Compiled in the 1920s and early 1930s by the Denver-based publisher James Alexander Semple, the “Notable American Women” portfolio is an unvarnished time capsule of both celebrated and unsung women who made important contributions to American society and upon whose shoulders we all stand today. The aborted project, which was initiated with the intention of creating a copiously illustrated publication, is comprised of over 500 solicited portraits and related material documenting an array of pioneering women across the political arena, sciences, social and civic engagement, philanthropy, education, and the arts. Accompanying the portraits in the surviving compilation are short biographical worksheets filled in by the subjects themselves (or an occasional proxy), providing unique primary sources ripe for mining. Although the intended publication never materialized, the recent recovery of this extensive archive takes on new significance on the centennial of ratification of the 19th amendment to the U.S. Constitution giving (some) women the right to vote, opening a window into contemporaneous socio-political concerns and issues of representation that continue to resonate to this day.
The significant representation in the archive of historical and contemporary activists in the struggle for women’s rights such as Jane Addams reflects the project’s currency at the time it was being amassed. Like many here, Addams stands as a “first” to transgress conventional gender roles, professionally, and as a pioneer in the struggle for American women’s rights. These criteria appear amongst the most pervasive driving one’s inclusion in Semple’s venture. Addams was the first American female awarded the Nobel Peace Prize (1931), and she commands an irrefutable place within the project’s framework. Widely noted for co-founding one of the first and most famous settlement houses in America—Hull House of Chicago—and recognized as the founder of the social work profession in the United States, she leads a long list of social reformers and activists sprinkled throughout the assembled files.
Although little documentation survives documenting how this project came into being, the very premise of who it deemed notable is fairly straight forward. Coordinated in the wake of the passage of the 19th amendment, the project venerates a selection of heroines in the long and ongoing struggle of American women fighting for the right to vote. Included among those distinguished as activists in the struggle for women’s rights and social equity are: founder of the Political Equity League, Alva Belmont; pioneering figure in the establishment of the American Women’s Suffrage Association, Alice Stone Blackwell; and one of the main leaders and strategists of the campaign for the Nineteenth Amendment, Alice Stokes Paul.
While Semple’s intended publication was a celebration of the passage of women’s suffrage and included a small selection of individuals whose accomplishments predated this momentous legislation, it did not fully trace three generations of American women whose struggles preceded and intersected with the creation of this volume. The conspicuous exclusion of women of color from the portfolio, from Sojourner Truth to Ida B. Wells to Mary McLeod Bethune, and scores of Black, Latina, Native American, and Asian-American organizers, some of whom worked hand-in-hand with the women included in this archive, are a stark and inescapable omission of the project. This is undeniably a project delimited by racial exclusion, and its organizer and many of its subjects are both the products of, and were complicit in, the virulent strains of American racial segregation in the 1920s and 1930s. Notable in this regard is the inclusion of the First Lady of the Confederacy, Varina Davis, and a number of women whose membership in the United Daughters of the Confederacy serves as validation of their inclusion in this project.
Ironically, the one woman of color who appears in this ensemble is the jazz singer Mildred Bailey, known as the “The Queen of Swing.” While she won acclaim as one of the great “white” jazz singers of the 1930s and '40s, her Native American heritage—she was a member of the Coeur d'Alene people—went largely unmentioned throughout her successful career. She herself made no mention of her Native American roots in the form she submitted along with her photograph inscribed with a dedication for Semple’s book.
Readily evident to today’s viewers is also the complete exclusion of other significant parts of American society from this effort, such as women from less privileged backgrounds and women at the radical/ avant-garde reaches of the arts and other fields. It is perhaps in the realm of the visual arts that Semple’s provincialism is most conspicuous; indeed, in lieu of inviting participation by such pioneering artists as Meta Warrick Fuller or Georgia O’Keeffe—both of whom had obtained significant recognition by the 1920s (the former in the community of the Harlem Renaissance and the latter in avant-garde circles)—he featured relatively unknown figures who fell within the limited scope of his outreach.
