Portrait of Elizabeth Jennings Graham, 1895; Adah Isaacs Menken in Mazeppa, 1863.
New York women have a history of pushing the envelope.We may think of the Victorian era as a period of constraints on women’s lives, a time when middle-class ideas about femininity defined women by their roles as guardians of virtue and relegated them to the private, domestic sphere. But 19th-century New York City was full of women who defied those expectations—women of different classes, races, and ideologies who challenged the social expectations that attached to them because of their gender.
Some of the things that these women did would not be considered boat-rocking today: a woman could be a rebel simply by speaking in public, by working outside the home, or by disregarding middle-class morality or decorum. Rebel Women explores the lives of activists like Elizabeth Jennings Graham, an African-American New Yorker who refused to get off a segregated trolley in 1854; professionals like Hetty Green, a wealthy businesswoman and broker branded "the witch of Wall Street"; and working women like Helen Jewett, New York's most prominent courtesan—all of whom challenged the Victorian ideal.
Featuring photographs, garments, paintings, and prints from the Museum’s collections, the exhibition brings to light the compelling and often untold stories of the city’s independent, unconventional, and path-breaking women who had an indelible impact on New York’s society, culture, and economy by the turn of the 20th century.
(Photos courtesy of Kansas State Historical Society and Museum of the City of New York.)