Introduction to Pageantry and Performance

Analytical Framework for Recovering the Exclusion of of Gender, Race, and Sexuality

By Madison J Cramer & James McCoyne

Recovering the Exclusion

Recovering the exclusion of Black women in the Woman’s Department of the 1884 New Orleans World Fair is a queer undertaking. Queer readings consider both the normative and the subversion, the included and the excluded, so they provide a fitting framework for a multifaceted recovery project like this one. Recovery of queer and trans traces among the works displayed by the white women of the 1884 Fair also serves a further purpose of aiding in recovering the exclusion of the Black women who were not allowed to display their work in the Woman’s Department. A nuanced recovery project goes beyond merely adding Black women’s writing alongside the white-authored texts of the Woman’s Department. A retroactive attempt to correct the injustice is only a part of the work that needs to be done. Using queer and trans lenses of interpretation can help to reveal the way that the category of “woman” espoused by the Woman’s Department is not a neutral category. As Saidiya Hartman tells us, “woman must be disassociated from the white middle class female subject who norms the category” (556), warning against a failure to recognize the racialized and constructed nature of the category “woman,” lest we reify the exclusion of Black, queer, and trans women. Such an understanding suggests that we take as a basis that when the Woman’s Department refers to women, they implicitly mean white women. The white woman organizers had a political agenda, yet, in recovering the exclusion of Black women from their praxis, the limitations of their proto-feminism become clear.

We need not leave off where the organizers did. Instead, we can further investigate what the deconstruction of these artificial categories lends to our understanding of both race and gender. An investigation of this kind is an essential part of an intersectional reading of the many exclusions of the 1884 Fair. Queer and trans theorists have provided frameworks to analyze the ways gender is constructed, performed, and felt, all situated within social and historical contexts, which we argue can serve as a starting point for a reading that incorporates not only the systems that constrain gender and race, but the unique pressures felt by authors who experience oppression along multiple axes. 

Performing a queer reading of the Women’s Department Exhibit allows us to deconstruct gender as it operates in the pageant of the New Orleans World’s Fair. The individual women we will focus on are white and therefore have implicit biases, and so we must interrogate the implications of their words, actions, and activism for construction of the category “woman” at the turn of the twentieth century. Writing about an earlier period Hartman states that “…too often it has been argued that the enslaved female exists outside of the gendered universe because she was not privy to the entitlements of bourgeois women within the white patriarchal family” (556). The lack of opportunities for enslaved Black women to experience a traditional family structure was taken as evidence of an innate difference between them and white women. These conceptions of racialized gender extended to the postbellum period in which the World’s Fair took place. The refusal of the organizers to meaningfully embrace Black womanhood by denying Black women who wanted to present their literature as part of the Women’s Department, rather than the Colored Department to which they were sequestered, perpetuated the implicit white-racialization of gender. Moreover, by presenting their white femininity as stable and universal, through an emphasis on the work of white women, the aesthetics of white women, and the homes of white women, for example, the organizers effectively precluded Black women from the gender itself.

We seek to undo that. Our exhibit uses queer and trans theory to recover the exclusion in two ways: (1) we denaturalize the category of “woman” to expose how it implicitly suggests an exclusionary vision of femininity that is presumed to be fixed, unitary, and white, and (2) we engage in recovery work and scholarship that prioritizes recovering what has been excluded or otherwise hidden, while still situating these recovered artifacts in their historically- and culturally-specific context.

Denaturalizing the Construct of “Woman”

Recovering queer and trans traces in the work of the white women whose works were displayed under the banner of the “Woman’s Department” is valuable work for its own sake, but also for its contributions to our recovery aims. Taken together, the queer and trans traces in the work of the Literary Department of the 1884 Fair complicate the static image of white womanhood advertised by the organizers of the Woman’s Department, since they demonstrate the wide latitude of presentations of gender that existed under the heading of “woman.” Thus, these traces serve to help deconstruct the exclusionary category of “woman.”

