Chicago Women’s History in Plain Sight: Clara Driscoll (1861-1944)

Clara Driscoll (far left in white blouse) and other Tiffany glass cutters, circa 1904.

by Emma Staffaroni

This article is part of a three-story series exploring Chicago women’s history.

Back in 2007 the New-York Historical Society featured an exhibit called “A New Light on Tiffany: Clara Driscoll and the Tiffany Girls.” Louis Comfort Tiffany, the 19th century decorative arts genius who pioneered the use of stained glass and mosaic, was not a woman, but his glass workers were, and recent research out of the Queens Historical Society reveals that these women had a crucial role to play beyond manufacturing. Clara Driscoll of the exhibition’s title was the Director of the Women’s Glass Cutting Department at Tiffany Studios in New York. As the Director, she designed and crafted some of the most famous lamps attributed to Tiffany himself, including the Daffodil lamp, pictured below right.


A selection of Tiffany lamps designed by Clara Driscoll are on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

Driscoll worked for Tiffany for twenty years, during which time she designed countless lamps, windows, and mosaics. She left her mark on Chicago history when she assisted with the Tiffany Dome in Marshall Field’s department store on State Street in Chicago in 1907. Using Tiffany’s 1894-patented “favrile iridescent glass,” she and her co-workers took the work they did on smaller windows and lamps to the next level with this massive project that would endure as a gem of Chicago architecture and Art Nouveau.

As women’s historians know, women’s history is more often than not “hidden in plain sight,” frequently over-shadowed by the name of a man or a male-controlled enterprise. Yet what is spectacular about Driscoll’s contributions to glass work is that her works are not hidden, but rather quite plainly and splendidly visible for Chicagoans to behold–both at the old Marshall Field’s, now Macy’s, and at the Chicago Cultural Center, once meant to be the public library. Now protected historic landmarks, Driscoll’s masterpieces will not be marginalized by the hegemonic male bias in curation practices. Rather than being stuffed away in a dusty Art Institute storage space, Driscoll’s architectural works–though doomed to be attributed to her boss, Tiffany–will not be forgotten.

Tiffany dome-small

The dome of Marshall Field’s Department Store in Chicago

Mothers’ Pensions: A Case Study in Perceptions of Low-Income Mothers

The following is edited and excerpted from a paper entitled “Single Mothers, Social Mothers, and Welfare Reform: Maternalism in the Early 20th Century,” by Emma Staffaroni, second year graduate student in women’s history at Sarah Lawrence.

Mothers’ Pensions: A Case Study in Perceptions of and Attitudes toward Poor Mothers in the Early Twentieth Century

“The justice of today is born of yesterday’s pity.”  –Julia Lathrop

In order to fully comprehend the role maternalism–or political motherhood–played in the formation of the United States welfare state, we must examine one short-lived success in maternalist policy: mother’s pensions, also called widows’ pensions, the funds to parents act, and the mothers’ compensation act. Emerging as early as April 1911, these were the first laws in American history to provide public funds for women with dependent children. Because of the state-specific nature of these pension laws, each was slightly different, though a common purpose unites them: in the words of Julia Lathrop, the first Chief of the then-burgeoning Children’s Bureau, mothers’ pensions aimed at “preventing the breaking up of the home when on account of death or disability the support of the natural breadwinner of the family is removed.”[1] In many cases, this was aid to single mothers; however, as we will see, the category of “single mother” was not socially desirable and often conflated with widowhood or desertion.

Emma-Lathrop Image 1

Julia Lathrop, second from left, with fellow members of the Bureau, planning Baby Week in 1916. Photo Credit: Library of Congress.

For Lathrop and the Children’s Bureau, these laws constituted an intervention to prevent infant and child mortality, child destitution, and highly populated children’s homes. As we have seen, the philosophy of scientific motherhood imbuing the Children’s Bureau and its adherents established a socially acceptable and abstract notion of the home as a space in need of reform and systematic improvement. Though much of their advocacy and policy work centered on maternal and child health, the mothers’ pension, regulated and distributed by the state courts, was a socioeconomically-based reform effort, stemming from a recognition of the social consequences of male job loss, desertion, disability, or death. It bears noting here that the emphasis on poor women’s lived realities is central to activist women’s social motherhood. Part of their identities as social mothers involved an “innate” knowledge of the material lives of mothers. This “pity” and compassion for poor women left destitute by their husbands is part and parcel of a general “solidarity” effort on the part of women in the charity business as well as women entering public sector positions like Julia Lathrop’s in the Children’s Bureau.

