[All this week, in honor of Women’s History Month, I’ll be highlighting some exemplary American women. This is the second in the series.]
Celebrating the inspiring life and incredible artistic achievement of a woman forced from the public stage far too early.
Being stereotyped and through those stereotypes attacked has long been a potential danger for anyone who enters our national public and political spheres—just ask Thomas Jefferson, who during the 1800 presidential campaign was called by Johns Adams supporters “the son of a half-breed squaw, sired by a Virginia mulatto father”—but it seems to me that the chances of such attacks are often doubled when it comes to public women. From the viciously degrading images of suffragettes featured in this 1910 children’s book to the protesters who carried signs asking presidential candidate Hilary Clinton to iron their shirts, the assaults on Eleanor Roosevelt’s femininity to the assaults on Janet Reno’s femininity, and most immediately to Rush Limbaugh’s profoundly out of bounds attacks on a Georgetown law student who testified before Congress about the medical uses of birth control, women in our public conversations have far too frequently had to face personal and discriminatory narratives that go well beyond the normal terms of political or social debates.
The limiting public narratives faced by Sophia Hayden were not, apparently, as overt nor as vicious as in any of those examples, but they nonetheless had a profound cumulative effect. Hayden graduated from MIT in 1890 with a degree in architecture (making her the first female MIT architecture graduate and one of the first women to receive the degree from any American institution), but couldn’t find work in the field due (again apparently) to her gender, and so took a job teaching high school drawing. Two years later she entered and won a contest to design the Women’s Building at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago; her design and the building were praised and even honored, but were at the same time defined explicitly as “revealing the sex of its author” and otherwise embodying the limitations of women’s artistic visions and designs, and such responses, coupled with the building’s being torn down as soon as the Exposition concluded, led Hayden to retire from the profession shortly thereafter.
The goals of an event like Women’s History Month certainly include remembering our darker histories and stories, and so it’d be important not to elide Hayden’s choice and its apparently most significant (and certainly representative) causes. Yet it’s even more important, it seems to me, that we not in any way replicate those causes by simply reinforcing (even sympathetically) negative, powerless, or purely tragic images of Hayden’s life and work. For lots of reasons, but most of all this: this daughter of an Anglo father and a Chilean mother, this immigrant to the United States at a young age, this pioneering student and professional, this woman who at the age of 23 won a nationwide contest to design one of America’s most important buildings, and who did so damn successfully and with a design that architecture students and scholars still analyze, is quite simply one of the most impressive, talented, and inspiring late 19th century Americans.
Next Women’s History post tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Any inspiring American women you’d highlight?
3/5 Memory Day nominee: Michael Sandel, one of the most influential 20th and 21st century American philosophers, and one whose course “Justice” (offered for the general public as well as for undergrads) has made philosophical issues applicable and relevant to everyday issues and conversations for decades.
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