Beyond taking a step toward rectifying the specific injustice done to the Black women who were prevented frompresenting with their gender as they had wanted to, deconstructing the category of “woman” can be extended to expose a pattern of categorical exclusions. Moreover, as an exclusionary power structure built on oppression, it continues to operate on and structure many prevailing contemporary attitudes about gender. Efforts to interrogate the category of “woman” and reveal its artificiality avoid reifying the exclusion, since such analyses make explicit – and therefore subject to critique – what had been carefully hidden, namely that “womanhood” as it was espoused in the 1884 Fair was always already assumed to be raced white. Moreover, denaturalizing the ideal of white femininity that prevailed at the time of the Fair complicates the narrative of history that ignores all outside of that ideal. By highlighting examples that exist outside of the narrow limitations of “woman,” it becomes clear that we need new modes of thinking.

This radical process of deconstruction requires a recovery effort that collects the traces of queerness and trans identity, as well as spaces where work done by the Black women could have been. Our project aims to use what was included in the Literary Department of the Woman’s Department as a starting point for uncovering what was excluded. In biography and fiction, one author of the many included in the Fair comes to the fore as a figure who decidedly did not ascribe to the normative figurations of womanhood: Louisa May Alcott. Among authors included in the Woman’s Department, Alcott can serve as a synecdochal figure for what Alice Rutkowski calls “trans feeling” (80). We draw on Denise Burgher’s concept of a “synecdochal trickster figure” (256), Burgher’s name for Frances E. W. Harper, whose presence at the Colored Convention was read as a representative of a whole. Burgher defines a synecdochal figure as one who “appear[s] as themsel[f], but they also speak, labor, and function as synecdochal mimetic representations of other Black women whose labor and networks are otherwise effaced” (256-257). For Alcott, her (See Note 1) legibility as a gender-nonconforming author speaks to the unacknowledged gender-nonconformity that figured in the works of other, less-studied authors. Alcott thus provides a path to recovering instances of non-normative gender expression. To read more on how Alcott can serve as a model for trans recovery, see Excavating Constructed Categories: Lu Alcott and Recovering Non-Normative Gender in the “Woman’s Department”.

Note 1

 Like other scholars of Alcott’s gender identity, which bears some markers that would today be called “trans feeling” (Rutkowski 80), I continue to use she/her pronouns for Alcott, both because it was her practice in her own writing whenever referring to herself in the third person, and for a number of reasons discussed in Excavating Constructed Categories.

Analyzing Alcott’s biography and fiction not only reveals traces of gender nonconformity that can be read as indicative of those traces that could not be recovered, but also serves as an example of how to identify those traces. Our analyses of Alcott make use of our Braided Model for recovery, described in the next section, because an effective recovery project concerning the category of “woman” must amass many traces. In isolation or in small numbers, traces of trans identity and queerness are easily written off and do little to deconstruct the category. This phenomenon is the intended result of this construction of white womanhood; if the traces of non-normative identities were too apparent, they could be excluded, while diffused, these traces begin to disappear as they are assimilated as part of “womanhood” by nature of their whiteness. The opposite is true for Black women, who, regardless of how pristine their enactment of womanhood, were excluded by the superficial marker of race. Even as the repression of trans and queer identities and the categorical exclusion of Black women had apparently opposite effects, the construct of implicitly-assumed-white womanhood had undeniably exclusionary implications for gender, sexuality, and race.

The stakes of recovery in all cases – each of the three categories, as well as their intersections along other axes of power – are clear. As Judith Butler explains in their (1999) preface to Gender Trouble, one benefit of analyzing these categorical exclusions is “opening up possibilities.” They poignantly explain, “One might wonder what use ‘opening up possibilities’ finally is, but no one who has understood what it is to live in the social world as what is ‘impossible,’ illegible, unrealizable, unreal, and illegitimate is likely to pose that question” (Butler viii). Thus the task becomes determining a suitable model with which to begin a recovery of categorically-excluded (or restricted) authors.

Our Braided Model of Recovery

The braided model we use in this exhibit was developed in large part by weaving together elements of trans theory that can be applied to the recovery project presented by the exclusion of Black women from the Woman’s Department of the 1884 New Orleans World’s Fair. The model serves as a guiding tool for identifying and interpreting non-normative articulations of womanhood in terms of gender, sexuality, and/or race. The model values historical specificity, since an ethical recovery project does not fall prey to Presentism (see Recovery Theory – James D.), but it also prioritizes signals of interiority that have been masked by a misread exterior. Working in the opposite direction as the original exclusion, our model refuses to use a superficial reading of a given exterior, but rather seeks out expressions that provide a clue to the internal world of the writers we recover.
Our braided model contains three strands, which work together to meet the aims described above.

