100 years ago today: One of these things is not like the other

Headlines on the front page of November 10 1911 issue of The San Francisco Call (California) [NOTE: Like many newspapers of the day The Call used multiple stacked headlines for many articles. Where there are more than two headlines in the original not all of the \”lesser\” headline are included below. The original capitalizations/spellings have been retained where possible. In a few cases the words are \”best guesses\” due to the condition of the scanned newspapers]:

  • REBELS FALL BACK FROM NANKING LEAVING 1,000 DEAD / Manchu Dynasty in Last Desperate Stand Holds but Two Strategic Points
  • ROLPH BEGINS HIS TASK PLANS LAID TO BUILD UP CITY / SUPERVISORS TO ORGANIZE PRIOR TO NEW REGIME
  • TWO MEN ARE MISSING AFTER GAS EXPLOSION / Others Are Seriously Burned by Fire Which Swept Hunters Point Drydock
  • PRINCE APPLAUDS MINISTER\’S CRITICS / Von Bethmann-Holweg Defends Morocco-Congo Pact in Reichstag
  • WOMAN SUSPECTED OF SLAYING THREE / Chicago Has a New Chain of Deaths Resembling the Vermilya Case
  • MRS. CRAIG BIDDLE SMOKES IN PUBLIC / Philadelphia Society Leader Puffs \”Cigawette\” in Believue=Stratford Restaurant
  • THOUSANDS HIDDEN BY WOMAN FOUND / Cobwebbed Corners in House Where She Died Yield Small Fortune
  • MAN SCARED DUMB BY \”COP\’S\” GREETING / Chicagoan Had to Get\” Doctor to Find Lost Voice
  • \”GOLDEN RULE\” CHIEF ORDERED ON DUTY / Doctor Certifies Kohler\’s Physical Condition. Is \”Good\”
  • ALLEGED RUSSIAN ANARCHIST JAILED / Teofil Klempke Held at San Luis Obispo as Terrorist
  • MAETERLINCK GIVEN 1911 NOBEL PRIZE / Noted (Belgian Author Wins Award for Literature
  • HUSBAND SOLD WIFE FOR CENT AND HALF / Admits Deal With Former Convict; Calls It a Jest
  • TARKINGTON IS SUED FOR $10,000 DAMAGES / Author in Europe When Chauffeur Ran Down Man
  • PARSON AND BROTHER LOCKED UP AS SPIES / Italians Arrested Ohio Citizens on Sightseeing Tour

All save one are about foreign affairs, crimes, actions of public officials or institutions. Save one. Mrs. Craig Biddle was in the news for having broken the norms for the performance of social place. Since she was wealthy and a member of \”society\” and since her actions took place in an expensive, although public, venue she was stared at rather than being hounded, arrested or physically chastised.

Mrs. Biddle\’s actions took were in a place considered \”public\” and therefore her defiance of the public norms of gender performance were seen by the editors of the time as newsworthy. Her actions were particularly troublesome to the behavioural norms of the time because she was wealthy and well connected. If poor woman, women of colour, women who were immigrants or the children of immigrants, violated the social norms then their acts were understood and reported as a commentary of the shortcomings of the women in question. When a women as well educated, wealthy and well versed in social norms acted as did Mrs. Biddle then the social norm, as much as the woman, was in danger of being held up for examination and criticism.

For those who are imagining that both the write-up of this article and the choice to put it on the front page is due to the fact that the newspaper in question is the product of a small town and produced by people who are at best part time newspaper writers and editors that is most certainly not the case. Not only is San Francisco at this point in time a fairly large city, this is not a local story. Mrs. Biddle\’s act took place in Philadelphia and the story in the local Philadelphia paper was picked up and distributed nationally. For example, you can find a similar headline SOCIETY STIRRED AS MRS. BIDDLE SMOKES IN PUBLIC / Philadelphia\’s Social Mentor Daintily Puffs Cigarette in Fashionable Restaurant in The Evening World (New York, page 21) on the same date. This write up on page 37 of the December 23 1911 issue of Godwin\’s Weekly (Salt Lake City, Utah) gives some sense of how seriously people were taking Mrs. Biddle\’s actions:

The important thing to remember is that in 1911 women still did not have the right to vote in much of the United States. They could not sit on juries. They had limited access to, and rights in, the public sphere. We might now look back and laugh off Mrs. Biddle\’s actions as silly and even dangerous to her health. And Mrs. Biddle may have chosen to smoke in a public place simply to demonstrate her social prominence. Yet in a way Mrs. Biddle was a pioneer of women\’s rights to the full enjoyment of citizenship just as were women who were campaigning to extend suffrage to women as well as men.

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