Gender Politics in an 1887 Letter from Mary Hallock Foote
Tara Penry, Boise State University
Mary Hallock Foote is not known for progressive gender politics. Quite the opposite. As her biographer Darlis Miller observes, Foote and her longtime friend Helena DeKay Gilder agreed that woman’s most important work lay in the home, and suffrage would distract her from her primary duties.1 But Foote did not always practice her belief in the separate spheres of men and women perfectly. Not only did necessity compel her for a time to support her family with her work, but an 1887 letter also shows that in her professional life, Foote did not always think of her work as feminine or separate from the work of men.
This essay began not with questions about Foote’s gender politics but as an investigation of a mysterious letter. In the Special Collections department at Albertsons Library at Boise State University, not far from where the Footes lived in Idaho, a cryptic letter from 1887 shows the illustrator and author declining to participate in something relating to woman’s suffrage, but the letter is brief and the correspondent does not otherwise appear in Foote’s biography. This essay began as an inquiry into the circumstances behind the letter. Who was the correspondent? Why was she writing to an author and artist working in remote Idaho? And where did Mary Hallock Foote decide not to exhibit her work when invited? The answers to these questions not only provide a glimpse into the lives and passions of professional, writing women experiencing vastly different urban and rural wests in the 1880s, but they also suggest how complex were the politics of women’s work in this period.
In the summer of 1887, at age 39, Foote was a well‑established author and illustrator, publishing regularly in Century and other prominent national magazines. She was also a mother of three children (her youngest barely a year old), living upriver from Boise, Idaho, and supporting her family with her pen and pencil while her husband sought financial backing to build an irrigation system for the Boise valley. A picture she drew at this time for the children’s magazine St. Nicholas depicts explicitly her domestic absorptions. (See title illustration.) So when another professional woman from Chicago wrote to solicit books for an exhibit of “woman’s work,” Foote had other priorities than a stranger’s unsought appeal. Like many such appeals, this one failed to persuade its target audience. But Foote was polite enough to respond to Alice Stockham, M.D. To all appearances, the letter supports what we already know about Foote – that she did not support woman’s suffrage or other progressive causes. But as we discover more about the circumstances behind the letter, a slightly modified gender politics emerges – one that aligns Foote rather surprisingly with progressive professional women of Chicago and suggests her imperfect allegiance to the ideology of separate spheres.
With its proper context lost to time, the letter seems firmly dismissive of progressive women’s politics. It reads,
Aug 15th 1887
Alice B. Stockham M.D.
I should not wish to exhibit my books or drawings as “woman’s work”, as they are not put in the market on that basis; nor should I care to contribute towards the campaign for municipal suffrage, not being entirely in sympathy with it as a means towards the progress of woman.
Yours very Respectfully
Mary Hallock Foote 2
Since scholars do not thus far know the context of this letter, its double rejections of women’s causes ‑ an exhibit on the one hand and suffrage on the other ‑ indicate either a gender conservative, a busy public figure who cannot be bothered with someone else’s crusade, or both. Though Foote herself would not have known it, her distaste for an exhibit of “woman’s work” placed her among the progressive professional women of Chicago. To understand this, we must know more about Alice B. Stockham, the “exhibit” in question, and the gender politics of Chicago expositions around the late 1880s.