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Posts Tagged women's history

Red beanie with symbol for female with a heart inside it on the front
Hat, 2016-2017 / THF185075

Some called her a dissenter. Others called her “notorious.” 

But one thing is for certain.

She was one of a kind. 

At The Henry Ford, we mourn the passing of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Nominated by President Bill Clinton in 1993, she was only the second female Supreme Court Justice (after Sandra Day O’Connor) and the only Jewish woman to serve on the court. 

During her tenure, Justice Ginsburg became known for her powerful and unyielding commitment to the rule of the law and equal justice under the law. She was a tireless advocate for women’s rights but in truth championed equality for all people. In her creative and strategic use of the law, she opened doors for countless people. She was fearless, tenacious, brilliant, and visionary.

She will be deeply missed.


Donna Braden is Senior Curator and Curator of Public Life at The Henry Ford.

by Donna R. Braden, women's history

Model T covered in red and white striped bunting, in front of a photograph of women's suffrage advocates


In the years following the introduction of the automobile, women had few chances to challenge prevailing, gendered beliefs about their place behind the wheel. But where limited opportunities did exist, women seized them. They competed in organized races and reliability tours, volunteered for motor service during World War I, and drove to rally support for women’s suffrage.

Woman in elaborate fur coat and hat behind the wheel of an open car Four women, some wearing motoring coats and hats Row of Model T ambulances, each with a woman in uniform standing before it
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by Saige Jedele, women's history, voting, cars

Black and white cover sheet featuring title “Female Suffrage: Song and Chorus”
This 1867 music sheet (00.4.183) was dedicated to Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, George Francis Train, Lucy Stone, and other “advocates of female suffrage.” / THF93144

We often hear the names of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony in connection with the early struggle for “woman’s suffrage,” which we know more commonly today as “women’s suffrage”—the right of women as American citizens to vote. What is lesser known is that the early women’s suffrage movement began within the context of the broader struggle for women’s rights and it involved many more people—men as well as women, Black as well as white.

Printed family scene with man reading newspaper in a chair, woman holding little girl at his feet, and another little girl at the other side of his chair, all around a metal heating stove
This scene of domestic bliss from an 1880 trade card (89.0.541.1270) for parlor stoves belies the fact that women at this time lacked basic rights. / THF224913

Women’s Rights, Denied

Into the early 20th century, women were not considered entities with rights separate from men. They could not vote, serve on a jury, testify in court, or hold public office. If married, it was illegal for women to sign contracts, inherit property, keep or invest their own earnings, have automatic rights to their children (even after a divorce or if their husband died), or make a will without their husband’s consent. It was very difficult for them to get divorced from an abusive husband or have a profession other than that centered around home and children. Furthermore, they were expected to stay out of public matters—centering their lives around family and home, obeying their husbands, and behaving at all times in a refined, polite way.

Yellowed cover with image of two white men in suits holding an African American man in chains and title reading in part “The American Anti-Slavery Almanac for 1840”
Abolitionist literature like The American Anti-Slavery Almanac for 1840 (2005.0.17.1), produced by and for northern abolitionists, often featured provocative covers depicting the brutality of slavery. / THF7209

Breaking Early Barriers

During the early 19th century, a few strong women began expressing their views about the rights of women as separate from men. Many of the early women who spoke out were white, educated, middle-class members of the Society of Friends, or Quakers. Members of this religious sect not only accepted women as equals to men but also saw it as their duty to seek justice for all. Lucretia Mott, one of the organizers of the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention, was Quaker. Susan B. Anthony, who joined the movement a bit later, also had a Quaker upbringing.

Many of these women had also long championed the abolition of slavery. In this they found allies in men as well as Black women. It was as advocates for this movement that these women got practice attending and speaking out at meetings. They paved the way for other women.

Man with quill in his hand over a document on table labeled “Pledge,” with woman over right shoulder pointing at the document and red devil creature with cup in hand at the man’s left shoulder
The title of this ca. 1851 oil painting (59.124.1) is “The Temperance Pledge,” referring to an important component of the temperance movement that involved signing a document in public promising to abstain from alcohol. / THF119917

Some of the early women’s rights advocates also championed temperance reforms—that is, an organized effort to encourage abstinence from, or at least moderation in, the consumption of intoxicating beverages—especially hard liquor. Excessive drunkenness, especially by men, was threatening the stability of many families (in 1830, consumption of alcohol was three times the current norm) and women led the charge to battle this. Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony were both temperance movement reformers before they became women’s rights advocates.

Black-and-white portrait of woman with light-colored hair and clasped hands wearing elaborate lace dress.
Elizabeth Cady Stanton was a leader in the struggle for women’s rights and an early advocate for women’s suffrage (98.94.18). / THF6584

A Few Voices Lead to Many

The Seneca Falls Convention of 1848 was the first official public forum for discussing women’s rights. But suffrage was never the main or the only goal there.

