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Women’s History #SouthofUnionSquare

The neighborhood south of Union Square, for which Village Preservation is advocating expanded landmark protections, holds a unique place in the history of women’s rights and women’s suffrage movements. In the very same University Place building where a prominent 19th century philanthropist donated to women’s causes, a famed lesbian bar attracted trailblazing women writers. In two buildings on Fifth Avenue, numerous progressive organizations were founded and blossomed: the first organization to insure contraception, the first African American magazine, and a chapter of the oldest women’s peace organization — the latter two under female leadership. On East 14th Street, the headquarters of the New York City Woman Suffrage League led the organizing effort for achieving women’s suffrage in New York State; and back on University Place the first woman doctor in America established her home and office.

80 Fifth Avenue

80 Fifth Avenue, 2020.

The International Workers Order (IWO) was located at 80 Fifth Avenue for its entire existence, from 1930 until 1954. This progressive mutual-benefit fraternal organization was a pioneering force in the U.S. labor movement. For a quarter of a century, the IWO fought relentlessly for racial equality, interracial solidarity, industrial unions, and social security programs that would protect working-class people. The IWO also opened and ran clinics in working-class neighborhoods — including East Harlem and Brownsville, Brooklyn — that were otherwise lacking in strong healthcare options.

International Workers Order logo. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.

In 1936, the IWO included contraception in its benefits, becoming the first insurer to do so. The organization was a leader in the movement for prepaid medical care, and provided contraceptive services in addition to primary care for annual flat fees. Also remarkably, the IWO operated a birth control clinic, which was run by a woman doctor who had worked with Margaret Sanger. The IWO’s Birth Control Center stayed open in the evenings to maintain its accessibility to working patients. It was a pioneering facility at a time when sharing birth control information was still criminalized, and was the only such clinic to use an insurance system.

70 Fifth Avenue

70 Fifth Avenue, 2012.

70 Fifth Avenue was home to the headquarters of many notable peace organizations, including the Woman’s Peace Party’s New York Office, headed by Crystal Eastman. The Woman’s Peace Party had its roots in the August 1914 Woman’s Peace Parade which followed the beginning of World War I and which was intended to call attention to the horrors of the European conflagration. Following the parade, the Woman’s Peace Party of New York was established in November of 1914. This was followed by a January 1915 convention of feminists and peace activists from across the country held in Washington D.C., which resulted in the formation of the Woman’s Peace Party by Jane Addams, Carrie Chapman Catt, and Fanny Garrison Villard (the daughter of Henry Lloyd Garrison), of which the Woman’s Peace Party of New York became a regional chapter. The WPP published its periodical Four Lights from its 70 Fifth Avenue offices.

The WPP eventually became the American chapter of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, which has chapters in 37 countries, and is the oldest women’s peace organization in the United States. The WPP is considered one of the first manifestations of the modern peace movement in America, which employed direct action tactics towards its mission, whereas prior peace organizations typically limited themselves to more genteel behind-the-scenes lobbying and attempts to influence public opinion in print and oratory.

“The Crisis” issue, 1918.

70 Fifth Avenue was also the home to The Crisis magazine, the first African American magazine ever published. The Crisis had a notable commitment to gender equality, providing leadership roles to women and showcasing the works of many female writers and artists. Led by literary editor Jessie Redmon Fauset, “the midwife of the Harlem Renaissance,” The Crisis published works by emerging female writers like Zora Neale Hurston and Alice Dunbar-Nelson. Executive Editor W.E.B. DuBois made his support for women’s rights explicit in his political writings as well; in 1911 in the pages of The Crisis he wrote that “Every argument for Negro suffrage is an argument for women’s suffrage; every argument for women’s suffrage is an argument for Negro suffrage.” At 70 Fifth Avenue, Elizabeth Ross Haynes’ Unsung Heroes (1921) was also published, a book about “the lives of seventeen men and women of the Negro race told in a way to inspire the children of our time” including Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, and Phillis Wheatley.

10 East 14th Street

10 East 14th Street, 2020.

In 1894, 10 East 14th Street housed the headquarters of the New York City Woman Suffrage League. This was a significant time in the women’s suffrage movement in New York, for it was then that the Constitutional Amendment Campaign was launched by its leaders to change the New York State Constitution to give women the right to vote.