Strand 1 is Judith Butler’s conception of performativity, which acknowledges gender as constructed within a society by means of performances of gender, according to a culturally and historically specific script.
Strand 2 is Julia Serano’s intrinsic inclination model, which validates the internal experience of gender as partially, but not exclusively, socially-constructed. Serano’s theory complicates performativity’s claim that interiority is fully legible through exterior presentations.
Strand 3 is Alice Rutkowski’s invocation to “take . . . seriously” expressions of gender (81), rather than metaphorize (“she wants to be like a man”) or discount them because of the complexity of reading gender across history (“she couldn’t be trans in 1884”). Rutkowski’s intervention ensures that we do not overlook evidence of interior feelings, which cannot be fully recovered except by their traces – markers of what she calls “trans feeling” (80).

We owe much of the theoretical framework regarding gender as a performance to Judith Butler’s groundbreaking work Gender Trouble. Building off Simone de Beauvoir’s proclamation that “One is not born, but becomes a woman,” Butler considers the impossibility of a Western gender binary designed to exclude. While there are some racial blindspots in her (See Note 2) theories of gender performativity, Butler provides a deconstructive approach to gender that asks us to question deeply held assumptions and seek out the source of our understandings of what makes a woman a woman. The source of these assumptions, in fact, often seem to be cyclical, as Butler writes, “Gender is a kind of imitation for which there is no original” (572). Instead, the idealized construction of femininity becomes internalized through hegemonic structures of power; what is important to our work are the way this fictive womanhood is conceived as inherently white. In fact, the inability to perform the idealized version of femininity is its very point, with Butler elsewhere writing that ​​“heterosexuality is always in the process of imitating and approximating its own phantasmic idealization of itself—and failing” (574). The individual woman subject becomes, in Butler’s words, a summation of the varied acts and behaviors that have come to be expected of a woman, implicitly and explicitly framed by a culture of white supremacist hetero patriarchy.

Note 2

 Butler has expressed a preference for they/them pronouns, but also uses she/her pronouns. This project will use both sets of pronouns.

Still, performativity should not be read as a disavowal of individual autonomy. While Butler emphasizes that individuals are seldom cognizant of the ways they express their gender, the braided model offers tools to consider the innate feeling of gender as well as the ways gender is, at times, knowingly performed. In order to complicate and thereby sharpen the model of performativity, the second strand of our braid is Julia Serano’s claim for “intrinsic inclination.” Finding Butler’s conception of gender as purely performance to be lacking, Serano calls for a model that accounts for more. For Serano, gender “can both precede socialization and supersede biological sex” (6), representing not only a move past biological determinism – which always equates gender to genitalia – but also a move past an exclusively social constructionist model – which suggests that there is not about the performance of gender comes from the performer. To account for these shortcomings, Serano groups under the heading “gender inclinations” (56) a number of factors that extend beyond socialization and that impact a subject’s understanding and experience of gender. In our model, reading these “inclinations” means valuing expressions of how the artists conceive of themselves, accounting for their internal experiences rather than assuming that they are evident from the outside.

The gulf between what is identifiable from the exterior and what is available from the interior means that many of these “inclinations” are non-recoverable, since their expression was not preserved. To ensure that we do not miss what has been preserved, Alice Rutkowski provides a simple but effective framework for interpreting expressions that reveal an artist’s interiority: “take . . . transgender feelings seriously” (81). Rutkowski used this rubric as she interpreted Alcott’s biographical and fictional traces of “trans feeling,” valuing not labels, but empathy for expressions that have long been misunderstood. Thus, Rutkowski adds the final strand of the braided model we propose: a reading that opposes the exclusionary principles that impose certain figurations of gender (or sexuality, or race). Instead, Rutkowski seeks out and validates expressions of interiority as they are – neither metaphorized nor reconfigured for a modern understanding, both of which put these expressions at risk of being forgotten or even erased.

