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Exploring Women’s History South of Union Square

There’s no better time than Women’s History Month to explore the lives and accomplishments of the many influential women who lived and worked South of Union Square. One of our most recent storymaps will help you discover this rich history found in the neighborhood where Greenwich Village and the East Village meet, one that Village Preservation has been working to preserve as a historic district. A wide array of sites in this community are linked to our city’s and nation’s civil rights history and social justice efforts, as well as to advances in visual arts, performing arts, literature, engineering, medicine, and organizing — and women spearheaded many of these transformative movements. Today we take a look at a few of these innovators and their achievements.

Mary Fife Laning

Mary Fife Laning, “A Place in the Sun” (1934)

Born in Canton, Ohio in 1900, Mary Fife Laning moved to New York in 1925 to attend the Cooper Union, and in 1930 started her studies at the Art Students League. She soon became a key member of the Fourteenth Street School, an influential group of artists in the 1920s and 1930s who lived and worked in the area and who came to redefine realist painting. This group mainly focused on the immediate surroundings of their namesake street, a center for shopping and bawdy entertainment for average and working-class New Yorkers, known as “the Poor Man’s Fifth Avenue.” Fife Laning brought with her an unwavering feminist perspective that can be seen in many of her works. Her most well-known painting, “A Place in the Sun” (1934), is an empathetic yet formidable portrayal of four spirited young women taking their lunch break on the rooftop of an office building. This work was exhibited to much acclaim in the 1937 Annual Exhibition of Contemporary American Painting at the Whitney Museum of American Art.

Mary Fife Laning, “Lovers on a Stoop” (1936)

The artist’s most recognized lithograph, “Lovers on a Stoop” (1936), depicts a “chaotic jigsaw puzzle of bodies possessed by zesty lust writh[ing] outdoors on a summer night in Greenwich Village,” as one viewer of the piece noted. Here, she incorporates the Mannerist and Baroque visual language of the Renaissance to represent a very modern scene that is now in the permanent collections of the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Art Institute of Chicago.

Fife Laning earned several prestigious honors throughout her career, including the National Association of Women Artists’ Lillian Cotton Award in 1966, the National Academy of Design Figure Prize in 1967, and the Pen + Brush Prize in 1969. 

Bessie Smith

Bessie Smith, 1936, courtesy the Library of Congress

Bessie Smith was an icon whose talent, accomplishments, and message lit a path for many who have come after her to rise to the top of their own profession. 

Her prestigious recording career began in Greenwich Village in 1923, in the little recording studio of Okeh Records at 55 Fifth Avenue (12th Street) where she cut “Down Hearted Blues.” The song, released that year backed with “Gulf Coast Blues,” sold over 750,000 copies and was a hit on the Billboard charts. It is also credited as one of the first records by a blues artist and inspired confidence in the appeal and profitability of music created by Black artists for Black audiences.

“Down Hearted Blues” on a Columbia Records label

Smith’s style and emphasis on authentic representations of women, the life of workers, and sexuality broke boundaries that are credited by artists across the blues, rock and roll, and hip-hop genres. Artists from Louis Armstrong to Janis Joplin point to Smith’s influence; singer Anita Baker, citing Smith as a “remarkable woman who rose to the top of her profession,” nominated her for posthumous induction to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. 

Smith’s career also went beyond blues recording. She was a public performer in great demand, and has been noted as the highest paid African American performer of her era. She even starred in an early sound film, St. Louis Blues, a visual record of Smith’s power when she was topping the popular charts and raising the profile of Black artists. As the vaudeville era began to wane in the late 1920s, Smith changed her performance style toward swing, allowing her to remain relevant and in demand as a performer.

Mabel Ping-Hua Lee 

Mabel Pig-Hua Lee (left) and the historic 1912 suffrage march up Fifth Avenue

During the battle for U.S. women’s suffrage in the early 20th century, dramatic parades and marches became an increasingly common tool to showcase the need to enfranchise women. One important piece of that drama is the story of a teenage Chinese American immigrant who led one of the most important of those parades on horseback as it kicked off from Washington Square for the long march up Fifth Avenue.

On May 4, 1912, 10,000 people took part in the march by suffragists toward Madison Square. Teenaged Mabel Ping-Hua Lee rode on horseback at the helm of the parade. She was outspoken in her passion for equal rights for women and Chinese Americans, and had recently caught the attention of white American suffragists who invited her to this monumental event. While Lee’s appearance garnered much attention by the movement and the press, it is just a small snapshot of Lee’s enormous accomplishments as a suffragist, scholar, and leader in the Chinese American community.

Lee immigrated to the United States with her family from China in 1905, eventually arriving in Chinatown and attending Brooklyn’s Erasmus Hall Academy. In 1912, the same year Lee led the suffrage parade, she enrolled at the all-women’s Barnard College; joined the Chinese Students’ Association, a national organization for students that published a journal for its members; and wrote for The Chinese Students’ Monthly, in which she advocated for feminist efforts in the United States and China. She went on to become the first Chinese American woman to receive a doctorate in economics, from Columbia University; published her research in the book The Economic History of China; and assumed the role of director of the First Chinese Baptist Church of New York City after her minister father passed away in 1924, 

Lee’s importance to the suffrage and immigration movements cannot be understated, even though it remains uncertain whether she ever became an American citizen and voted here. Still, her amazing legacy lives on in numerous ways, including in a Chinatown post office named after her in 2018.

Learn more about these leading figures and many more historic women based in the proposed historic district in our Women’s History South of Union Square Map.

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