On the eve of Women’s History Month, President Trump referenced three historical male figures to make a point about America’s potential for greatness.
In his first address to a joint session of Congress on Tuesday night, he spoke of the Centennial Exposition of 1876 when thousands of American inventors and artists came together to present. As he read off of a teleprompter:
Alexander Graham Bell displayed his telephone for the first time. Remington unveiled the first typewriter. An early attempt was made at electric light. Thomas Edison showed an automatic telegraph and an electric pen. Imagine the wonders our country could know in America’s 250th year.
These men are indeed worthy of praise and recognition. After all, there’s a reason most American schoolchildren would recognize their names. But if President Trump and his speechwriters did a bit more digging, they would have discovered the women who made history during the Centennial Exposition of 1876, too.
As he faced rows of Democratic women wearing suffragette white, the irony was lost on the president that, during the very Centennial he spoke of, Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Matilda Joslyn Gage presented their Declaration of the Rights of Women.
According to PBS, at the expo, which lasted from May to November in 1876, “some 30,000 exhibits from the ‘Arts, Manufactures and Products of the Soil and Mine’ filled massive exhibit halls spread over 450 acres in Philadelphia’s Fairmount Park.”
Women weren’t allowed to exhibit independently, so Elizabeth Duane Gillespie and a committee of 13 women dreamed up the Women’s Pavilion ― a building that showcased inventions only by women. History Professor Sally G. McMillen of Davidson College told HuffPost that Gillespie and her team had to raise money on their own for the Pavilion, and did so in record-breaking time.
Of course there were corsets, heavy dresses and household items displayed, but women also presented work that was relevant outside of the domestic sphere, suggesting a slow but steady shift toward gender equality. According to Harvard’s library page, the American Medical Association admitted its first woman member during the fair.
Women’s Studies Professor Jennifer Scanlon of Bowdoin College told HuffPost that inside the Women’s Pavilion, more than 75 women demonstrated the inventions they had secured patents for.
“Emma Allison was on hand to run a six-horsepower steam engine that powered six looms and a printing press,” she said. “Artists were there as well, from the renowned sculptor Edmonia Lewis, whose work often celebrated the emancipation of slaves, to Caroline Shawk Brooks, a celebrated butter sculptor.”
At the time, Gillespie did not want to be associated with the “radical element in the women’s movement” ― a.k.a. the suffragists.
Professor McMillen told HuffPost that when suffragist Lucy Stone tried to show a taxation without representation exhibition ― which highlighted how unjust it was for women to pay taxes without the right to vote ― her work was basically hidden.
At first, Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton wanted no part of the centennial. They felt their goal of securing women’s right to vote was so far away, there was nothing to celebrate. Professor McMillen says that, eventually, the women realized they had an opportunity to get their message across.
The suffragists requested to read a new Declaration of Rights they had written at the Centennial Celebration in Philadelphia on July 4, 1876. They were denied, and had to come up with a new plan.
Here’s a page from the National Woman Suffrage Parlors in Philadelphia outlining their plans. Story continues below photo.
During the reading of the Declaration of Independence on that day, Anthony and four other women stood up and walked through the aisles. She handed their document to the Vice President, and to various audience members. According to Rochester’s library site, she proceeded to read the Declaration to a small crowd in front of Independence Hall.
The documented ended:
We ask of our rulers, at this hour, no special favors, no special privileges, no special legislation. We ask justice, we ask equality, we ask that all the civil and political rights that belong to citizens of the United States, be guaranteed to us and our daughters forever.
Women’s Day at the Centennial was celebrated on November 7, Election Day. “It was argued, men would be at the polls and would not mind missing this event,” according to the Centennial Exhibition Digital Collection.
This Women’s History Month, remember that we have the power to make history every day. And in 2017, that feels more urgent than ever. Follow along with HuffPost on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram in March using #WeMakeHerstory.