Lucretia Mott met Elizabeth Cady Stanton (who had recently married abolitionist Henry Stanton) at the World Anti-Slavery Convention in Great Britain in 1838, just as that country had ended slavery. They found they shared similar views and kept in touch after that. During a conversation when Mott visited Stanton’s hometown of Seneca Falls, New York, in 1848, Stanton’s feelings of oppression as a wife and mother came tumbling out. The two decided to call “a convention to discuss the social, civil, and religious conditions and rights of Woman.”

In July 1848, Mott, Cady Stanton and nearly 300 other attendees—men as well as women—gathered in Seneca Falls, including well-known self-emancipated orator and editor Frederick Douglass. James Mott, Lucretia’s husband, chaired the meeting, as women felt they lacked the experience as well as the knowledge of parliamentary procedure. Cady Stanton, possessing a gift for writing, had drafted a Declaration of Sentiments for the meeting, not unlike those presented and discussed at anti-slavery conventions at the time. But it was her genius to use the language and legitimacy of the Declaration of Independence, modifying the phrase “all men are created equal” to “all men and women are created equal.”

Sepia image of African American man in a suit seated in a chair; “Fred Douglas” handwritten along bottom
Self-emancipated abolitionist Frederick Douglass was an early champion for women’s suffrage (96.68.1). / THF210623

At the meeting, the attendees discussed the 18 grievances and 11 resolutions that Cady Stanton had drafted in her Declaration. But it was the resolution “that it is the duty of the women of this country to secure to themselves their sacred right to the elective franchise,” that led to the longest debate and greatest opposition. To most people at the meeting—women as well as men—the idea of women voting seemed far-fetched, ludicrous, even illogical. Cady Stanton defended it, claiming (what seems so obvious to us today) that women needed political rights to be able to make other gains through legal means. The resolution almost failed, until Frederick Douglass spoke fervently in its favor. It passed by a small margin—the only resolution adopted that was not unanimous.

Sepia portrait of African American woman in a dress and shawl seated in chair, knitting, with text at bottom “I sell the shadow to support the substance – Sojourner Truth”
Emancipated orator Sojourner Truth championed women’s rights along with abolition (96.72.1). / THF121160

The Seneca Falls Convention gave rise to numerous other women’s rights conventions that emerged over the next decade, in New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Massachusetts. It was in Akron, Ohio, in 1851 that emancipated orator Sojourner Truth—best known for speaking out against slavery—gave her first known speech on women’s rights. She would continue to appear at many women’s rights conventions and give valiant service to the movement. It was also during this time that Susan B. Anthony assumed a leadership role in the women’s rights movement.

These conventions gave women practice in airing grievances, building consensus, and establishing alliances and friendships. Abolitionist support dominated these discussions, as the slavery issue heated up through the decade. There was no consensus about women’s suffrage. In fact, women’s suffrage was barely an issue on the table at convention after convention.

Colored print showing an African American man in a cream-colored patched suit adding a token to one of two jars under a red and white striped awning with a line of other African American men behind him
This 1867 cover of Harper's Weekly (2005.16.2) shows Black freedmen lining up to cast their ballots. Congress had recently approved measures allowing African Americans the right to vote—a right later ratified in the 15th Amendment. / THF11673

An Unfortunate Split

Only after the Civil War did women’s suffrage become the primary goal of the women’s rights movement. However, two factions split over how to achieve it. According to Angela P. Dodson in “Remember the Ladies”: Celebrating Those Who Fought for Freedom at the Ballot Box (2017), this “fissure” sundered alliances, strained relationships, diffused energies, squandered resources and stalled progress, and it took decades to heal.

Three-column newspaper page with title “The Revolution” at top, with two poems in left column and article “The Born Thrall” by Alice Cary in the two right columns
The Revolution (2005.14.1), a newspaper distributed by the National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA) and edited by Elizabeth Cady Stanton, featured essays supporting NWSA’s agenda. / THF277269

Although many women’s rights advocates supported the passage of the 13th Amendment formalizing emancipation, the dissension started with passage of the 14th Amendment (guaranteeing equality to all “male citizens”) and especially with the passage of the 15th Amendment (giving Black males the right to vote). In retrospect, it seems obvious that Black enfranchisement in the South was in peril if lawmakers didn’t act quickly and it was simply not judicious to fight for two difficult causes at the same time—Black freedmen’s rights and women’s rights. However, some women, including the vocal Elizabeth Cady Stanton, did not see it that way. These women felt they had fought long and hard for both abolition and women’s rights, and they felt they deserved their due.

It was at this time that women realized they needed to advocate for a national amendment calling for “universal suffrage” and began referring to themselves as suffragists. This would have been the perfect time for a national organization to push this agenda, and one was attempted at the 1866 National Woman’s Rights Convention, led by Susan B. Anthony. But there was almost immediately a division in the ranks—leading to two competing organizations. Stanton and Anthony formed the National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA), working specifically for the enfranchisement of women and opposing the 15th Amendment. At the same time, women’s rights advocate Lucy Stone organized the American Woman Suffrage Association (AWSA) in support of the 15th Amendment and working toward a broader coalition (her group ultimately received more support). These two groups competed for allies and support for the next 25 years, weakening each other’s success and forcing each of them to work harder for state-by-state support rather than working together to fight for a federal amendment.

