A Universe of Things: Women’s Work

By The Wolfsonian–Florida International University

This exhibition is drawn from the in-gallery show Universe of Things: Micky Wolfson Collects. Exploring our founder Micky Wolfson’s history of collecting and singular commitment to
preserving the material of modern life, A Universe of Things: Women’s Work examines
how—in ways both overt and covert—women helped to shape the 20th century.

Elizabeth Parent (1936) by Frederick Soldwdel (American, 1886-1958)The Wolfsonian–Florida International University

Women’s Work

While most of the objects in The Wolfsonian’s collection reflect the prevailing male hegemony of the period and were made, designed, or written by men, the collection does examine women’s roles in making the modern world. Whether as workers inside or outside the home, or as creators and subjects of art, works in the collection reflect the increasing visibility that women achieved in the industrial economy in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Artifacts of domestic life show how principles of efficiency, borrowed from industry, impacted women as homemakers. Yet even as women stepped into new spheres of activity, some political propaganda venerated the traditional roles of mother and caretaker, promoting state-sanctioned campaigns that incentivized—and sometimes coerced—procreation.

Corn Dance (1929) by Esther Bruton (American, 1896-1992)The Wolfsonian–Florida International University

California-born Esther Bruton and her sisters Margaret and Helen, also talented artists, traveled to New Mexico in 1929, seeking inspiration in the southwestern desert. Completed during this time, the screen depicts a corn dance, an annual indigenous ritual celebrating the first harvest of the summer, as interpreted through the lens of Western culture and Art Deco aesthetics.

An alternative view of the corn dance and Pueblo culture is told by Pablita Velarde (1918–2006), an important Native American woman painter who in 1979 stated, “Painting was not considered women's work in my time. A woman was supposed to be just a woman, like a housewife and a mother and chief cook.”

K.K. Culver Trophy: Miami All American Air Maneuvers (1938) by Viktor Schreckengost (American, 1906-2008)The Wolfsonian–Florida International University

Edna Gardner Whyte overcame gender barriers to become a pioneering aviator and flight instructor. She won more than 120 racing trophies and trained thousands of aviators over a nearly six-decade career. She captured this trophy in 1939 for the 50-mile K. K. Culver Trophy Race, part of the annual All American Air Maneuvers in Miami.

Proposal for the K. K. Culver Trophy (1938) by Viktor Schreckengost (American, 1906–2008)The Wolfsonian–Florida International University

This design drawing for the K. K. Culver trophy provides details of the small airplane, a Culver Dart, intended to be displayed in the hands of the female figure. While the larger trophy was to be returned each year for presentation to that year’s winning pilot, the airplane could be separated from the trophy and was intended as a keepsake.

The Greatest Mother in the World (1918) by Alonzo Earl Foringer (American, 1878-1948)The Wolfsonian–Florida International University

Commissioned by The American Red Cross, designer Alonzo Foringer found inspiration in Michelangelo’s Pietà to create what he referenced as his “modern Madonna.” In this interpretation, a Red Cross nurse cradles a small-scaled soldier, strapped in a stretcher. This popular fundraising poster shrewdly associated religion and motherhood for their emotional appeal and the image was used in other promotional materials for the American Red Cross.

Harlem (1937) by Elanor Colburn (American, 1866-1939)The Wolfsonian–Florida International University

The work of motherhood is elegantly rendered in this image of an unidentified African-American mother and child posed in a middle-class setting. The woman’s refined bearing and confidence were uncharacteristic in many white artists’ depictions of African-American people at this time. Elanor Colburn, a white artist, regularly painted mothers and children from a range of backgrounds, presenting the universality of motherhood as a force for empathy and understanding.

Elizabeth Parent (1936) by Frederick Soldwdel (American, 1886-1958)The Wolfsonian–Florida International University

This stained glass window is one of a series depicting Johnson & Johnson employees made for a new personnel building at the company headquarters. Elizabeth “Lizzie” Parent began working for the firm at the age of twelve, holding various titles including boxmaker, labeler, and forewoman. In 1939, Parent made $1,500, ahead of the national average for all workers of $1,368, but less than her male counterparts at Johnson & Johnson.

In 1941 Johnson & Johnson honored her fifty-five years of service with a testimonial dinner and dance, fifty-five American Beauty roses, and a check for $5,000.

Despite her steadfast career and economic independence, Lizzie and other American women of her time were denied the right to vote. It was not until 1920 when she was 34 years old that the 19th Amendment was ratified, granting women voting rights.

Frankfurt Kitchen (1926-27) by Margaret Schütte-Lihotzky (American, 1886-1958)The Wolfsonian–Florida International University

Modernist architect Margaret Schütte-Lihotzky designed compact and ergonomic kitchens for affordable housing in Frankfurt after the First World War, exemplifying modern concerns for efficiency, hygiene, and standardization. Schütte-Lihotzky was interested in easing the burden of domestic labor, primarily the purview of women. This unit provided ingredient storage, with handles designed to pull each container out entirely in order to better pour or measure the correct volume. Made by a woman for women, some 10,000 of the prefabricated kitchens were in Frankfurt working-class apartments by 1930.

Ehrenkreuz der Deutschen Mutter [Cross of Honor of the German Mother] (1939)The Wolfsonian–Florida International University

“The motherly spirit is the source of all that is eternal.” This quote, taken from a Nazi women’s magazine, identified motherhood as a near-sacred pillar of the state. To promote this cause, the Nazi party developed the Mother’s Cross, a medal given to German women with multiple children. A bronze medal was awarded for four children, silver for six or seven, and gold for eight or more. Officials could rescind the medal if the recipients engaged in immoral behavior, such as drinking and adultery, or they were discovered to be racially impure.

Gezinschulp, Nederlandsche Volksdienst [Family Help, Dutch Social Services] (1940) by G.B.The Wolfsonian–Florida International University

This propaganda poster depicting a content Dutch woman drying dishes in her kitchen, was produced by the Nederlandsche Volksdienst (NVD), a welfare organization established by the German occupying forces in 1941 to control social services. The NVD followed Nazi doctrine, emphasizing traditional roles for women and providing services only to young, healthy Aryan families. The elderly and disabled were denied care.

This poster is one in a series providing idealized depictions of families benefiting from Nazi occupation.

Credits: Story

Check out the rest of the exhibition through our four other stories: A Universe of Things: Aluminum, A Universe of Things: 1939, A Universe of Things: East and West, A Universe of Things: Heroes & Villains.
A Universe of Things: Micky Wolfson Collects is organized by The Wolfsonian–Florida International University. The exhibition is made possible by the Cowles Charitable Trust, Funding Arts Network, Inc., and the Sain Orr Royak Deforest Steadman Foundation.

The Wolfsonian receives ongoing support from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation; the State of Florida, Department of State, Division of Cultural Affairs and the Florida Council on Arts and Culture; Miami-Dade County Department of Cultural Affairs and the Cultural Affairs Council, the Miami-Dade County Mayor and Board of County Commissioners; and the City of Miami Beach, Cultural Affairs Program, Cultural Arts Council.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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