Together, Serano’s and Rutkowski’s contributions make the braided model more inclusive of bodies that have been othered, while also allowing us to evaluate critiques of the political expressions of white femininity presented by Julia Ward Howe and the other Women’s Department organizers. For these women, the performance of gender is ingrained in them through patriarchal acculturation. Yet as organizers of the World Fair, there is a pageantry of more literal performance that Butler’s theories still give space for analysis,  along with those of Serano, Rutkwoski, and the myriad trans and queer theorists we will pull from. In both explicit and subtle ways, the Women’s Department performed a femininity that reified the Cult of Womanhood, excluding Black women. Performativity, as Butler posits it, allows us to consider the sanctified ideals of white femininity that the organizers unconsciously endorse. The braided model demonstrates the strategic essentialism the women employ to further their cause of liberation for white women, knowingly leaving Black women behind. Luckily, the same tool that exposes the exclusionary practices of the Woman’s Department can also be used to recover that exclusion, since it provides a rubric for recovering those conceptions of gender that were deliberately left out.

Entanglement of Gender, Sexuality, and Race in the 19th Century

The flexibility of the braided model makes it useful in recovering several categorical exclusions as well as for understanding the interrelatedness of these categories. At the end of the nineteenth century in particular, the categories of gender, sexuality, and race were all undergoing significant changes in the public eye. The nineteenth century saw the beginnings of sexology as a scientific field, wherein the Black body was othered, and racialized differences based on societal positionality were codified as fact. Although Krafft-Ebing published his field-changing text on sexology in 1886 – two years after the Fair – the codification of racial categories preceded that of gendered categories, as Franz Joseph Gall has been circulating his ideas about phrenology since 1796, and his assistant-cum-disciple, J. G. Spurzheim, translated many phrenological texts into English as well as gave a lecture tour in the United States in 1832 (Simpson 476, 478) (See Note 3). Both sublimations of identity-based markers (gender and race) into carefully-restricted categories (“woman” and “Black”) relied not only on the texts that proposed them, though. Literary nineteenth-century America, supported by its rich periodical culture (link to Julia’s project), was almost unavoidably marked by “the race problem.” Thus, the historical milieu in which the 1884 Fair arose was one that was increasingly emboldened to solidify categories of exclusion.

Note 3

Gall first published his seminal text on phrenology in 1798. Although Gall’s theories were born in Europe, they were raised in America as a justification of the enslavement of a race newly christened. For a more detailed and nuanced look at the uses of phrenology to uphold a racial hierarchy, read Susan Branson’s 2017 article, “Phrenology and the Science of Race in Antebellum America,” which deals with the 1840-1841 trial of the Africans aboard the slave ship, La Amistad, who killed the captain and cook, and demanded to be returned to their home. Instead, the Spanish navigators brought them to the United States, where they were to be tried for the murders. While on trial, as Branson notes, the Africans were subjected to skull-measuring and other examinations in the name of phrenology.

Queer of color theorists draw on Black feminist scholarships to examine the ways social factors like race inform the embodied experiences of gender. Part of recovering the exclusion means prioritizing Black women and their relationship with gender in our analysis. Queer of color critique gives Black scholarship precedence, and also helps us see how Black women have forged their own distinct relationships with womanhood, influencing and influenced by white constructions. A key theoretical concept to explain this phenomenon is disidentification, as coined by José Esteban Muñoz. He writes, “To disidentify is to read oneself and one’s own life narrative in a moment, object, or subject that is not culturally coded to ‘connect’ with the disidentifying subject… it is the reworking of those energies that do not elide the ‘harmful’ or contradictory components of any identity” (Muñoz 12). When a people is excluded, Muñoz explains how they still connect with that which denies them; inspired by the work of Black feminists, Muñoz specifically explores how people of color are shut out from the constructs of queerness and womanhood for which whiteness takes precedence. Putting Black feminisms in conversation with the “Woman’s Department” is a strategy we will employ to discern the ways Black women have practiced disidentification with the white mainstream, challenging it while also navigating within racialized systems of gender to meet their own political needs. Read more in [“It’s What’s on the Outside that Counts”]

We invite you to contribute to these recovery efforts! Our braided model (including potential variants of it) provides a way to recover and interpret queer and trans traces in the works of other authors who exhibited in the Literary Department of the Woman’s Department. By collecting traces like these, we can continue to denaturalize the category of “woman” in order to work against the initial exclusion of the Black women writers who ought to have been part of the Sisterhood. Furthermore, we invite contributions that articulate how this model might be adapted or expanded to continue to improve in its recovery efforts of writing by Black women who could or should have been featured at the 1884 Fair, particularly along a queer or gendered axis.