Round orange button with yellow circle in center, with printed text reading “Vote no on woman suffrage”
During the struggle for women’s suffrage, many men and some women strongly opposed the notion of women voting, as evidenced by this ca. 1910 button (2004.117.1). / THF8518

In 1869 and 1870, respectively, the Wyoming and Utah territories granted women the right to vote (primarily to attract settlers), while an amendment granting women the right to vote was finally brought to Congress beginning in 1878. But none of these actions engendered wider support, and many people (both men and women) continued to oppose women’s suffrage on many fronts.

Button with image of eagle over crossed red, white, & blue American flags and shield, yellow background and blue rim, with text “Votes for Women – Patriotism”
During the early 20th century, suffragists often appealed to potential voters by distributing items with symbolic imagery, such as this ca. 1910 button (2004.116.1). / THF155862

A New Generation Takes Charge

It would take a new generation of women, lacking the painful memories of the reason for the rift in the first place, to take up the fight. These women reunified the group by forming the National American Woman Suffrage Association in 1890 (NAWSA) and creating new strategies for state and national support. This was also a time for Black women—who had played a modest role in the previous organizations—to form their own organizations that could champion women’s rights and women's suffrage, including the National Association of Colored Women in 1895 and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1909. Prominent leaders like Ida Wells-Barnett and Mary Church Terrell arose to lead other Black women in support of these causes. Unfortunately, white suffragists did not always welcome their help—in fact, some were willing to sacrifice this support to pacify Southerners and court their support for the ballot.

48-star American flag with red and white stripes and white stars on a blue field in upper left with text "Mr. President, What Will You Do for Women's Suffrage?" on white stripes
Alice Paul’s extremist tactics included aiming strong messages directly at President Wilson, as seen in this small handheld flag (2005.3.1) from about 1916. / THF8533

Two different kinds of leaders emerged during the early 1900s, for the final push to the 19th Amendment—Carrie Chapman Catt, the lobbyist, and Alice Paul, the agitator. Catt and Paul strongly disagreed with each other’s tactics, but neither would have succeeded without the other. Their different strategies offered women from all walks of life a way to get involved—organizing parades, printing flyers, and getting people to sign petitions. Victory was not easy to achieve, but on August 26, 1920—72 years after the Seneca Falls meeting—the 19th Amendment granting women the right to vote was added to the Constitution.

Round blue and white button with two stars and diagonal separation of colors, reading “Abolish Poll Tax / 100% Democracy”
During the Jim Crow era, most southern states had adopted poll taxes to keep Blacks from voting. The person who wore this button (2005.9.8) protested the injustice of paying to vote, which was finally abolished with the passage of the 24th Amendment to the U. S. Constitution (1964) and subsequent court rulings (1966). / THF 96541

The Struggle Continues

Unfortunately, the 19th Amendment did not guarantee equal voting rights to women. Racist laws and practices kept African American women as well as women of other disenfranchised groups—including Latinx, Indigenous, and Asian American women—from voting for decades. Voter suppression is, in fact, still an ongoing issue today.

Round white button with green block text reading in part “Support the E.R.A."
The Equal Rights Amendment (E.R.A.) finally passed both houses of Congress in 1972, but it was not ratified in enough state legislatures for approval (2001.76.1). / THF153507

Returning full circle to the larger issue of women’s rights, an Equal Rights Amendment was drafted in 1923—only three years after the 19th Amendment was ratified. Although it received much attention in the 1970s and early 1980s, it has never passed.

The struggle for women’s rights, including women’s right to vote, continues today.


Donna R. Braden is Senior Curator and Curator of Public Life at The Henry Ford.

by Donna R. Braden, women's history, voting, African American history

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When Jenny Chandler photographed these Brooklyn children playing games about 1900, she also unwittingly provided us with a “cameo” image of herself. The photograph includes her shadow, slightly bent over her camera as she takes the shot. THF 38025


In 1890, 25-year-old Jenny Young Chandler suddenly found herself a widow with a two-month-old baby to provide for. This heart-rending personal loss would take her on an unexpected path--one as a photojournalist and feature writer for the New York Herald, capturing life in Brooklyn, New York and vicinity. Over the next three decades, Chandler’s sensitive, insightful photography would depict people from all walks of life and the world in which they lived--a legacy preserved in over 800 glass plate negatives.

Jenny Chandler was born in 1865 in New Jersey to William Young and Mary Lewis Young. An only child, Jenny was raised by her father and stepmother, Sarah Bennett Young. The family moved to Brooklyn, New York, when Jenny was six, so her father could work as the city editor for the New York Sun newspaper. Jenny followed the normal “career path” for a young lady at that time, marrying William G. Chandler on April 25, 1888. The groom, a neighbor, worked as a sales representative for a picture frame manufacturer. Jenny and William welcomed a son, William Young Chandler, on October 12, 1890. Two months later, Jenny’s husband died of typhoid fever. Chandler unexpectedly needed to earn a living for herself and her child.