Even as Semple set out to highlight the strides women had made in his version of a “Who’s Who” narrative, recognition of solidarities across race lines was limited to a handful of white individuals. These included abolitionist and women’s rights activists Lucretia Mott, Julia Ward Howe, and the first female Protestant minister ordained in the United States, Antoinette Brown Blackwell, who wrote for Frederick Douglass’s paper, The North Star. And Florence Kelley, who fought against racial discrimination and aided in the creation of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).
Semple’s collection, while limited by the publisher’s constraints and biases, captures an impressive array of personal and public accomplishments. Prominent trailblazers in the political arena, both nationally and locally, appear with great frequency. The first female cabinet member, Frances Perkins, who was Secretary of Labor under Franklin D. Roosevelt, exemplifies those in this category. Instrumental in enacting many facets of the New Deal, she was largely responsible for the adoption in the U.S. of such landmark institutions as Social Security, unemployment insurance, the federal minimum wage, and federal laws regulating child labor. Pioneers on a more localized level include the lawyer and juvenile justice advocate Mary Margaret Bartelme. Heralded in a 1913 New York Times article as “America’s Only Woman Judge,” she went on to be elected judge in an Illinois high court in 1923 and was later recognized as the single most important person in the early decades of the first juvenile court established in the U.S., in Cook County IL.
Perkins’s and Bartelme’s portraits, like the majority of those in the portfolio, manifest the hallmarks of the conventional American studio portrait of the time, typified in the pose, format, soft focus, shallow depth of field, and diffused lighting. Reflected in the wealth of portraits are the advances in technology and the mass production of photographic materials at this time served to further advance a process of democratization in personal portraiture begun with the emergence of the medium three-quarters of a century earlier. While there is little to visually denote individual identities in these portraits’ seemingly generic qualities, clear signifiers of professional accomplishments in photographs such as those of Florence Allen and Virginia Gildersleeve represent the sitters in a more illustrative fashion.
Allen, the first woman to serve on a state supreme court when elected in 1922 in Ohio and a noted advocate for women’s rights, pursued a groundbreaking career as a federal judge and was considered for nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court under three different presidencies. Her portrait by Ethel Standiford stands out for the distinctive lighting, high contrast, and sharp focus, an arresting treatment in stark contrast from many of the portraits of her contemporaries seen here. Photographed against a black backdrop into which her robes blend, Allen presents an imposing figure spilling beyond the tightly framed composition. Similarly, the cap and gown regalia that longtime Dean of Barnard College Virginia Gildersleeve sports and the reading materials at hand immediately call attention to her professional identity. Co-founder in 1919 of the International Federation of University Women and lifelong crusader for women’s rights in academe, Gildersleeve is represented in a manner in which her professional accomplishment is illuminated and celebrated.
Semple’s unfinished volume is a manifestation of a democratically invoked publishing endeavor launched mid nineteenth century. With the advance of pictorial publishing, illustrated lists of biographies and regional histories emerged, leading to the first edition of Who’s Who being published in the UK in 1849. Semple’s project was rooted in the guiding premise that irrespective of region, education, or class, producing such books would create new lessons with authoritative, salutatory, educational aims, efforts that presumed to counter and correct for distortions or omissions in prevailing Who’s Who narratives.
The “Notable American Women” portfolio constitutes a unique collective portrait and conversation with history, presenting an opportunity for exploring the archive within its broader cultural context. It equally encourages an engagement with the history of photographic portraiture in the early 20th century and the role of mediated images in promoting personal narratives of solo pioneers as objective biography. It marks a time of increasing awareness of women taking leadership positions and changing societal expectations, contributing to important overlooked histories. That the press, publications, monuments, museums, oral histories, documentaries, and archives—including this one—tend to recount and provide witness to only a selected part of the entirety of this history of societal advance is something that we increasingly confront nearly a century after this endeavor was initiated. In assessing what was once considered a comprehensive assemblage of notable women, we now recognize how configurations of photographs and narratives can no longer be considered neutral, but rather a means to promote or hide, expand or obscure, the dynamics of race, class, and gender in the story of America.