What the 1893 World’s Fair Teaches Us About White Feminism Today

In November of 1890, a group of women called the Board of Lady Managers gathered in Chicago, a city that had been chosen as the site for the World’s Fair of 1893. The fairgrounds, an area of which was nicknamed (unironically) “The White City,” was to showcase the marvels of electricity and the modern achievements for crowds of Americans and the rest of the world.

They were cheering on their unrivalled victory in line with current events. The all-male commissioners overseeing the fair granted them permission for a special exhibit—a “Women’s Building”—to showcase the incredible achievements made by American women over the previous decades. This building would have a number of exhibits. The task was assigned to the Lady Managers. The task could be translated into deciding who women should be represented.
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There were many controversies at the meeting, beginning with who was going to be their leader. While the Emancipation Proclamation had been issued, women’s suffrage was not yet won, and the question of representation wound itself tightly around the issue of politics. Many of these women, just like American women, were properly dazzled and influenced by the wealth of Bertha Palmer (the wife of a Chicago businessman) who could be called the Melinda Gates her age. Other supporters voted for Phoebe Couzins – a hardworking and middle-aged woman who was fighting for women’s rights. Palmer ultimately won, not least because her politically minded detractors set about working toward an entirely separate task—collecting money for the erection of a statue of Queen Isabella elsewhere in the fair. In paying homage to the Spanish Queen, who funded Columbus’s expedition, rather than the man himself, they imagined themselves the true radicals.

All quarrels aside, one thing all women, socialites and suffragettes, shared was their whiteness. Not only were there no Black women on the Board of Lady Managers, the possibility of even including Black women’s achievements was in itself a testy one. White people were not willing to discuss race because they believe it is inherently divisive. They chose to do what the boards of Black organizations still do: They released a statement. “There should be no discrimination on the score of race and that colored women should have precisely the same chance that white women had, by being given equal opportunity, neither more nor less to do the best work that they are capable of,” the statement read.

Chicago World's Fair in 1893
Historica Graphica Collection/Heritage Images/Getty ImagesThe 1893 Chicago World’s Fair.

When the World’s Fair began in 1893 and the Women’s Building containing thousands of exhibits was inaugurated, the “Afro-American” contribution was limited to a single bound book with statistics about Black women in a table bookcase in the South Record Room of the Building. If a contemporary Black woman was to venture back into the Women’s Building, she would find no representation of herself; all the art and industry of America, it appeared, was the product of the toils of White women only. If a South Asian woman like myself would venture back, she may find herself one of the “40 women from 40 countries” that were available to view. Some sang and danced, all could be ranked by their “beauty” in a chart printed in the back of some of the souvenir books at the fair. If you didn’t belong to the respected white women of the Building, then you are simply som.ething for fairgoers’ gaze.

Continue reading: Feminism claims to represent all women. Why is it so ignorant of many women?

It is so prevalent today that women are still excluded from society’s history. Organisations These are populated by white women with the highest power. Like Bertha Palmer and her cohorts, these powerful white women do not appear to “see” how this exclusion mirrors and replicates their own past experience. I wrote the book Affirmation Against White Feminism, I highlight just how this refusal to cede any space to women of color propagates “white feminism” which among other things is the failure of white women to recognize the role of white supremacy in leading to white feminist victories. Looking back, it is painfully evident that the social and racial privileges of the women who made up the board overseeing the Women’s Building in the World’s Fair played a tremendous role in providing opportunities toward governance and power. But they saw their place and the selection of nearly all white exhibits as fairness. This was something that could be won on equal competition.

There was no competition then as there is today. Deloitte released a diversity survey in June 2020, which found white women were more likely to be successful than their male counterparts. The highest percentage gainFortune 100 (13%) and Fortune 500 (21%), had more board seats than any other gender or group. Undoubtedly, white feminists would point out these gains as victories for “feminism,” when they are really only victories for white feminists who imagine them as justly won.

Feminism needs to make a racial revolution. But it will not happen without the lessons of the 1893 white feminists and allowing space for the representation and advancement of women of color. Feminist solidarity cannot be used as a shield to hide discussions about differing privileges and disparate access. It is amazing to see how white feminists are advancing, but it also shows the unfair and unequal benefits of their racial privilege. The time in which America was represented by a “White City” and only white women were good enough to be considered women worthy of celebrating should be relegated to history.

A portrait of journalist and suffragist Ida B. Wells
R. Gates/Hulton Archive/Getty ImagesPortrait of Ida B. B. (American journalist, suffragist). Wells during the 1890s.

As for the World’s Fair, Black women may not have been in the Women’s Building but they refused to be completely erased from the image of America that the fair was projecting. Ida B., a Black feminist. Frederick Douglass and Wells published the pamphlet, Why the Colored American is not in the World’s Columbian Exposition In her diary, Wells recounted that she had personally put at least 10,000 copies of the pamphlet in the hands of visitors during the three months of the World’s Fair hoping that they would get a glimpse of the “real” America. It was “was a clear, plain statement of facts concerning the oppression put upon the colored people in this land of the free and home of the brave,” Wells said.

Wells would be likely disappointed if she were to fly into the future. Only two Black women were among the 41 Fortune 500 business leaders as of June. The “real” America Wells fought to expose is still issuing statements about racial diversity while doing very little to enable it. There are now many Women’s Buildings in the United States and Black women are still, for the most part, left out.


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