When Jenny Chandler embarked on her career, photographs were made by lugging a heavy camera, glass plate negatives and tripod. Understanding how the photo chemicals worked and how light and camera lenses interacted proved to be an exacting task. While photography was growing in popularity as a hobby for young women whose families could afford the equipment, as a profession, it was still considered a male domain. Yet Jenny Chandler mastered the technical details of camera and chemicals, then used her sensitivity and insight as a professional photojournalist to create evocative images of the world around her.

Jenny Chandler’s photographs have an immediacy—a “you are there” quality. She had a remarkable talent for portraying on film the lives of people of diverse economic and ethnic backgrounds. Chandler captured well-off Brooklyn girls and boys playing games, the exuberance of families enjoying the beach at Coney Island, the well-mannered curiosity of students on a museum visit, young girls bent over their sewing tasks, scruffy boys hanging out at the beach, children gathering tomatoes, a fisherman mending his net, shipwrights making wooden boats, and Norwegian immigrant women laboring at their farm work.

In 1922, at the age of 56, Jenny Young Chandler died of a heart ailment. For nearly 10 years, her photographic legacy quietly remained in her Brooklyn home. The subsequent owner of the house, Betty R.K. Pierce--recognizing its importance--contacted Henry Ford hoping “to have Mrs. Chandler’s work preserved in some way.” Mrs. Pierce had read about Henry Ford’s museum and historical village, and thought the photographs particularly related to Ford’s collections. In May 1932, five large boxes containing the carefully packed 800 glass negatives were on their way to Dearborn.

The result of this donation is an amazing document of early 20th century life.

Cynthia Read Miller, former curator, photography & prints, and Jeanine Head Miller, curator of domestic life at The Henry Ford.

Brooklyn and its environs offered Jenny Chandler a varied palette of urban and rural scenes, wealthy and impoverished people, and daily work life and leisure experiences. Below are a few selections from her remarkable collection of photographs.

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Coney Island’s beaches and amusement parks offered cooling breezes and leisure opportunities to New York City area residents. THF38292

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Girls learn to cook at a trade school. THF38041

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Girls visit a children’s museum in Brooklyn, 1900-1910. THF38128

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A family enjoys an outing in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park, about 1905. THF 38192

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A photograph of residents in their backyard - a rare “behind the scenes” glimpse of everyday life. THF38085

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Clearing streets of snow. THF38073

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“Tomboy of Darby Patch, Nellie punching bag.” In “The Patch,” a down-at-the-heels part of Brooklyn, the majority of residents were working class Irish immigrants. THF38251

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A gypsy family enjoys an outdoor meal. THF241184

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Boat Builders, New York, 1890-1915. THF38018

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Children in front of a Gowanus Canal house, Brooklyn, New York. Gowanus Canal was a busy - and polluted - domestic shipping canal.   THF38009

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Gathering radishes in Ridgewood. Ridgewood - a neighborhood that straddled the Queens/Brooklyn boundary - remained largely rural until about 1900. Buildings in the background attest to the increasing urbanization of the area. THF38392

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Norwegian immigrant women laboring at their farm work, about 1900. THF38397

It was so difficult to choose only a few of Jenny Chandler’s photographs! You can enjoy hundreds more of her images in our digital collections.

by Jeanine Head Miller, by Cynthia Read Miller, photography, Jenny Young Chandler, women's history, photographs

The Henry Ford’s Model i learning framework identifies collaboration as a key habit of an innovator. When considering inspirational collaborators from our collection, Charles and Ray Eames immediately came to mind. So, as part of The Henry Ford’s Twitter Curator Chat series, I spent the afternoon of June 18th sharing how collaboration played an important role in Charles and Ray Eames’ design practice.  Below are some of the highlights I shared.

First things first, Charles and Ray Eames were a husband-and-wife design duo—not brothers or cousins, as some think! Although Charles often received the lion’s share of credit, Charles and Ray were truly equal partners and co-designers. Charles explains, "whatever I can do, she can do better... She is equally responsible with me for everything that goes on here."

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THF252258 / Advertising Poster for the Exhibit, "Connections: The Work of Charles and Ray Eames," 1976

So when you see early advertisements that don’t mention Ray Eames as designer alongside Charles, know that she was equally responsible for the work. Here’s one such advertisement from 1947.

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THF266928 / Herman Miller Advertisement, June 30, 1947, "Now Available! The Charles Eames Collection...."

And here’s another from 1952. I could go on, but I think you get the point!

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THF66372 / Wood, Plastic, Wire Chairs & Tables Designed by Charles Eames, circa 1952

For more on Ray’s background and vital role in the Eames Office, check out this article from the New York Times, as part of their recently-debuted “Mrs. Files” series.

Charles and Ray Eames were experimenting with plywood when America entered World War II. A friend from the Army Medical Corps thought their molded plywood concept could be useful for the war effort—specifically for a new splint for broken limbs. Metal splints then in use were heavy and inflexible. Charles and Ray created a molded plywood version and sent a prototype to the U.S. Navy. They worked together and created a workable—and beautiful—solution for the military.

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THF65726 / Eames Molded Plywood Leg Splint, circa 1943

Out of these molded plywood experiments and products came the iconic chairs we know and love, like this lounge chair.