If we read the Bureau’s detailed summary of mothers’ pensions laws across the 21 states that enacted them, it is clear that their principal end was keeping families together–or, as in the case of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, “giving financial assistance to the families of dependent and neglected children, instead of committing the children to the Milwaukee County Home for Dependent Children.”[2] This end was achieved with varying methods, which together illustrate the range of ideas and attitudes about women and mothers in this period.

Already we can glean understandings of motherhood from the different nomenclature used for the legislation. In Missouri, mothers whose husbands were either dead or in prison were eligible for the aid money: this was a “mothers’ pension.” In Illinois, however, the scope was broader and more gender-neutral (at least on the surface): “If the parent or parents of such dependent or neglected child are poor and unable to properly care for the said child, but are otherwise proper guardians and it is for the welfare of the child to remain at home,” states Illinois’ law, then they may be eligible. As one would expect, this law was called the “funds to parents act.” The gender-neutral language of “parents” here both obfuscates and illuminates its purposes: on the one hand, it appears progressive and not family-wage prescriptive by including the possibility of a father or another kind of parent in its scope; on the other, it deflects and ignores the patent reality that women were the beneficiaries of this aid.

Emma-Children's Bureau-Image 2

Propaganda like this illustrates the powerful message “social mothers” had to offer America in a time when infant mortality rates and low public education elicited government intervention. Photo Credit: Library of Congress

The language of “parents” also suggests another important attitude, one that can be characterized by the work of the Children’s Bureau in general: that these laws were first and foremost about children. The centerpiece of scientific motherhood is the impetus for mothers to raise better children–healthier, safer, smarter, and more “American” children. It is not hard to understand why maternalists would strategically frame their debates and policies in terms of children: it was a way to depoliticize the undeniably political work of intervening with state funds on behalf of a controversial, “deviant” population of women.

This controversial population ranges in characteristics from state to state. Lathrop’s report on mothers’ pensions lists both “persons to whom aid may be given” and “conditions on which aid is given.” These lists, strict policy points, classify needy mothers as follows:

In California, New Jersey, and Oklahoma the mother must be a widow in order to receive mothers’ aid; in the rest of the states, mothers whose husbands are in prison… mothers whose husbands are in state insane asylums… mothers whose husbands are totally incapacitated, physically or mentally… [and in some states] deserted wives…if deserted for three years. In Michigan are included also unmarried and divorced mothers.[3]

Each state’s case presents a different image of needy motherhood. Notably, there is no mention of a father as a recipient of this aid, contrary to the gender neutrality of the text. Yet despite its contradiction, this comprehensive summary gives us a glimpse of the experiences of women that the Bureau dealt with and sought to address. As in today’s United States, a woman’s freedoms and opportunities vary greatly depending on the state in which she lives; reproductive health laws, for example, illustrate this in the early 21st century.

Notably, two kinds of unmarried mothers are codified in these laws as legitimate mothers-in-need: widows, and less so, “deserted” women. Widows were seen as one of the few “deserving” groups of single mothers, as their status was incidental and tragic, not reflective of a “moral deficiency.” In 1900, 77 percent of single mothers were widows, and 16 percent were “deserted,” meaning they were not formally divorced but their husbands were absent.[4] Single mothers were “illegitimate” when they were never married, with children. As Linda Gordon writes, “welfare reformers redrew the image of the single mother” to emphasize widowhood. Even “desertion” was suspect, and the reformers at the Children’s Bureau needed to garner as much sympathy for these women as possible.[5]

The conditions under which a mother became eligible for aid also illustrate the perceptions of these women and their needs. Under “Degree of poverty,” we see conditions such as “destitute,” “dependent entirely on her own efforts,” and “may not own real property or personal property other than household effects.” Then, in a section called “Home conditions,” the moralist rhetoric of maternalist policy is evident: “requirement is made that the mother is a fit person, morally and physically, to bring up her children.” Most crucial in this piece of the summary is that “in Idaho, Illinois, Missouri, New Hampshire, Ohio, South Dakota, and Utah it is made conditional that…the mother shall not work regularly away from home.” (Emphasis mine.)[6] Here in black-and-white we witness the double-bind of many of these pensions; this aid, in other words, was often designed to substitute wages, not supplement them. Through the language of this legislation, we observe the strict workings of gender ideology as it defined “deserving” poor women–a definition and double bind that remains to this day in the American understanding of single mothers on welfare.

For further reading, please consult the books and articles of historians Eileen Boris, Linda Gordon, Molly Ladd-Taylor, Joanne Goodwin (alumna of SLC’s Women’s History program), and  Theda Skocpol.


