Women at the 1939 World’s Fair

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Patricia A. Schechter

What kinds of questions do the records of the New York World’s Fair of 1939 raise for researchers interested in questions of women and gender? Quite a few. Since the records mostly document the Fair Corporation’s inner workings, the women associated with the official agenda of the undertaking, especially as Fair employees and volunteers, loom large in the extant record. It is also possible to hear voices from outside the Fair organization. Many individuals and groups wrote in to various departments and committees with queries, complaints, and comments, especially in the ramp-up year of 1938 and the opening year of 1939. Based on my review of all the files marked “women” as well as a considerable range of other files — from “protests” to “parades” to “Puerto Rico” — I would note to researchers interested in women and gender that both topics are to be found scattered throughout the collection, with clustering around volunteer activity in files marked “women.”

Women dressed in Grecian gowns participate in the Women's Benefit Association Day Parade.

Two women look at the official map of the Fair by Tony Sarg in front of the Trylon and Perisphere.

This evidentiary landscape suggests a gender division of labor in the Fair organization: a preponderance of men in paid positions and of women in volunteer positions. Yet this terrain is far from the whole story touching women at the Fair. Indeed, this rough division of labor stands in tension with other evidence that Fair organizers actually tried to “degender” the Fair, in a kind of post-suffrage, even “post-feminist” conceit, ‘30s-style. Unlike the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893, with its ballyhooed — and embattled — Women’s Building, the 1939 Fair muted the role of gender and feminism in its conceptualization and execution. Fair organizers discouraged the co-convening of feminist and women-centered events on the Fair grounds as part of a larger nexus of assumptions and ideologies that sought to depoliticize the event in general and offer entertainment to a broad audience. Yet the attempt to mute gender and women’s issues also effectively politicized them. For example, Emily Newell Blair, prominent Democratic party activist and New Dealer, resigned — along with her entire committee — from the Fair’s “Consumer’s Affairs” division. Blair claimed that the group’s consumer rights orientation was treated as mere “window dressing” for Fair exhibits and promotionals favoring corporate and retail interests, pushing aside the advocacy and consumer protection that Newell and her allies in groups like the National Consumers League had fostered for decades.

"There will be no isolated women's section or building in this Fair."

"There will be no isolated women's section or building in this Fair."

Investigators might bear in mind the inclusive, flexible potential of “degendering” to foster space for male volunteerism and female executive leadership, but that case remains to be made. Indeed, my impression is that despite the post-feminist note struck by the organizers, gender conventions and gender hierarchies were reproduced in much of the Fair’s internal business and external projections and representations. As a corporation, its organizational ethos and methods drew from historically male-dominated domains of business, science, and war. Commerce, diplomacy, urban planning, eugenics, and technological progress shaped organizers’ view of the “World of Tomorrow” in terms of the display content and the didactic messages embedded throughout. Monica Barry Walsh, the paid staff person who ran the National Advisory Committee on Women’s Participation, worked hard to detach expectations about female activism and gendered access from the idea of “participation” among the women who stepped up in Fair-related activities as volunteers, consultants, and promoters. Charged with coordinating women’s efforts to publicize the Fair, solicit attendance, host and house travelers and guests, Walsh oversaw a range of female-heavy volunteer committees, most prominently a Panel of 1,000 Hostesses drawn mostly from the New York City area assigned to transport, feed, escort, entertain, and translate for Fair visitors, especially foreigners.

Plans for a "Mass Flight" of women from 48 states to the Fair "launched at LaGuardia Airport."

Plans for a "Mass Flight" of women from 48 states to the Fair "launched at LaGuardia Airport."

