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HARLEM WEEK 2018: ‘Rebel Women’ in Victorian era stand tall in Museum of the City of New York exhibit

September 30, 2018
Dr. Susan Smith McKinney Steward, and Peter Sewally, aka Mary Jones. (Museum of the City of New York)

Elizabeth Jennings Graham was a 24-year–old African-American church organist who rose to the occasion in 1854 after police removed her from a New York City streetcar because she was black. At a time when many women were relegated to household duties and child-rearing, she defiantly went to court, sued and won.

It was the parasol-shielded, corset-wearing 19th-century Victorian America, but New York gave birth to bold souls with causes to champion – and the “Rebel Women: Defying Victorianism” exhibit at the Museum of the City of New York reveals some of their efforts that still resonate today.

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The exhibit’s 13 subjects – who pushed for the right to vote and other causes – include African-American figures such as pioneering physician Dr. Susan Smith McKinney-Steward, the state’s first black female doctor, and cross-dressing Peter Sewally, aka Mary Jones, dubbed a queer pride forerunner by some.

These are three of the socially revolutionary New Yorkers featured in “Rebel Women,” which can be seen at the museum, 1220 Fifth Ave. (at E. 103rd St.) through Jan. 6, 2019. The stories of these rebels – who countered restrictive, male-defined domestic roles for women and other Victorian mores – are told through the text, prints, photographs, paintings, clothing and special works used courtesy of the Museum of the City of New York.

Graham’s “Rebel” display opens with a quote chastising a conductor for having her removed from a whites-only Third Avenue Railroad Company streetcar and arrested – more than a century before Rosa Parks and the Montgomery, Ala. bus boycott for equal treatment on public transportation in the South. Graham’s successful lawsuit against the transit company paved the way for desegregation of all the firm’s streetcars in the city.

A Brooklyn native, McKinney-Steward became New York State’s first licensed African-American female physician at a time when only three women in America held medical degrees. She was valedictorian her at New York Medical College class in 1870 – the same year she opened offices in Manhattan and Brooklyn.

In addition to her practice, she was also politically active in suffrage movement and other areas. Peter Sewally, the only male in the exhibition, was a man of conviction who once said, “I have always attended parties among the people of my own colour dressed in this way,” when he was questioned about wearing women’s clothing.

He went by the alias Mary Jones, and is “widely considered to be one of the first known gender variant/transgender people in New York history,” according to the exhibition text.

“Under the rigid gender binaries that governed Victorian society, Jones’s feminine appearance and sexual conduct made her a rebel in every sense of the word,” it reads.

After being arrested and charged with robbing a white client in a Manhattan brothel, the defendant appeared in court in 1836 wearing women’s clothing and was unfazed by the unrelenting harassment – which included a color lithograph labeled “The Man-Monster” that was sold.

The exhibit’s other subjects are Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Victoria Woodhull, who worked to get women the right to vote; journalist and women’s rights advocate Margaret Fuller; businesswoman Henrietta (Hetty) Howland Robinson Green, “the richest woman in America;” abortionist “Madame Restell;” pioneering journalist Elizabeth Jane (Nellie Bly) Cochrane; actress/artist Adah Isaacs Menken, murder victim Helen Jewett and crime figure Sophie Lyons.

For information about the exhibit and the museum, visit www.mcny.org/exhibition/rebel-women

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