WOMEN'S IDENTITIES

1900S-1920S

The writing of most of the biographies about women in this time period would not have been possible without Wendy Rouse’s research on the involvement of queer women in the women’s suffrage movement.

MARIA COSTA

 

1900S

ALICE MOORE DUNBAR-NELSON

Alice Moore Dunbar-Nelson is best known for her work as a poet and activist. Nelson’s racial background - being from African American, Native American, Anglosaxon, and Creole descent - as well as her sexuality made her work nuanced through this intersection of identities. Born in New Orleans, Louisiana, Dunbar-Nelson attended now Dillard University and spent her early career teaching at public schools in the area. During that time, she was also working on her prose. She published her first book, Violets and Other Tales (1895) at twenty years old, being one of the few African American women who were published authors at the time. Her later books focused on oppression, racial discrimination, and sexuality, though they were most often rejected by publishers. Dunbar-Nelson was also involved in the women’s suffrage movement, spending time lobbying for the cause and later on as an organizer for the Congressional Union, which would eventually become the National Women’s Party. While she spent most of her adult life in heterosexual marriages, the author was also involved in romantic relationships with women and often wrote in her diary about Black suffragists’ engagement in lesbian and bisexual subcultures. Dunbar-Nelson challenged gender roles advocating for women’s voting rights, pursuing a career not popular for women, as well as for being openly bisexual.

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ANNA HOWARD SHAW

Anna Howard Shaw is famously known as one of the leaders of the women’s suffrage movement. Born in England in 1847, Shaw emigrated to the United States with her family at the age of four. The activist was initially interested in following a religious career, becoming the first woman to be ordained by the Methodist Protestant Church in 1880. She resigned only five years after, however, to dedicate herself to the suffragist cause. She joined the National American Women’s Suffrage Association and eventually became its president from 1904 to 1915. Being an active member of the women’s suffrage movement, however, was not the only way in which Howard Shaw challenged the confines imposed on women at the time. Though often overlooked in biographical accounts, the activist was in a Boston marriage with Lucy Anthony for thirty years. Boston marriages were popular among suffragists since they permitted women to be financially independent and were an alternative to homosexual marriages that forced women to be subservient to their husbands. She also challenged gender norms by refusing to get married to a man.

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1910S

ANNIE RENSSELAER TINKER

Born in a wealthy family of lawyers and bankers, Annie Tinker used her privilege to finance the women's suffrage movement, and challenged gender norms by wearing clothes and behaving in ways that were not traditionally associated with femininity. Tinker was left a large estate after her father’s sudden death. With the inheritance, the philanthropist decided to support the women’s suffrage cause as well as provide financial assistance to older women. She aimed to grant these older women a better quality of life as well as independence, a significant philanthropic cause given that Social Security had not yet been established. Tinker was however highly criticized for the ways in which she chose to dress. The philanthropist, who would most likely nowadays identify as non-binary or gender-fluid, was described in a New York Times article as “mannish,” and columnists often expressed their distaste for Tinker’s masculine fashion. Nevertheless, Tinker continued to express her gender-nonconformity and was also open about her romantic involvement with a woman, Kate Darling Nelson, during a time where homosexuality was frowned upon. Her philanthropy as well as gender and sexual orientation challenged the ways in which women were expected to pursue their lives during her time.

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MARY BURNETT TALBERT

Mary Burnett Talbert, suffragist and civil rights activist, was an important figure for representation and recognition of issues particular to African American women’s experiences. After graduating from Oberlin college, the activist spent part of her career teaching a variety of subjects in high schools. Later on, she became a founding member of the Phyllis Wheatley Club, which eventually helped with the creation of the first chapter of the NAACP. She was also involved in international affairs, being a part of the Women’s Committee on International Relations. Most of the suffrage movement centered around the ability of white women to vote. Burnett Talbert opened the floor to the inclusion of African American women in the cause. She not only challenged the patriarchal order by being a suffrage activist, but also raised awareness of the intersectionality of being both African American and a woman.

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1920S

DR. MARGARET CHUNG

Margaret Chung challenged both gender norms and limitations imposed in Chinese-American women during her lifetime. Her career alone was groundbreaking for the time: daughter of two Chinese immigrants, she attended medical school at University of Southern California and became the first Chinese-American to be a physician. Dr. Chung wanted to focus her career towards providing healthcare to Chinese women and opened one of the first Western medicine clinics in San Francisco’s Chinatown. Being a doctor, however, was not the only way in which Dr. Chung challenged limitations imposed on women. Often referred to by her friends as “Mike,” the doctor wore masculine clothes and participated in hobbies associated with masculinity at the time such as gambling and drinking, thus challenging heteronormative beauty standards. While she never openly discussed her sexuality, Dr. Chung had several romantic relationships with women and navigated San Francisco’s queer subculture. Margaret Chung went against societal expectations towards women, as well as limitations due to her being Chinese-American, by pursuing her career as a woman and by embracing her gender nonconformity.

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ROMAINE BROOKS

Romaine Brooks’ paintings challenge the heteronormative beauty standards of her time by depicting herself as well as individuals in her social circle whose gender identity did not ascribe to the traditional gender binary. Born Beatrice Romaine Goddard, Brooks came from an upper-class family and spent a large portion of her life in Paris, a city more accepting of lesbianism during the 1920s. Brooks dedicated her artistic career to the archiving the often marginalized queer social circles. The artist depicts androgenous figures with confident and assertive poses, often used in paintings with male subjects, thus attributing power to this group of individuals who did not conform to gender roles. Brooks was part of a group of artists who changed the way in which women have been traditionally represented in the art world, often sexualized and subject to the male gaze.

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WORKS CITED

“Anna Howard Shaw: American Minister,” Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/topic/temperance-movement 


“Annie Rensselaer Tinker: Tireless Suffragist, Fearless Advocate,” The New York Community Trust. https://www.nycommunitytrust.org/newsroom/annie-rensselaer-tinker-tireless-suffragist-fearless-advocate/ 


“Alice Moore Dunbar Nelson: 1875-1953,” Poetry Foundation. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/alice-moore-dunbar-nelson 


Catlin, Roger. “The World is Finally Ready to Understand Romaine Brooks,” Smithsonian Magazine. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smithsonian-institution/its-time-acknowledge-romaine-brooks-early-20th-century-artist-180959725/ 


“Mary Burnett Talbert,” National Women’s Hall of Fame. https://www.womenofthehall.org/inductee/mary-burnett-talbert/ 


Rouse, Wendy. “The Very Queer History of the Suffrage Movement,” National Park Service. https://www.nps.gov/articles/000/the-very-queer-history-of-the-suffrage-movement.htm


“Dr. Margaret “Mom” Chung,” National Park Service. https://www.nps.gov/people/dr-margaret-mom-chung.htm 


“The Art of Romaine Brooks,” Smithsonian American Art Museum. https://americanart.si.edu/exhibitions/brooks 


Tinker, Catherine. “Annie Rensselaer Tinker (1884-1924) of East Setauket and NYC: Philanthropist, Suffragist, WWI Volunteer in Europe.” Long Island History Journal. http://lihj.cc.stonybrook.edu/2017/articles/annie-rensselaer-tinker-1884-1924-of-east-setauket-and-nyc-philanthropist-suffragist-wwi-volunteer-in-europe/ 


“Suffragists and Boston Marriage,” ATX Celebrates Women’s Suffrage. https://www.atxcelebrateswomenssuffrage.com/home/suffragists-and-boston-marriage