Walsh relied heavily on the dense and vibrant system of women’s clubs and organizations that had consolidated around the turn of the twentieth century and matured in the interwar years. For leadership, she turned to New York’s socially prominent and economically elite women; Mrs. Vincent Astor headed the “general committee of women” which served as a conduit for broad spectrum women’s energy and labors at the local, state, and national levels. While not by definition exclusionary, the Fair generally tapped existing associational networks, networks long segmented by race, class, nationality, region, and structured by a hierarchy of status and social prestige. From the record, it appears that the Fair reproduced and extended much of these patterns. For example, African American club leader Mrs. Addie Hunton, writing on behalf of the Women’s League of Brooklyn, and Elizabeth Ross Haynes, representing the International Council of Women of the Darker Races of the World, lobbied New York allies and Fair gatekeepers like Walsh seeking employment, exhibition space, and volunteer access for their groups in early 1938 to little avail. Some talk of a reprise of Marion Anderson’s historic performance at the Lincoln Memorial in April 1939 petered out, lacking support from Eleanor Roosevelt. Puerto Rican women based in New York achieved only token representation on the Panel of Hostesses; most of their engagement with the Fair came through the Foreign Participation and Pan-American divisions. Indeed, local Puerto Rican women were outraged by the representation of the island in the Fair’s preview parade of 1938. Young women rode aboard a ramshackle cart painted in a slovenly fashion, in stark and embarrassing contrast to the ultramodern transportation technology featured in the parade. Yet one has to read local media to know about this particular incident, as it left only the faintest traces in the Fair records themselves.

Helen (Mrs. Vincent) Astor, chairwoman of the Women's National Advisory Committee, speaks to a crowd.

Mrs. Astor led 6000 women from around the US in a national advisory group for the Fair.

Mrs. Astor led 6000 women from around the US in a national advisory group for the Fair.

Mrs. Astor led 6000 women from around the US in a national advisory group for the Fair.

Mrs. Astor led 6000 women from around the US in a national advisory group for the Fair.

Mrs. Astor led 6000 women from around the US in a national advisory group for the Fair.

This column in Eugene Du Bois’ "Building the Fair" series discusses women's roles at the Fair.

From the papers, it is clear that women engaged the Fair Corporation in a variety of ways — as volunteers, supporters, patrons, visitors, critics, employees, and potential vendors or exhibitors. Yet perhaps their best documented role is icon. From the preview parade of 1938, garnering headlines like “World’s Fair Girls Fairest in the World,” to the ubiquitous statuary out on the grounds, to strip tease and girl shows, to “native” women on display at the Puerto Rican and other pavilions, images of femininity abounded. These images amplified the Fair’s themes of human vitality, fertility, beauty, harmony, and prosperity — themes set against the suffering and deprivation of the Great Depression and looming war in Europe. Artistic, iconic representations of the female form and various stagings of live women in exhibits figured as enabling devices for the Fair’s overall hopeful, aspirational message: a paean to technological progress in the “World of Tomorrow.” In these projections, whiteness was inscribed throughout — in neoclassical statuary, beauty pageants, baby contests, and “typical American” competitions which excluded non-whites — just to name a few. The Fair’s iconography set machines and humans as reflections of each other: as sleek, pale, powerful forms, alive with generative, electric energy. In addition to a fuller explication of women’s paid and unpaid labor at the Fair, an examination of the voluminous photographs, art, and performances involving women and the female form seems highly promising for historians. The 1939 New York World’s Fair papers contain a very rich visual as well as documentary record of women’s activities, if not always labeled under the sign “women.”

A group from the Women's National Advisory Committee examine a map.

A proposed organizational chart for the National Advisory Committee on Women's Participation.

Sources Cited

Cogdell, Christina. “The Futurama Recontextualized: Normal Bel Geddes's Eugenic 'World of Tomorrow',” American Quarterly 52 (2000): 193-245.

“Carroza de Puerto Rico en el desfile de la Feria Mundial motiva investigación,” La Prensa, 13 May 1938.

“Fair to Have Aid of 1,000 Hostesses,” New York Times, 7 February 1939.

Rydell, Robert. World of Fairs: The Century-of-Progress Expositions. Chicago, Ill.: University of Chicago Press, 1993.

“21 Fair Advisers on Consumer Quit,” New York Times, 28 February 1939.

Patricia A. Schechter is an associate professor of history at Portland State University. She received her PhD in 1993 from Princeton University. Her new book, Four Transnational Lives: Exploring the Decolonial Imaginary will be published by Palgrave Macmillan in early 2012 and draws on the research in the above article.

 

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