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The University Building in 1891. Courtesy of the New York University Archives.

The University Building in 1891. Courtesy of the New York University Archives.

A researcher first digging into the history of the University Building might wonder if women could only enter as servants or in masculine disguise, like the titular character of Cecil Dreeme, the 1861 gothic novel set in the University Building.  The University of the City of New York did not admit women students for most of the time it was headquartered there.  The building’s most famous residents—Samuel F. B. Morse, Samuel Colt, Winslow Homer—were all men.  Did nineteenth century ideas about men’s and women’s separate spheres truly mean that all women were excluded from the University Building’s intellectual activities?  While that may have been the intent, the reality was more complicated.

Dorothy Catherine Draper is the first woman most accounts of the University Building mention by name.  In 1839, she posed for one of the first clear daguerreotypes taken of a human face.  Tradition holds that this took place on on the roof of the University Building.  Professor John William Draper, Dorothy’s brother, took the portrait.  Despite being an educated woman herself, Dorothy was admitted to the University Building because her brother escorted her there.  No other record of her visiting the building exists after the day her earnest face was immortalized among the earliest examples of American photography.

More women gained access to the University Building in 1860, when the Woman’s Library opened on the third floor.  The New York Times reported, “On Saturday the Woman’s Library was crowded with ladies, and the pleasure and satisfaction they seemed to feel in having a handsome institution of this kind for themselves, were not only plainly apparent, but eagerly expressed.”  This was the first time women were admitted to the University Building to pursue their own studies:  the University of the City of New York would not accept them for another thirteen years.

The Woman’s Library was developed as a philanthropic project to let working class women access books that would improve their minds, further their educations, and help them find employment that paid more than “starving wages.”  It was a subscription library, but membership fees were relatively low.  Members paid $1.50 per year, though women unable to afford that fee could join for free.  The Woman’s Library also had some notable advantages over other libraries in the area.  The Astor Library was free, but its books did not circulate, and it closed half an hour before sunset.  The Mercantile Library opened to women beginning in 1854, but membership cost between two and five dollars per year, and the Apprentices’ Library was not open to women until 1862.

Critics pointed out that the Woman’s Library was not much use to the truly destitute.  As Elbert S. Porter, editor of the Christian Intelligencer, put it, “It is difficult to see how [the Woman’s Library] will materially help the ‘poor sewing girl’ who must work all day and late in the night to get twelve cents for the making of a dozen capes or fifteen cents for the making of a pair of pantaloons.”  Perhaps in response to this argument, the Woman’s Library subscribed to a dozen expensive Parisian fashion magazines.  Members were allowed to cut patterns from them.    Whether these magazines helped “poor sewing girls” to command higher prices for their work, or simply allowed middle class women to improve their own wardrobes, is not clear.  The Woman’s Library moved out of the University Building in 1865, and was taken over by the Working Women’s Protective Union in 1866.

Subscribers to the Woman’s Library provided the University Building’s population with some variety in gender.  However, there is no documentation that they mixed with the college students and lodgers who also occupied the building.  The Woman’s Library could thus exist in the University Building without significantly disrupting the separate spheres.  This is not to suggest, however, that the spheres remained undisrupted.

An artist by the name of Mary L. Stone rented a studio on the third floor of the University Building in 1863.  At first glance, her placement on the third floor might be interpreted as an effort to contain women in one area of the building, but it is more likely that she chose the studio because it was next door to that of her teacher, Edwin White.  In doing so, she followed the footsteps of artists like Daniel Huntington, student and University Building neighbor of Samuel F. B. Morse, who twice served as president of the National Academy of Design.

“Village Children,” by Mary L. Stone. Courtesy of the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts.

Stone also became quite successful in her day.  The Ladies’ Repository, a Universalist publication, praised her work in 1868, the year she left her studio in the University Building: “Miss Stone has a great deal of fancy, an excellent eye for grouping and composition, and is rarely at fault in drawing the human figure.”  Her illustrations of Reconstruction-era North Carolina were published in Harper’s Weekly in 1873.  Five years later, the writer and artist Horace J. Rollin named Mary L. Stone alongside Mary Cassatt in a list of women artists “who are worthy of especial mention” in his Studio, Field, and Gallery: A Manual of Painting for the Student and Amateur (1878).  Stone moved to the artists’ colony at Ecouen, France, shortly thereafter.  A New York Times reporter visited the colony in 1881 and wrote that “A large number of Miss Stone’s paintings have found their way to America, and have done much both there and abroad toward upholding the reputation of that country for producing artists of ability.”

Stone’s identity as an artist helped her straddle the line between traditional feminine accomplishment and middle class masculine professionalism.  Art was among the more acceptable educational pursuits for middle- and upper-class women in the mid-nineteenth century.  In fact, when women were first admitted to the University of the City of New York in 1873, it was the only subject they were permitted to study.  The other artists in the building may have raised an eyebrow at Stone renting a studio, but women artists were not a new concept to them.  Her association with Edwin White also granted her legitimacy. 

