March marks Women’s History Month, which is a time to reflect upon the achievements of women, to muse about how far we have come, what sorts of hurdles we’ve yet to surmount. The Morton Grove Historical Museum is celebrating by featuring the stories of extraordinary Morton Grove women, which can currently be seen on display in our education center.
Some people argue that the basic tenets of feminism are as necessary today as they were 100 years ago, while some feel that equality for women has already been achieved. Regardless of your position on the spectrum, women’s issues remain at the forefront of cultural and political discourse in 2015– access to contraceptives, equal wages, and sexual assault prevention feature prominently in news coverage almost daily, and the concept of feminism itself has recently been hotly debated. A century has not yet passed since American women received the legal right to vote on August 18th 1920–a fact which makes it feel startlingly recent. The 19th Amendment reflected decades of painful struggle on the part of women who wanted the same benefits of basic constitutional right afforded to men, and its political ramifications have been staggering. One hundred years ago, American women could not yet vote, and today, we are potentially on the precipice of our first woman president.
However, the historic reflections of this cultural touchstone extend far beyond the political. During the early 20th Century, as the suffrage movement gained considerable traction, the prospect of evolved rights and freedoms for women was perceived by many as a threat. The concept of this threat found its way into all corners of day-to-day life and culture– film, literature, newspaper cartoons and editorials–frequently couched in a tongue-in-cheek humor that only thinly veiled something far more sinister: fear of what would happen to society if women had rights, and subsequent anger towards women who were working to gain those rights.
These bits of propaganda often implied that women suffragists were unattractive, while frequently insinuating that the desire for equal rights is analogous to a desire to suppress men:
They portrayed suffragists as stodgy, humorless women whom no men wanted in the first place–likely their reason for taking up such a cause:
They also frequently implied that traditional “women’s” jobs such as child-rearing and household maintenance would suffer were women allowed to vote or, even more horrifyingly, would fall on the shoulders of men:
Some even went so far as to suggest that the only reason women were fighting for their rights in the first place was out of desperation for male attention:
Here, in the collections of the Morton Grove Historical Museum, the program from the 1914 Morton Grove Volunteer Fire Company Annual Dance can answer various questions about what life was like 100 years ago: reports from the fire department itself discuss up-to-date technology used by the department, information about the village of Morton Grove itself discusses amenities considered state-of-the-art for the era (a “model” water works system, electric lights, gas, cement sidewalks), and ad space in the program speaks both to the types and names of local businesses in the area and the average cost of goods. As for what life was like for women at this time, a cursory flip through the program will say very little. However, a featured essay titled “Woman, For Instance” speaks volumes:
The essay, a parody piece, is written as if by a suffragette. The author of the article, the editor of the “Morton Grove Cream Jug Chronicle” believes “she” has “as much right to suffer as a man has.” The essay goes on to mock the efforts of women hoping to achieve the same rights, employment capabilities, and social status as men by implying, among other things, that if women were judges, they would spitefully jail any woman dressed better than them, or that if women wore pants, they would steal from their own pockets. A lecture accompanying this piece would be held, the author concludes, on February 31st, 1914– one gets the sense from reading this essay that the author believed firmly that the likelihood of women ever gaining the vote was on par with the likelihood of February 31st ever happening.
Six years later, as we well know, women did achieve the right to vote, and the remainder of the 20th Century would see many towering achievements for women. However, this essay represents what was a persistent cultural perception in early 20th Century America: that women were generally frivolous, preoccupied with issues of a domestic nature, and intellectually inferior to men. Despite all that women have achieved, has this cultural perception been eradicated a century later? Does it persist?
The Board, Volunteers and Staff of the Morton Grove Historical Society and Museum write about topics that are relevant to our current programs, events, collections, collective history, or sometimes topics they just find interesting and they hope you do too. Thanks for stopping by!