The New York State Woman Suffrage Association (founded in 1869 in Saratoga Springs) and the New York City Woman Suffrage League (founded in 1870 and originally named the New York City Woman Suffrage Society) were at the forefront of the woman’s suffrage movement in New York. Lillie Devereux Blake, while still leading the state organization, became the president of the city organization in 1886. New York held constitutional conventions every twenty years, and New York suffragists, under Blake’s leadership, saw them as an opportunity to secure women the vote with the hope that such an action would influence other states to follow suit (at this time, only Wyoming and Colorado allowed women to vote).

Lillie Devereux Blake. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.

In December of 1893, a Constitutional Amendment Campaign Committee was formed and shortly thereafter headquarters for the League were opened at 10 East 14th Street. This location was purposely selected as it was in the midst of a high-end shopping district, and the League was courting support from wealthy New York women both for their donations and their influence. A pre-convention rally was held on May 7, 1894 at Cooper Union led by Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Other speakers included her daughter, Harriet Stanton Blatch, John Milton Cornell (owner of Cornell Iron Works) and Samuel Gompers, the president of the American Federation of Labor. It was announced at the end of this rally that the headquarters of the League at 10 East 14th Street would be open throughout the summer to lead the organizing effort for achieving women’s suffrage in New York State. Ultimately, the delegates of the convention did not support the case for women’s suffrage. Undaunted, however, the movement continued, and in 1917 the New York State Woman Suffrage Party was finally victorious.

80 University Place

80 University Place, 2020.

80 University Place served as the home and first medical office of Elizabeth Blackwell, the first woman doctor in America. Blackwell established the first hospital and the first medical school run by and for women, and implemented revolutionary innovations in health care, especially for the poor and children, which are still used today.

After receiving a medical degree from Geneva College in 1849, Blackwell was denied opportunities to practice medicine because of her gender. In 1851, she moved to New York City and rented a floor here, which was at the time numbered 44 University Place. Tired of being refused work opportunities, Blackwell began using the building as her own medical office, as well as her home.

Elizabeth Blackwell. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.

Despite insults and objections from her landlady and neighbors, Blackwell began providing medical services to patients, most of whom were women and members of the local Quaker community. Elizabeth Blackwell’s legacy of inspiring and empowering women to enter the medical field began during this early phase of her career that unfolded at this site. Her New York Infirmary for Women and Children was located just a few blocks away at 58 Bleecker Street (extant, at Crosby Street), her Women’s Medical College of the New York Infirmary was located nearby at 128 Second Avenue (demolished, near St. Marks Place), and her organization the Women’s Central Association of Relief (WCAR) was located at 814 Broadway (also in the neighborhood south of Union Square).

86 University Place

86 University Place, 2019.

Benjamin Hazard Field (1814-1893) was a leading philanthropist in New York City during the 19th century. Field and his family moved into 86 University Place (originally numbered 56, then numbered 50 between 1851 and 1898) around 1843, shortly after the house was built. New York City directories show the family at this location until 1856.

Women’s and children’s causes were particular focus for both Field and his wife, Catherine M. Van Cortland de Peyster (1818-1880). In 1860 Field was among the founders and initial benefactors of the first women’s library in New York, located at New York University, an enterprise also supported by Horace Greely, Henry Ward Beecher, and Peter Cooper. He also served as a trustee for the Working Women’s Protective Union. Founded in 1863, the Union’s mission was to protect working women by providing legal protection from unscrupulous employers.

Audre Lorde, 1980. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.

From 1951 to 1959, 86 University Place housed ‘The Bagatelle,’ a popular lesbian bar, on the ground floor. Two noted lesbian and feminist writers, Audre Lorde and Ann Bannon, have spoken and written extensively about their time at the Bagatelle and how it shaped their experience in the lesbian community throughout the pre-Stonewall era.

Explore South of Union Square Virtually

There are even more notable women’s histories associated with the neighborhood South of Union Square, as shown on our interactive map South of Union Square Map. These figures and organizations include one of the largest and most influential women’s groups in the country, some of the 20th century’s most revolutionary female writers and artists, “the Picasso of dance,” a Social Reform Club whose members were some of the city’s most renowned women reform leaders, one of the the first New York City schools built exclusively for the education of girls, and more. Learn about these histories and the many more with which they are connected:

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