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THF16299 / Molded Plywood Lounge Chair, 1942-1962

But Charles and Ray Eames wanted to make an affordable, complex-curved chair out of a single shell. The molded plywood checked some of their boxes, but the seat was not a single piece—not a single shell. They turned to other materials.

Around 1949, Charles brought a mock-up of a chair to John Wills, a boat builder and fiberglass fabricator, who created two identical prototypes. This is one of those prototypes—it lingered in Will's workshop, used for over four decades as a utility stool. The other became the basis for the Eames’ single-shell fiberglass chair.

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THF134574 / Prototype Eames Fiberglass Chair, circa 1949

Charles and Ray recognized when their expertise fell short and found people in other fields to help them solve design problems. Their single-shell fiberglass chairs became a rounding success. Have you ever sat in one of them?

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THF126897 / Advertising Postcard, "Herman Miller Furniture is Often Shortstopped on Its Way to the Destination...," 1955-1960

If you’ve been to the museum in the past few years, you’ve surely spent some time in another Eames project, the Mathematica: A World of Numbers…and Beyond exhibit. This too was a project full of collaborative spirit!

While those of us not mathematically inclined might have a hard time finding math fun, mathematicians truly think their craft is fun. Charles and Ray worked with these mathematicians to develop an interactive math exhibit that is playful.

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THF169792 / Quotation Sign from Mathematica: A World of Numbers and Beyond Exhibition, 1960-1961

Charles Eames said of science and play, “When we go from one extreme to another, play or playthings can form a transition or sort of decompression chamber – you need it to change intellectual levels without getting a stomachache."

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THF169740 / "Multiplication Cube" from Mathematica: A World of Numbers and Beyond Exhibition, 1960-1961

Charles and Ray Eames sought out expertise in others and worked together, understanding that everyone can bring something valuable to the table. This collaborative spirit allowed them to design deep and wide—solving in-depth problems across a multitude of fields.

Katherine White is Associate Curator, Digital Content, at The Henry Ford. For a deeper dive into this story, please check out her long-form article, “What If Collaboration is Design?”

 

Herman Miller, furnishings, by Katherine White, Model i, women's history, design

rachel-carlson-letterTHF127375

Rachel Carson devoted her early career to studying and writing about the ocean. During the 1950s, her poetic books about the sea brought her recognition and fame as an author.

Carson’s books helped build a new awareness about the environment. Her most important book, Silent Spring, released in 1962, asked Americans to examine the negative effects of widespread chemical pesticide use.

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Rachel Carson’s 1962 book, Silent Spring, linked human action to environmental destruction and ignited a national conversation. THF110029

During World War II, a chemical called DDT protected troops by killing disease-spreading insects. After the war, numerous products containing DDT became commercially available to American consumers for pest control.

In Silent Spring, Carson urged the public to live in harmony with nature and cautioned against the overuse of DDT, which destroyed insect populations and threatened other wildlife species. America reacted. The government banned DDT in 1972. The environmental movement—sparked in part by Carson’s book—continues today.

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An interactive digital experience in Henry Ford Museum features the stories of Rachel Carson, Luther Burbank, and George Washington Carver.

Learn more about Carson’s life and work in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation, where a new digital experience in the Agriculture & the Environment exhibit explores

  • The post-WWII “chemical craze” that prompted Carson to act
  • The long-term environmental effects of pesticide misuse
  • Books and magazines from the beginning of the environmental movement
  • Carson’s influence on the evolution of environmental activism
  • Pesticide use today

books, technology, Henry Ford Museum, nature, women's history

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Mary Blair was the artist for this hand-pulled silkscreen print, used in a guest room at Disney’s Contemporary Resort, Walt Disney World, 1973 to early 1990s. THF181161

When Disney’s Contemporary Resort opened at Walt Disney World in 1971—coinciding with the opening of Magic Kingdom—guests almost immediately complained about their rooms. The rooms seemed cold and hard. They lacked personality. Guests couldn’t even figure out how to operate the new-fangled recessed lighting. So, within two years, the rooms were refurbished with new textiles, fabrics, traditional lamps, and high-quality prints of Mary Blair’s original design. These prints were adapted from the individual scenes of a massive tile mural that she had created for the Contemporary Resort’s central atrium. The hand-pulled silk-screened prints, framed and hung on the walls over the beds, brought much-needed warmth, color, and a sense of playful exuberance to the rooms. More importantly—but probably unbeknownst to most guests—they reinforced Mary Blair’s deep, longstanding connection to Disney parks, attractions, and films that ultimately dated back to a personal friendship with Walt Disney himself.

Mary Blair was born Mary Browne Robinson in 1911 in rural Oklahoma. She developed a love of art early in her childhood and went on to major in fine arts at San Jose State College. She won a prestigious scholarship to the Chouinard Art Institute in Los Angeles (which later became the California Institute of the Arts) and studied under the tutelage of Chouinard’s director of illustration, Pruett Carter. Carter was one of the era’s most accomplished magazine illustrators and stressed the importance of human drama, empathy, and theatre in illustration. Mary later recalled that he was her greatest influence.

