The World’s Columbian Exposition, held in Chicago in 1893, exploited the 400th anniversary of Columbus’s voyage as an opportunity to celebrate the accomplishments and aspirations of American civilization. Although the focus of the Exposition was on America’s technological modernity, Judy Sund argues that the event was also a landmark in the history of American women. For diverse women’s groups, from suffragettes to prominent socialites, the Columbian Exposition became an occasion to raise consciousness about the role of women in American culture. But, as Sund explains, a marked inconsistency emerged between the verbal and visual rhetoric centering on women at the fair.

Close scrutiny of the Exposition’s visual environment, in particular the Court of Honor and the Women’s Pavilion, reveals the manner in which progressive oratory on women’s issues was undermined by works of art that served to reinforce conventional notions of generic womanhood. From the allegorical sculpture to the exotic images of foreigners on the Midway, women were represented as idealized abstractions of feminine virtue and sexuality and as such stood in sharp contrast to the heroic presence of historical male figures such as Columbus, whose spirit the Fair commemorated. Sund attributes this failure to realize a compelling, dynamic vision of modern female identity, which also characterized the murals executed for the Women’s Pavilion by Mary Cassatt, to ideological disagreements between the various groups who competed for the right to represent women’s interests at the Exposition.