Lonely Planet Writer

Follow in the footsteps of New York's most rebellious women at this new exhibition

The most badass rebel women from the Victorian era are part of a new exhibition opening at the Museum of the City of New York on 17 July, from birth control advocates to the first woman who ran for president in an exhibition called Rebel Women. Over 40 objects will be on view, from photographs to posters, handwritten poems, clothing and political cartoons which illustrate the lives of activists like Elizabeth Jennings Graham, an African-American New Yorker who refused to get off a segregated trolley in 1854 and Victoria Claflin Woodhull, who was the first American woman to run for president in 1872 (though some debate the legality of her run), and appeared in Harper’s Weekly, where she was called ‘Mrs. Satan.’

Rebel Women exhibition opens in New York
“Get Thee Behind Me, (Mrs.) Satan!” Cartoon in Harper’s Weekly depicting Victoria Woodhull in 1872. Image courtesy of the Museum of the City of New York.

But while the Victorian era is not exactly remembered as an empowering era for women, the exhibition hopes to prove otherwise. Many of the women were activists who fought for equal pay, abortions, divorce and ‘free love.’

“When people think of 19th-century women, they have a domestic woman in their mind wearing a corset, but there was this whole other side to these women,” said the curator, Marcela Micucci. “Some women were too masculine, political, outspoken and got in trouble for challenging standard gender norms.”

Cartoon portrayin g a woman with a parasol
Many women were obliged to carry parasols in public in Victorian-era New York. Image courtesy of the Museum of the City of New York

Expect to see 200-year-old parasol umbrellas, which many of the women were obliged to carry in public, as well as corsets, booths and leather gloves. “We wanted to show the physical restrictions of the Victorian woman who was expected to look very dainty at all times,” said Micucci.

However, one object in the exhibition, a pair of red boots from the 1870s, shows how fashion became a way for these women to express their unruly attitudes—as Victorian women were expected to only wear pastels, but these women preferred bold colors, representing their nonconforming spirit.

Red boots: a symbol of rebellion for women
Only rebellious women wore red shoes in 19th-century New York. Image courtesy of the Museum of the City of New York

“Only rebellious women wore scarlet-colored shoes during the day in New York in the 19th century,” Micucci says. “Wearing any form of ‘fancy dress’ on the street during the day was bold, so these shoes are symbolic of the women you see in this exhibition.”