Women in the history of World Expos

BIE takes a look back at the role women have played in the history of World Expos.

Being both a snapshot of the world at a particular time and a place where progress is created, Expos have witnessed the evolution of the role of women in society and have, at the turn of the century, simultaneously showcased the housewife model, presented women’s talent and professionalism and allowed the creation of international networks for female solidarity.

Expo Philadelphia 1876 and Expo Chicago 1893 are the most relevant examples of a time where the inferior status of women in society was more and more questioned. In 1876, Elizabeth Duane Gillespie, great-grand daughter of Benjamin Franklin, fought to create, at the Philadelphia World Fair, a Women’s Pavilion that would not only display works by women but would also be managed by them, unlike the Women’s pavilion of Vienna 1873 that was designed by men. It isn’t surprising that such an idea should stem from the United States. A few years earlier, the American Civil War had led many women out of their homes and into public life. Their help in the United States Sanitary Commission was particularly significant.

The Women’s Pavilion of 1876 showcased a great number of art works but also presented the involvement of women in humanitarian issues and even in machinery. 75 women who had filed a patent were able to display their inventions and the engineer Emma Alison surprised visitors by operating the motor that produced the energy of the whole building: women were seen under a new light, even though most of the innovations presented were linked to housework.

With the Fair of Chicago 1893, the role of women in Expos took on a new turn with the creation of the Board of Lady Managers whose 115 members could name female jury members in the different departments of the Fair. The Board was also in charge of organizing and managing a Women’s Pavilion. Mrs Bertha Honoré Palmer, wife of millionaire Potter Palmer, was in charge of the project. She was the incarnation of the women of those times, caught between their roles as wives and the will to take control of their lives.

The 1893 Women’s Pavilion was designed by a woman architect and the interior was decorated by a number of women artists. Like in 1876, the pavilion presented elements linked to the traditional roles of woman, but through these displays visitors could see the intelligence and talent of women. The major progress made by the 1893 project was the creation of an international network of women. To prepare for the event, Mrs Palmer traveled Europe to convince important women such as heads of State’s wives to take part in the pavilion. 40 countries contributed, thus giving an international scope to the fight for a better recognition of the role of women.

After that, many Expos built their own Women’s pavilion like the Paris Fair of 1900 that allowed the first participation of women to the Olympic Games, Expo Paris 1937, Expo Montral 1967 and San Antonio 1968.

At a time where women often were in the shadow of men, Women’s Pavilions offered them a space where they could prove their entrepreneurial skills and creative spirit. Today, almost 150 years after the Expo of Philadelphia, their participation is no longer limited to a specific pavilion. They manage National Pavilions and run Expos like Birgit Breuel who was Commissioner General of Expo Hanover 2000.

Moreover, women continue using World Expos to create international networks of women. The next World Expo of Milan dedicated to nutrition has launched Women for Expo that will connect women from all over the world and bring together their ideas, experience and accomplishments in a multimedia platform. Women for Expo will also organize conferences and workshops during the Expo that will lead to the creation of a “Charter for Women” that will group 10 essential ideas to ensure everyone has access to safe food. Women play a crucial role in the search for solutions to today’s biggest challenges, and here is to hoping their role will continue to grow.

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