Yet Mary L. Stone was a woman who directed her own career, and her decision to work in the University Building alongside other serious artists was ultimately her own.  It was a brave choice, and one which seems to have paid off, at least in her lifetime.  For the past century, though, her name has been omitted from the lists of artists’ names who lived in the University Building.  It is time for that to change.  In the twenty-first century, it is time to replace Mary L. Stone among her historical contemporaries.

Like the rain and snow which frequently found its way through the University Building’s poorly-constructed tin roof, women found their way into the building’s history despite considerable barriers.  The stories told in this post are, admittedly, footnotes.  But they are footnotes because they were not considered important enough to be recorded and preserved at the time these women lived.  Taken as a group, they shed light on the ways women in nineteenth century Greenwich Village negotiated social norms and their own educational desires—and that is an excellent topic to study.

Sources:

Draper, John William—history of photography.  Archives H subject files; New York University Archives, New York University Libraries.

Sandra Roff, “A Room of Her Own:  The Woman’s Library, a Footnote to New York City Library History.” Information & Culture: A Journal of History, Volume 49, Number 4 (2014), pp. 450-468.  http://dx.doi.org/10.1353/lac.2014.0017.

“Libraries.”  Trow’s New York City Directory.  Vol. LXXVIII. New York:  John F. Trow, 1865.  p. 26.  https://books.google.com/books?id=hY4tAAAAYAAJ.

The New York Times, various issues, 1858-1861, 1881. 

University Building—original correspondence from tenants, 1920s and 1930s; Buildings Collection; RG 1; Box 17, Folder 3; New York University Archives, New York University Libraries.

“Literary and Artistic.”  The Ladies’ Repository.  Vol. 39.  Boston:  The Universalist Publishing House, 1868.  pp. 398-399.  https://books.google.com/books?id=H4gUAAAAYAAJ.

Horace J. Rollins.  “American Artists.”  Studio, Field, and Gallery: A Manual of Painting for the Student and Amateur.  New York:  D. Appleton and Company, 1878.  pp. 191-195.  https://books.google.com/books?id=Wdc4AQAAMAAJ.

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As an undergraduate (go UD!) pursuing a major in History with a minor in Women’s Studies, I often found myself taking classes that included elements of feminist history and one of the most prominent figures is Rose Schneiderman, the labor union leader who eventually became friends with First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt and was named to the advisory board of the National recovery Administration by President Franklin Roosevelt.

Like several other female labor leaders in the early twentieth century, including Clara Lemlich, Fannia Cohen and Pauline Newman, Rose Schneiderman emigrated at a young age with her family from the Soviet Union. The Schneiderman family emigrated from Saven, in Russian Poland in 1890 and moved to the Lower East Side. She began working to supplement family income as a sales clerk in a department store but she took a factory job making caps within a few years, because the pay was better. Here, she rallied her coworkers to organize their shop and join the United Cloth Hat and Cap Makers’ Union.She joined the New York Women’s Trade Union League, an organization founded in 1903 by upper class women to help working class women organize and fight abusive sweatshop conditions. In 1906, she became the Vice President of the NYWTUL and by 1917, she was the President, an office she held until 1949. She became the President of the National Women’s Trade Union League in 1926 until 1955, when it officially disbanded. In 1908, she began receiving a salary from the WTUL, so that she could devote all of her time to the organizing efforts, although she turned down the offer of a wealthy patroness, Irene Lewisohn, to pay for her schooling, because she felt that it was unfair for her to receive a benefit unavailable to most working class women.Her work with the WTUL and the ILGWU led to the Uprising of the 20,000 (the focus of my project). The Uprising of the 20,000 was dominated by Eastern European Jewish women, like herself and it was, at the time, the largest strike of American female workers.  In the years following the strike, Schneiderman worked as an organizer with the International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union, but eventually left, as the leaders of the ILGWU were not inclined to fight for women’s rights and gender equality in the sweatshops.

Schneiderman became friends with Eleanor Roosevelt through the First Lady’s involvement with the NYWTUL. In 1933, President Roosevelt put Schneiderman on the National Labor Advisory Board, where she was the only woman. Following this, she became the secretary of labor for the State of New York, where she had a platform to pursue greater rights for working women, including equal pay and extension of social security benefits.

Her use of the term “bread and roses” from a poem by James Oppenheim was used as a rally cry in the Massachusetts Strike, known as the “Bread and Roses Strike.” Schneiderman said at a rally in 1912 “The worker must have bread, but she must have roses, too,” to point out that the working class deserved more than just the bare necessities of survival.