By the late 1930s, Mary and her husband, fellow artist Lee Blair, were unable to survive off the sales of their fine art and began to work in Los Angeles’s animation industry. In 1941, both were working at Disney and had the opportunity to travel with Walt Disney and a group of Disney Studio artists to South America to paint as part of a government-sponsored goodwill trip. While on this trip, Mary grew into her own as an artist and found the bold and colorful style for which she would be known.

Mary Blair became one of Walt Disney’s favored artists, appreciated for her vibrant and imaginative style. She recalled, “Walt said that I knew about colors he had never heard of.” In her career at Disney, she created concept art and color styling for many films, including Dumbo (1941), Saludos Amigos (1942), Cinderella (1950), Alice in Wonderland (1951), and Peter Pan (1953). She left Disney after her work on Peter Pan to pursue freelance commercial illustration, but returned when Walt Disney specifically requested her help to create the “it’s a small world” attraction for the 1964-5 New York World’s Fair (later brought back to Disneyland and also recreated in Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World).

Before Walt Disney passed away in 1966, he commissioned Mary to produce multiple large-scale murals, including the one for the interior of the Contemporary Resort at Walt Disney World in Florida. The mural, completed in 1971, was her last work with Disney. Entitled “The Pueblo Village,” it featured 18,000 hand-painted, fire-glazed, one-foot-square ceramic tiles celebrating Southwest American Indian culture, prehistoric rock pictographs, and the Grand Canyon. (Because Mary’s depictions of Native Americans admittedly lack attention to the serious study of indigenous people in that region, they might be criticized as racial stereotyping).

When the guest rooms at the Contemporary Resort were renovated again in the early 1990s, the high-quality prints were removed. But the massive tile mural stoically remains at the center of the Resort’s ten-story atrium—a reminder of Mary Blair’s exuberant artistry and her many contributions to Disney parks and films.

For more on Mary Blair’s contributions, along with the previously unrecognized contributions of numerous other female artists who worked on Disney films, see the book The Queens of Animation: The Untold Story of the Women Who Transformed the World of Disney and Made Cinematic History, by Nathalia Holt (2019).

This blog post was a collaborative effort by Donna Braden, Senior Curator and Curator of Public Life at The Henry Ford, and Katherine White, Associate Curator at The Henry Ford.

design, women's history, Mary Blair, Disney



Pioneering modern designer Ruth Adler Schnee’s bold textiles have broad appeal. Her furnishing and drapery fabrics were favorites of the everyday consumer and leading architects alike, including Minoru Yamasaki, Paul Rudolph, and Buckminster Fuller. Adler Schnee’s textiles, which feature vivid color and abstracted organic forms, added whimsy and depth to the sleek, minimal aesthetic popular in the mid-century period.

Learn more about Ruth's work in this video, and see examples of her designs in this expert set.

design, furnishings, women's history

Tracy K. Smith is the current Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress, commonly known as the US Poet Laureate. She is only the fourth African American to hold this post (or its predecessor, the Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress) since its establishment in 1937, following Robert Hayden (1976–78), Gwendolyn Brooks (1985–86), and Rita Dove (1993–95 and 1999–2000).

Smith’s term as Poet Laureate comes at a particularly auspicious time, as the current Librarian of Congress, Carla Hayden (2016– ), is both the first woman and the first African American ever to hold that post—and she was nominated to her office by the first African American president, Barack Obama.

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Barack Obama 2009 Inauguration Program, Enclosed with Inauguration Invitation

All of these offices had previously been held primarily or solely by white men, and with the new officeholders have come new perspectives. In Smith’s case, this began with her Poet-Laureate project, American Conversations: Celebrating Poems in Rural Communities, an outreach effort where she envisioned “poems might be a way of leaping past small-talk and collapsing the distance between strangers.” It continues in her latest book of poetry, Wade in the Water (Graywolf Press, 2018).

A book of poetry might seem at first glance to be a strange way to bring the past forward, tying historical events to topics at the forefront of our national conversation today. As Smith notes in the introduction to American Journal: Fifty Poems for Our Time, an anthology of poetry she edited, the very nature of a poem – from the layout of words on a page to the vivid, emotion-inducing language used – can “call our attention to moments when the ordinary nature of experience changes—when the things we think we know flare into brighter colors, starker contrasts, strange and intoxicating possibilities.” Poetry can help us process and make sense of complicated issues, and allow us the empathy to see things from someone else’s perspective.

In Wade in the Water, Smith takes this cultural and historical perspective one step further, with poems that use historical documents, including letters from slaveholders and statements of African Americans enlisted in the Civil War, to shed light on today.  Some of these are “erasure” poems, where Smith relies solely on text from these documents—but removes portions to induce a new perspective for the reader.  “Declaration,” for example, removes words from the Declaration of Independence:

Our repeated
Petitions have been answered only by repeated injury.
We have reminded them of the circumstances of our emigration
and settlement here.
--taken Captive
on the high Seas
to bear—

The words she chooses to include are reminiscent of the forced journey of slaves to America and highlight the day-to-day experiences of African Americans as in contrast to the high ideals of the original document.

poetry2Engraved Copy of the 1776 Declaration of Independence, Commissioned by John Quincy Adams, Printed 1823.

