Women's Rights and Jewelry

Stories of exceptional women seen through familiar, everyday objects

By Google Arts & Culture

Words by Anna Gerber

Chiquinha Gonzaga (Acervo IMS/SBAT) (1894)Musica Brasilis

Historically, jewelry has signalled social status, religious significance, and political power. After the Victorian era, more women began to wear jewelry, representing increasing financial freedom and overtly signalling sensuality and femininity.

Scroll on to learn how the history of jewelry intersects with the story of women's rights, from Chiquinha Gonzaga’s musical notes brooch to Anandibai Joshee’s traditional Indian necklace bound with a stethoscope.

Brooch presented to Millicent Fawcett (1913) by Fawcett SocietyOriginal Source: LSE Library

Millicent Fawcett

A leader of the Suffragette movement, British activist and feminist, Millicent Fawcett (1847-1929), is known for campaigning for women’s right to vote. Pictured here is a brooch presented to her by the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies in 1913. 

Such objects helped to lend prestige and historical tangibility to the movement for women's rights in the UK.

Anandibai Joshee (2018) by Dilip Kumar ChandaIndian Academy of Sciences

Anandibai Joshee

The first Indian woman to earn a medical Degree in the US, Anandibai Joshee, graduated from Woman’s Medical College of Pennsylvania in 1886. Having studied Hindu obstetrics in the US, she became known as the Lady Doctor of Kohlapur. She tragically died young of TB, age 22.

She is depicted here wearing a stethoscope and a Maharastrian necklace, highlighting her pioneering medical work and the sustained links to her cultural traditions.

Chiquinha Gonzaga (Acervo IMS/SBAT) (1894)Musica Brasilis


Chiquinha Gonzaga

Chiquinha Gonzago (1847-1935) was Brazil’s first professional female conductor, composing over 2,000 musical scores in her lifetime. She is known for developing a new style of music combining polka, waltz, ragtime and Afro-Brazilian rhythms, known as ‘choro’. 

In this iconic image, she wears her famous brooch in the shape of a musical stave, challenging the notion of jewelry as purely decorative and pointing to her innovation and skill as a composer. She also wears a medal given to her by the French government.

Zora Neale Hurston (1938-04-03) by Carl Van VetchenOriginal Source: Library of Congress

Zora Neale Hurston

A key figure in the Harlem Renaissance, Zora Neale Hurston is celebrated for her novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God, published in 1937. In You Don’t Know Us Negroes, a collection of essays published posthumously, Hurston covers jazz, the slave trade, and black vernacular.

"I am the eternal feminine with its string of beads", Hurston once wrote. The neverending loop and individual beads of this necklace, which she often wore, seem to symbolize femininity and race for Hurston, an eternal but subdivided and complex personhood. 

Wilma Mankiller by Library of CongressNational Women's Hall of Fame

Wilma Mankiller

In 1985, American Cherokee activist Wilma Pearl Mankiller became the first woman to serve as Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation. With a background in social work and inspired by the women’s liberation movement, Mankiller sought to empower Native American communities. 

Mankiller almost always appeared adorned with Cherokee jewelry - necklaces and earrings with ritual significance - increasing the visibility of these important traditions as she fought for Indigenous rights.

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