She retired from life as a labor organizer in 1949, to live a quieter life with long term partner Maud Swartz, although she continued to make occasional appearances, including at the 50th Anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire in 1961.

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But, sure, the sky is big, I said;
Miles and miles above my head;
So here upon my back I’ll lie
And look my fill into the sky.
And so I looked, and, after all,
The sky was not so very tall.
The sky, I said, must somewhere stop,
And — sure enough! — I see the top!
The sky, I thought, is not so grand;
I ‘most could touch it with my hand!
And reaching up my hand to try,
I screamed to feel it touch the sky.

“Renascence” (1912), st. 3 Renascence and Other Poems (1917)

American poet Edna St. Vincent Millay was born on February 22, 1892 in Rockland, Maine. When Millay was eight years old her parents separated. She was raised by her mother, Cora Millay, who influenced her interest in literature and poetry. In her twenties she attended Vassar, funded by a benefactor, before moving to New York City. Millay lived in Greenwich Village in the years following 1917 and was part of the same social circle as Theodore Dreiser. Millay was one of the most popular poets of her time and in 1923 won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry.

Millay’s personality and the themes she explored in her poetry personified the spirit of America’s Bohemia.  The nymph of Greenwich Village, she defied convention and was determined to discover and declare a distinct identity for herself.  The theme of social and artistic revival that characterized the Bohemian Village can be seen in Millay’s poem “Renascence,” which she wrote at the age of 19. It was first published as a contest winner in the 1912 anthology The Lyric Year and became the centerpiece of Millay’s first collection, Renascence and Other Poems in 1917. Her second volume of poetry, A Few Figs from Thistles, was published in 1920. This collection includes the poem “Macdougal Street.” Shortly thereafter the collections Second April (1921) and The Ballad of the Harp Weaver (1922) were published. Later volumes include The Buck in the Snow (1928), Fatal Interview (1931), and Wine from These Grapes (1934).

In addition to being a poet, Millay was a playwright.  Her productions all took the form of poetry.  Her most popular play, Aria de Capo, debuted in 1919 with a performance by the Provincetown Players. Through this play, written shortly after World War I, Millay expressed her pacifist stance. The Provincetown Players, like Village troupes the Washington Square Players and the Theatre Guild, initiated and developed America’s “new theater.” Two years later, the Provincetown Players performed Millay’s Two Slatterns and a King. Before writing several plays, Millay acted for the first time with the Provincetown Players in Floyd Dell’s The Angel Intrudes.

Along with her poetry, Millay was famous for her activism and her bohemian, unconventional lifestyle. Though some of Millay’s earlier works, such as Aria de Capo, contain political themes, her work became increasingly political as she got older. Additionally, she became involved in contemporary issues such as the Sacco-Vanzetti case in 1927. Her many love affairs during the period in which she lived in the Village included Dell and the poets Arthur Davison Ficke and Witter Bynner. In 1923 she married Eugen Jan Boissevain. Together they bought their home “Steepletop” in Austerlitz, NY, where Millay died at the age of 58.

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a jail in the village

by Catherine Falzone

The story of the Women’s House of Detention can be seen as a metaphor for the transition of Greenwich Village’s image from transgressive to gentrified. Since opening in 1932 it housed female prisoners in the heart of Greenwich Village- at the intersection of Greenwich Avenue, West Tenth Street, and Sixth Avenue- next to what is now the Jefferson Market branch of the New York Public Library. This is the story of the jail.

To see this exhibit, go to: http://aphdigital.org/GVH/exhibits/show/womenshouseofdetention

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Jane Cunningham Croly: A Traditional Progressive

by Jacqueline Colognesi

Jane Cunningham Croly (1829-1901) was a prolific 19th-century journalist whose achievements extended far beyond the written word. Portrait of Mrs. J.C. Croly ‘Jennie June’

Croly, under the pen name “Jenny June,” began writing newspaper columns for a female readership in 1855. Over the course of her 40 year-career, Croly innovated the newspaper syndication system, and her by-line appeared in every state across the nation. She also founded several women’s societies in her day, all dedicated to the advancement of women’s causes- Sorosis (1868), The Women’s Press Club of New York City (1889), and The General Federation of Women’s Clubs (1890). Lastly, she became the first woman professor of journalism in the United States.

Though Croly did much to advance the rights of women, she was also a traditionalist and her work was not without conflict. Her successful career was compounded by late nights at the office and limited hours with family, but Croly was still a product of her time. Her writing often indicated that she believed a woman’s true place was in the home. It also offered contradictions, irresolute on ideas such as womens education and their relationships to men.

Despite the incongruity between her published work and social work, Croly was an original and a true advocate for women. She may have started out carving a path for herself, but she ended up forging a way for all women to follow in her footsteps.

To see the exhibit, go to: http://aphdigital.org/GVH/exhibits/show/j-c-croly

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