffrage Association had protested the absence of such perspectives and voices from the committee and in the planning process, not only from a representational standpoint but through the lens of a particularly salient irony: that women from around the country were asked to contribute money and support to this federal organization, but could not themselves vote in a federal (or any other kind of) election. The NWSA in fact scheduled their national meeting for Philadelphia in May, on the same day that the Exposition (including the Women’s Pavilion) opened, presenting another division within that city and moment for sure.
Yet the most overt and symbolic (yet also very real) such division would be presented on July 4th. On that day, for obvious reasons, the Exposition reached its fever pitch, with numerous activities and events focused around a main stage where impressive speakers and Americans gathered to lead the festivities. The NWSA asked if they could be a part of that stage and those festivities and were refused, but in truly American (and Revolutionary) fashion they created a second stage of their own elsewhere on the grounds, from which they read the full text of the “Declaration of Rights and Sentiments of Women,” a text that had been initially composed for the 1848 women’s rights convention in Seneca Falls, NY, and had become as much a founding document for this organization and cause as the Declaration of Independence was for the nation of which they were a complicated but vital part. Those contrasting stages were only one of many July 4th, 1876 events that highlighted such complex national conversations and divisions—word was just reaching the East on this day of Custer’s defeat at Little Big Horn; a group of parading black militiamen in a South Carolina city refused to cede the sidewalk to a white group, leading to a violent reprisal and the start of multiple days of anti-black violence in the town—but their location and proximity can drive home just how multivocal (in the best and the potentially most divisive ways) America was in this Centennial year.
Many of those divisions would of course continue well beyond 1876: women did not receive the right to vote nationally under more than four decades later, and that is perhaps the only way in which any of these national divisions could be seen as gaining even a measure of closure until well into the 20th century if not up to the present 21st century moment. In that way, of course, the Centennial was even more forward-looking than it knew, if it less fully or simply celebratory ways. More tomorrow, on the particularly disturbing moves toward celebrating a symbol of the worst such national divisions.
PS. Three links to start with:
1) Great web collection of photos of the Centennial: http://libwww.library.phila.gov/CenCol/index.htm
2) The full text of the Declaration of Rights and Sentiments: http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/mod/Senecafalls.html
3) OPEN: What do you think?
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