By Nina E. Harkrader
Upper and middle-class New Yorkers quickly grew alarmed by the number of young, single women living in cities apart from their families—alone, unprotected, and unsupervised. The practical question of finding decent accommodation for single working women thus also became a moral one of preserving the purity, dignity, and femininity of future wives and mothers. These tensions between the increasing numbers of working women and societal expectations would continue for decades. As a result, during the period from about 1860 to 1930, urban housing for single working women—its location, design, and even its furnishings—became central to the struggle for women to be accepted as independent citizens.
Reviewed by Emily Brooks
The Girl on the Velvet Swing is an engaging and fast-paced presentation of this story that will prove compelling to popular and academic audiences interested in New York City history or histories of the gilded age. Despite these strengths, Baatz’s analysis is weakened by a problematic interpretation of Nesbit’s narrative of her own assault, included in the book’s afterword, which may unsettle readers.
Reviewed by Benjamin Serby
Tre Donne: Kitty Genovese, Diane di Prima, Virginia Apuzzo and the Roots of Italian-American Feminism in 1960s New York
By Marcia M. Gallo
Kitty Genovese, Diane di Prima, and Virginia Apuzzo are iconic Italian American New Yorkers who came of age in the 1950s and challenged familial and social expectations. All three present novel perspectives on women’s oppression and liberation in the 1960s and beyond. Yet rarely are they considered together as examples of ethnic “gender rebels.”
Kitty Genovese was a smart, passionate lesbian who became a national symbol of urban apathy after her 1964 murder in Queens at age 28. Diane di Prima helped launch the Beat literary movement in New York and has been a prolific feminist poet, playwright, memoirist, and activist throughout her life. Virginia Apuzzo is a former nun and pioneer gay rights, feminist, and AIDS organizer and leader who was appointed to high-level positions in the administrations of former New York Governor Mario Cuomo and President Bill Clinton. All three of them are part of my current research that reexamines mid-twentieth century feminism by centering women of color, ethnic women, working class and poor women — artists, public intellectuals, activists — who have been subsumed or ignored in traditional accounts of American women’s liberation movements.
Remembrance of Things Not Yet Past: A Report from “Difficult Histories / Public Spaces: The Challenge of Monuments in NYC and the Nation”
By Arinn Amer
A year after white nationalists descended on Charlottesville, Virginia in a deadly riot they framed as a protest against the planned removal of a bronze rendering of Robert E. Lee from Emancipation Park, monuments loom large in our national consciousness. With new memorials and markers raising awareness of America’ dark history of racial terror and hundreds of Confederate flags and generals retreating from public view even as thousands more remain firmly entrenched, the incredible power of the stories we tell about the past in shared physical space has never been more apparent.
“Difficult Histories/Public Spaces” is an ongoing public programming series conceived as a forum to bring New Yorkers together to grapple with questions about historical representation and memory in our city and beyond. I had the privilege of co-organizing and moderating the first event, a contentious yet illuminating conversation between invited speakers and audience members centered around New York’s long-protested memorial to 19th-century gynecologist J. Marion Sims, whose disputed contributions to medical science were based on experimental surgeries on enslaved women who could not give their consent. The memorial’s centerpiece, a nine-foot-tall bronze statue of Sims, was recently removed from its granite plinth at Fifth Avenue and 103rd Street for transportation to Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery, where Sims is interred.
These are my takeaways from the June 13 panel.
By Wyatt Evans
In October 1862, the New York City Metropolitan Police held Mrs. Isabella Brinsmade for over a month without charge in the precinct house on West 47th Street. The twenty-year old Louisiana native had arrived in New York that August, sent by her merchant father who thought she would be safer there than in Union-occupied New Orleans. Her husband was away fighting in the Confederate Army, and she does not appear to have maintained any special affection for him. By all accounts Mrs. Brinsmade was intelligent, high-spirited, very attractive, and... liked to talk.
The most charitable explanation for her apprehension and detention is that the Metropolitan Police acted on orders from federal War Department agents. The feds wanted Brinsmade quarantined as a possible spy until she could be returned to New Orleans. The truth was more complex, with complicity on both sides. In the end Brinsmade was released unharmed and her ordeal became a cause célèbre in New York City for opponents of the Lincoln administration. The police commission hearings that followed her release were the first public airing of grievances against the government’s system of arbitrary arrests. “The Case of Mrs. Brinsmade,” as it was referred to in the press, sheds light on politics in wartime New York, police practices of the day, and the interaction of federal and local officials in the latter half of 1862.
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