In the lengthy poem, “I Will Tell You the Truth about This, I Will Tell You All About It,” Smith again shares the direct words of African Americans who enlisted to fight in the Civil War, as well as their families, “arranged in such a way as to highlight certain of the main factors affecting blacks during the Civil War….” Excerpts from the letters and documents use the original spelling of the writers (pointing out the literacy levels of African Americans at the time), and shed light on the ways the war impacted African American families—many of which concerns still sound familiar today. The initial section of the poem is drawn from a November 21, 1864, letter from Mrs. Jane Welcome to Abraham Lincoln:

Mr abarham lincon

I wont to knw sir if you please

whether I can have my son relest

from the arme       he is all the subport

I have now       his father is Dead

and his brother that wase all

the help I had      he has bean wonded

twise   he has not had nothing to send me yet

poetry3Wood Engraving, "First and Last Dress Review of 1st Regiment South Carolinian (Negro) Volunteers," 1862.

The poems that use only Smith’s own words also reference the past as a way to understand the present.  In “Refuge,” the narrator tries to create empathy within herself for an immigrant, a refugee, by seeing that person as her mother during the Montgomery Bus Boycott:

Until I can understand why you

Fled, why you are willing to bleed,

Why you deserve what I must be

Willing to cede, let me imagine

You are my mother in Montgomery,

Alabama, walking to campus

Rather than riding the bus. I know

What they call you, what they

Try to convince you you lack.

poetry4
Rosa Parks Bus before Restoration, Destination Sign, March 2002.

Empathy is clearly a key theme running through both Smith’s Poet-Laureate project and her poetry. Asked what “the greatest challenge of our time” is in an August 24, 2018, interview with the Financial Times, Smith answered, “Love. Maybe a better word is compassion. In particular, we have to learn a new way of looking at the people we fear; people we have socially acceptable ways of dismissing or condemning for their own misery or misfortune.” She invites us to use our own American history as that new lens in order to better understand others, the world we live in today, and not least, ourselves.

Ellice Engdahl is Manager, Digital Collections and Content, at The Henry Ford.

by Ellice Engdahl, women's history, books, African American history

atari-set
The familiar silver packaging for the “Black Vader” Atari 2600 was created by Evelyn Seto, who led the Atari design team with John Hayashi. THF160364

Cardboard boxes printed in bold colors: shimmering silver, blazing orange, primary blue, circus purple—hot pink. Overlaid with white and yellow Bauhaus typography announcing the contents: Centipede, Breakout, Space Invaders. Inside the box, a black plastic cartridge that holds the promise of video game entertainment, all from the comfort of home. Games played while sitting cross-legged on the floor. Later, aching hands from hours of play on a square, non-ergonomic, one-button joystick. No quarters necessary. By the fall of 1977, there was no denying the fact that the arcade was successfully finding its way into the living room. 

The Atari Video Computer System (later sold as the Atari 2600) changed the gaming industry. Earlier systems like the Magnavox Odyssey, Home PONG, and the Fairchild System F were available in the early 1970s, but the remarkable success of the Atari 2600 defined a “second generation” of home consoles, selling over 30 million units between 1977 and 1992.

The number of games available for the 2600—taking into account Atari and Sears releases as well as those by third-parties like Activision and Imagic—finds us looking at approximately 550 unique titles. Several games within this vast library include important contributions made by women.

Female employees were not uncommon at the company. Carol Kantor became the first market researcher at a video game company, ever. Wanda Hill drew the circuit diagrams for Asteroids. Judy Richter worked as a packaging designer and production manager for a decade, through multiple leadership transitions. The people working on the assembly lines populating the circuit boards for arcade games were almost all women. Evelyn Seto supervised the design team, inking the original three-pronged “Mt. Fuji” logo and creating the shelf-appealing silver packaging for the Atari 2600.

atari-centipedeDona Bailey and Ed Logg’s 1980 arcade version of Centipede was translated as a “port” for the Atari 2600 in 1982. In 2013, this cartridge was excavated from the “Atari Tomb” located in an Alamogordo, New Mexico landfill. THF159973

The scales were not exactly balanced in terms of gender equality within Atari’s engineering staff, but take for instance the work of Dona Bailey, programmer of the arcade version of Centipede (1980). Not only was she the first female programmer to design an arcade game, but her collaboration with Ed Logg led to the creation of one of the most iconic video games of all time.

atari-tictactoe

When Carol Shaw created 3D Tic-Tac-Toe, she became the first professional female video game developer. THF171081

 Carol Shaw & Susan Jaekel

Dona Bailey’s time in the “coin-op” division at Atari overlapped with Carol Shaw’s work for the “cart” division. In 1977, Shaw graduated from the University of California, Berkeley’s Computer Science program, and was hired as the first female programmer at Atari in August 1978. When she completed her first cartridge game that year—3D Tic-Tac-Toe—she effectively became one of the women to work in the professional video game industry. 3D Tic-Tac-Toe is an abstract strategy video game based on a game called Qubic, which was originally played on room-sized computers in the mid-1950s.

