In honor of Women’s History Month, BPMM Education Committee Chair and board member Joseph P. Cordasco discusses the different lives of two women—both born in the nineteenth century—whose portraits hang at Bartow-Pell.
When I tour historic places, I often wonder to myself: “If only these walls could talk, what treasured tales they could tell.” As we celebrate Women’s History Month at the Bartow-Pell Mansion, we have not one but two walls that “talk.” They tell the tales of women struggling for empowerment at a time when final decisions were left to men. On the wall of our sitting room hangs a double portrait of a young married couple living a comfortable life in mid-nineteenth-century America. There’s nothing particularly special about Daniel MacFarlan and his wife, Mary Jane. You will find no Wikipedia page devoted to either one of them, yet their portrait perfectly illustrates a time when women lived in a world where they struggled to find a voice. Let’s explore the nuances revealed in this painting.
Daniel MacFarlan is standing next to his seated wife. Dressed in their finery, they appear to be a loving couple successfully navigating their lives. This is likely to have been the case, especially when one considers that they commissioned this painting by a prominent artist of the 1850s, Theodore Pine. In the background, we can see an idyllic riparian scene, not an unusual background for a double portrait during this period. The scene shows Mrs. MacFarlan’s ancestral home, which was located in the lower Hudson Valley near present-day Newburgh, N.Y. Maria and Robert Bartow could have commissioned a similar portrait of themselves on their estate overlooking Long Island Sound.
Mr. MacFarlan is finely dressed in a fashionable black coat, the dominant figure in the painting. He grips his top hat in one hand, which rests confidently on his hip next to the gold chain of his pocket watch. One gets the impression that he has successfully engaged with the world beyond his home. Politics, commerce, and social competition are likely to be getting most of his attention beyond the role of breadwinner. We know, in fact, that he tried his hand at various businesses and even decided at one point to run for elective office.
Mrs. MacFarlan is seated in her husband’s shadow wearing a black dress with white lace accents. If we were living back then, we would quickly recognize that she is wearing the apparel of grief. The mourning brooch pinned to her neckline probably contains the carefully woven hair of a dead child, and the artist further obliges her by placing a rosebud in her hand, symbolizing a life not brought to full bloom. Indeed, the MacFarlans lost a daughter, Marietta, three years before this painting was made. Society expected women of her station to memorialize their loss to the community, and she would have worn several ensembles over time, each marking a particular stage of her bereavement. A similar mourning brooch might well have been found on Maria Bartow’s vanity as well, for she lost two children within days of each other.
In contrast, we would be hard pressed to note any outward sign of Daniel MacFarlan’s grief. Indeed, it was considered unmanly to grieve the loss of a loved one, at least in public, for to do so would have revealed one’s weakness. Grief was a burden that society expected women to bear alone. Although the painting appears to show this young couple facing life on an equal footing, such a relationship was far from reality in America at this time. Living in a world dominated exclusively by men, women of the upper and middle classes were taught from childhood that their special calling was to be a “devoted wife” and “loving mother,” termed by some historians the “Cult of Domesticity.” The principle of “separate spheres” appeared to be accepted by both men and women as they carried out their respective roles in society.
Family, home life, and morality summed up the wife’s inward focus. It was in the home where her husband would find the support and the refuge he needed in what his wife must have considered a mysterious and seemingly turbulent world beyond the front door. A married woman was legally dependent on her husband and enjoyed no more rights within her marriage than her children did. Worse yet, women had no legal way to leave an abusive relationship. Under federalism, it was up to each state to enact laws giving women marriage equality, and it wasn’t until 1848, just two years before the MacFarlans married, that New York State would be one of the few states to enact laws that gradually gave married women rights within marriage. Before then, Mrs. MacFarlan could not legally own property, spend money, or even prepare her own will without her husband’s consent.
However, this change in the law, although welcomed by women, was largely driven by the boom-and-bust cycles of the American economy, as husbands saw the benefit of sheltering assets in the names of their wives. Marital inequality had been a matter of English Common Law, a legacy of our colonial heritage, but it was one of the nagging issues that captured the attention of women at the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention, where women activists gathered together to fight for greater equality, especially for the right to vote. It is likely that both Mrs. Bartow and Mrs. MacFarlan were aware of the convention and followed its progress within their social circles. This would become a decades-long fight led by women such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, although at times competing strategies among women’s groups complicated their progress. Ultimately, a national organization was formed to put unrelenting political pressure on Congress, and by 1920, the passage of the 19th Amendment guaranteeing universal suffrage was secured.
Over the course of the nineteenth century, women increasingly demanded a larger role in society beyond the home. Female seminaries began to offer young ladies a more rigorous education, and it soon became evident that formal education would be a gateway to a more fulfilling life. Although the teaching profession, closely allied to parenting, had always been accepted for women, other professions were not. Undaunted, strong women continually challenged the traditional mores. By the second half of the century, colleges like Vassar (1865), Wellesley (1875), and Smith (1875), among others, were admitting only female students. Many of them established roles for themselves in the issues of the day, advocating for temperance and abolition and eliminating discrimination between the sexes. Unfortunately, access to a high-quality education was limited for many years to white women born to privilege.
In another corner of the mansion, you will find the portrait of Zelia Krumbhaar Hoffman, who used her voice and her position to advance the role of women in shaping a new century. Let’s meet her.
Wearing a fashionable 1920s evening gown, Zelia Hoffman appears self-assured in this portrait. She stands rather than sits, with her eyes engaged, which suggests the activism that characterized her life. Born in Indiana in 1867, Zelia Krumbhaar Preston and her upper-class family lived in New Orleans, Philadelphia, Europe, and New York. We know little of her early years, but she went on to attend Oxford University, which may have contributed to her lifelong love affair with England. At 33, she married Charles Fredrick Hoffman, scion of a wealthy family with holdings in real estate and insurance. Blessed with “boundless drive and energy,” Zelia was not content to be the passive wife of a Gilded Age businessman. A suffragist at heart, she supported the push for the nineteenth amendment. As a result of her interest in horticulture and garden design, Zelia became instrumental in forming the International Garden Club (IGC), and it was through her efforts that the old Bartow mansion was repurposed as its headquarters. Funds were raised and spent to transform a tired-looking estate into a world-class garden club. The Great War (World War I) temporarily short-circuited her plans, but Zelia, undaunted, plunged right into the war effort. She headed several committees to provide war relief on the home front. When she heard of a milk shortage that threatened the health of infants living in New York City‘s tenements, perhaps resulting from a scheme to drive up prices, she quickly organized a dairy farm in the lower Hudson Valley to fill the need. As head of the National Special Aid Society, Zelia supported American volunteer airmen fighting side by side with French fighter pilots as they formed the Lafayette Escadrille. It was hoped that this early military aviation unit would influence American public opinion into pressuring President Wilson to abandon his policy of neutrality.
In 1919, after the war’s end and in the wake of her husband’s death, Zelia relocated to England. She soon became a British subject, but she remained active in progressive causes. After heading the local Women’s Liberal Association, she stood for Parliament in 1929, one of the few women in that period to run for a position as a Member of Parliament. She died quietly a few months after her election loss.
During her remarkable life, Zelia Hoffman never saw a problem that effective leadership couldn’t solve. She consistently networked, making use of all the resources at her disposal. She refused to be the woman who stood by; she lived to lean in.
Like Zelia Hoffman, nineteenth-century women built launching pads for their granddaughters and great-granddaughters, so that they could continue to shatter glass ceilings on their way to the stars.
Joseph P. Cordasco, Education Committee Chair, Bartow-Pell Board of Directors