Chicago’s Woman’s World Fair

Chicago and Illinois took their turn on the world stage in 1893 when the city hosted the World’s Columbian Exposition, better known as the World’s Fair. It was a chance to reacquaint the nation and the world with the Midwest’s pre-eminent city after it had risen from the ashes of the 1871 fire.

In the decades that followed, Chicago and Illinois re-emerged as the crossroads of America, with the construction of railroads and then highways, and the early days of aviation. With its status as a world-class city in the center of the North American continent; and with so many of the leaders in the nation’s movement toward equal rights for women based here in Illinois; it was only fitting that in 1925 Chicago would play host to the first Woman’s World Fair.

The fair in Chicago three decades earlier had set aside one of its exposition buildings for women inventors (it was run by what the fair’s organizers called a “Board of Lady Managers”.) The Woman’s Building was intended to showcase achievements by American women, and the building itself was one of them: designed as it was by Sophia Hayden an architect who had been the first woman to graduate from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology with a degree in architecture. But while the building had served the purpose that had been imagined by the fair’s organizers, it had also reinforced old stereotypes, with most of its exhibits and displays featuring creations to be used in homemaking.

By the 1920s, organizers of the next fair in Chicago had a much grander idea. World’s Fairs were about the future: new technology, new innovations and new ideas. As the decade of the 1920s would demonstrate, women were going to play a tremendously important role in the changes then sweeping the entire world.

In 1920 women had finally been granted full voting rights nationwide, with Illinois playing a leading role in the enactment of the 19th Amendment. Two years later the first woman was elected to the Illinois House of Representatives, Lottie Holman O’Neill of Downers Grove. On the same day, Winnifred Sprague Mason Huck became the first woman elected to Congress from Illinois.

Ruth Hanna McCormick and Anna Howard Shaw. 
The idea for a World’s Fair specifically focused on women had been around since the 1893 fair, but now it got new impetus, driven forward by leaders like Ruth Hanna McCormick, a future member of Congress from Illinois and Helen Bennett, a Chicago businesswoman and author. Bennett had been working on creating a Woman’s World Fair for more than two years. In 1925 it would become a reality.

On April 18, 1925, the first Woman’s World Fair opened its doors in the Furniture Mart on north Lake Shore Drive in Chicago’s Streeterville neighborhood. It ran for eight days and eventually drew more than 200,000 attendees. The fair showcased women’s achievements in literature and the arts as well as innovations by women in business and industry and many other facets of modern life.

Bennett connected with McCormick, the Republican national committeewoman for Illinois, and through her she was able to convince First Lady Grace Coolidge to attend and President Calvin Coolidge to open the fair by radio from Washington. The President, however, was upstaged by a cow which made all sorts of noise during his remarks. The cow had been brought into the exposition hall by McCormick as a publicity gimmick. Coolidge was frustrated, saying, “I thought I was opening a Woman’s World Fair, but it seems I was only ballyhooing Ruthie’s cow.” The cow who upstaged the President became one of the stars of the opening day of the fair.

Another star was Lillian Tolbert. Determined that the fair would be open to all exhibitors, regardless of race, Tolbert, an African American inventor had been invited to showcase a pitcher which kept drinks cool through the use of a core which held ice. In the days before refrigerators, her invention was a hit and similar products are still in use nearly a century later.

Tolbert was just one of almost 300 presenters who came to the fair to exhibit the new opportunities for women in the workplace, representing fields as diverse as newspapers and telephone companies to banks and manufacturers. Civic groups like the Business and Professional Women’s Club and the Women’s Trade Union League participated alongside artists and lawyers.

The fair featured entertainment, including an orchestra made up entirely of women musicians. Each day featured a dedicated theme and an evening program of speeches and other informational presentations. Some speakers highlighted the emerging opportunities for women in business and industry, others focused on the dominant political issues of the day. One of these was Wyoming Governor Nellie Tayloe Ross, the first woman elected to the governorship of any U.S. state. Other speakers included Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover, Dr. Alice Hamilton and Judge Kathryn Sellers.

When the fair concluded its run on April 25 it was judged a triumph. It had turned a profit of about $50,000, but had succeeded on a much more important level. The event had brought together women leaders from around the country not in support of any specific objective, but instead to demonstrate the multitude of opportunities available to women in the modern world.

Souvenir program from the Woman's World's Fair.
Image from the Chicago Historical Society
So successful was the fair that it would become an annual event, running through 1928 when it moved to the Chicago Coliseum and became more of a truly world’s fair, including exhibitors from nine European nations. By 1928 the Woman’s World Fair had expanded to include programs on everything from craft-making and fortune telling to health care and financial security.

Historians TJ Boisseau and Abigail Markwyn would sum up the enduring legacy of the Woman’s World Fair, saying that the events, “present a view on the way that women, when unencumbered and unlimited by men’s assumptions about women or by corporate influences, used the structure and formatting of a world’s fair to present themselves to the public and to promote their own ideas about women.”