In the 1970s and 80s, the exterior graphics of a coin-op console or the illustration on a game’s cardboard box were often a player’s first exposure to a game. Typically, the vibrant and dynamic graphics promoting a game were light years beyond the pixelated game that showed up on the screen. Nonetheless, Evelyn Seto from Atari’s graphics team once said: “The romance of the game was told in the box artwork.”

And what could be more intriguing than a woman in space with her spacesuit-clad dog competing against a robot with laser-powers?  The illustrations on 3D Tic-Tac-Toe’s box were painted by Susan Jaekel, who became known for her illustrated textbooks and cookbooks, as well as the packaging for Atari’s Adventure, Circus, Basic Math, and others. On 3D Tic-Tac-Toe, Jaekel collaborated with Rick Guidice to create the four grids in the design; Guidice is well-known for his 1970s illustrations of space colonies for NASA’s Ames Research Center.

In 1978, Shaw also programmed Video Checkers and Super Breakout (with Nick Turner). In 1982, Shaw left Atari to work for Activision, where she created her most celebrated game: River Raid.

atari-riverraidRiver Raid by Carol Shaw. Activision was the first third-party video game developer, making compatible cartridges for the Atari 2600. THF171080

River Raid is a top-down-view scrolling shooter video game. Players move a fighter jet left to right to avoid other vehicles, shoot military vehicles, and must refuel their plane to avoid crashing. The game was pioneering for its variation in background landscape. Whereas most games repeated the same background, Shaw found a way to create a self-generating algorithm to randomize the scenery.

In an interview, Carol Shaw spoke of how “Ray Kassar, President of Atari, was touring the labs and he said, ‘Oh, at last! We have a female game designer. She can do cosmetics color matching and interior decorating cartridges!’ Which are two subjects I had absolutely no interest in…”

atari-carolshawDetail of River Raid instruction manual, introduced by Carol Shaw.

Carla Meninsky

In Atari’s early years, Carla Meninsky was one of only two female employees in Atari’s cartridge design division, along with Carol Shaw. When Meninsky was a teenager, her programmer mother taught her the basics of Fortran. Carla’s academic studies at Stanford began in the mathematics department, but she switched to a major in psychology with a focus in neuroscience. In school, she became interested in building an AI-powered computer animation system and spent her free time playing the text-based Adventure game. Soon after graduation, she pitched her computerized animation idea to Atari, and was hired. Almost immediately, she found herself shuttled into the unintended role of game programmer, working through a list of proposed titles with no actual description.   

atari-indy500Carla Meninsky and Ed Riddle’s Indy 500 was one of the first of nine titles released with the Atari 2600 launch. THF171078

Meninsky co-designed Indy 500 with Ed Riddle. When the Atari 2600 launched, this was one of the first nine titles advertised. The game was a bird’s eye view racing game that was a “port” made in the spirit of full-size coin-op arcade games like Indy 800, Grand Trak 10, and Sprint 4. This game could be used with the standard controller, or a special driving controller with a rotating dial that allowed players to have greater control over their vehicles. 

atari-dodgeemDodge ‘Em is another driving maze game designed by Carla Meninsky, and was one of the first games she created for Atari. THF171079

atari-starraiders
Carla Meninsky’s Star Raiders, 1982. THF171076 

Star Raiders, also by Meninsky, is a first-person shooter game with a space combat theme. The game was groundbreaking for its advanced gameplay and quality graphics that simulated a three-dimensional field of play. The original version of the game was written by Doug Neubauer for the Atari 8-bit home computer and was inspired by his love for Star Trek. This “port” to the home console market for the Atari 2600 was programmed by Carla Meninsky.

atari-starraiders-controller
atari-starraiders-controller-2Star Raiders came with a special Video Touch Pad controller. The Henry Ford’s collections house the version sold with the 1982 game, as well as a crushed and dirtied version that was excavated from the “Atari Tomb” in 2013. THF171077 and THF159969

The 2600 version of the game could be used with a regular joystick, or a deluxe version was sold with a special Video Touch Pad controller. This twelve-button touchpad was designed to be overlaid with interchangeable graphic cards, printed with commands for different Atari games. Star Raiders was the only game to make use of this controller—perhaps if it weren’t for the looming “Video Game Crash” of 1983, other developers would have made use of this controller.

Atari was one of the first companies with the types of workplace perks that are now ubiquitous at Silicon Valley companies today. It had a reputation for attracting the young, the rebellious, and the singularly talented. While certain aspects of Atari’s workplace culture might raise eyebrows today (and rightly so), it also doesn’t take much digging to find stories of women who were empowered to make vital contributions to the company. These recent artifact acquisitions—games designed and programmed by female gaming pioneers working at Atari—embody an ambition to represent and celebrate diverse cultures through our technological collections.

Kristen Gallerneaux is the Curator of Communications and Information Technology at The Henry Ford.

women's history