[1] Julia Lathrop, “Laws Relating to Mothers’ Pensions in the United States, Denmark, and New Zealand,” in Dependent Children Series no. 1. U.S. Department of Labor, 1917, p. 9

[2] Lathrop, 8

[3] Lathrop, 9

[4] Linda Gordon, Pitied But Not Entitled: Single Mothers and the History of Welfare 1890-1935. New York: Free Press, 1994, p.19-20.

[5] Gordon, 27

[6] Lathrop, 10.

Beyond “Love Your Body Week”: Can Feminisms Truly Address the Epidemic of Body Hatred?

by Emma Staffaroni

“Whenever woman’s spirit has been threatened, she has taken the control of her body as an avenue of self-expression. The anorectic refusal of food is only the latest in a series of woman’s attempts at self-assertion which at some point have descended directly upon her body. If woman’s body is the site of her protest, then equally the body is the ground on which the attempt for control is fought.” -Susie Orbach, Hunger Strike: The Anorexic’s Stuggle as a Metaphor for our Age

“The thing with Sarah Lawrence students is that they are very often intellectually, politically, and theoretically rejecting it–rejecting these narrow standards of beauty. And yet…they are asking themselves, ‘What is going on that I still feel more in control when I’m not eating?’”-Dina Nunziato, Director of Counseling at SLC Health Services

It’s a windy day over October study days and I am talking about eating disorders on campus with the Director of Counseling at Sarah Lawrence, Dina Nunziato. Dina was hired by the college in 1994 to run the Eating Disorders Support Group, a group comprised of students that still exists today. Coming from a private practice and a feminist-psychoanalytic perspective in her work, Dina brought her years on the Westchester Task Force on Eating Disorders to the campus, which in the early 90s was woefully under-resourced on this issue. I wanted to talk to Dina first and foremost to get her expert’s insight on the epidemic and its impact at SLC in particular; but secondly I wanted to hear from her about the potential for feminisms to address this issue–not only to bring awareness around body image through campaigns (like NOW’s well-funded Love Your Body Week), but to truly heal ourselves and our loved ones, and to do what feminism does best: shift the paradigm. Change the narrative.

Courtney E. Martin, author and feminist blogger emeritus at, says in her TED talk that she needed this book, so she wrote it.

In 2012 it is a daunting task to write about body image and disordered eating among college students. According to the National Eating Disorders Association’s most up-to-date information, 10 million women and girls and 1 million men and boys have experienced an eating disorder. But those statistics are less meaningful than the dozens of personal encounters with people who hate their bodies, constantly diet, and/or have been hospitalized for self-starvation. As feminist author Courtney E. Martin calls it in the title of her book on the subject, the last 40 years have heralded a “frightening new normalcy of hating your body.” I came to write this article because of the women (in particular although many men struggle as well) I love whom I witness in the grips of this self-disgust, this perpetual fear of fat and sense of empowerment and control through starvation and/or over-exercise.

But even as I write this, I am intellectualizing a problem that is deeply visceral and personal. As a feminist, I know that the personal is political; but does the political shroud the personal in this case, making it harder to access the individual woman and her struggle? “‘It runs counter to everything I believe in,’” Dina says, parroting the students whom she counsels. “‘And yet. And yet.’”

Sarah Lawrence’s Health Services department employs a bio-psycho-social perspective for evaluating and serving students who need help around this issue. In the support groups, for example, young women and men are not seen within a “deficit” model. “We start with the assumption that everyone’s doing their best to manage their emotional health,” Dina explains.Thinking of the acts of binging, purging, or self-starving as discrete behavioral solutions to emotional and psychological states, students delve into the questions, How did I come to this solution to whatever I’m going through? How and why isn’t this solution working? It is a process, indeed, of analyzing, as objectively as possible, the steps one normally takes to heal oneself, and the possible alternative strategies for dealing with emotional distress. The goal, Dina says, is to understand what happens in that process and eventually help the student learn to tolerate her emotions rather than fall back on unhealthy and/or self-harming eating patterns.

These emotions vary from student to student, and Dina insists she could never generalize. There is, however, a thread that runs through many discussions with those who come to support group or seek help through counseling: the feeling of being at war with one’s body. The work then, is teaching students to “work with their bodies instead of against them,” Dina says. Only then can these young people move from a place of “self-loathing” to “self-caring.”

So what role can feminism play? In fact, it is the process of learning self-empathy that makes a person start to link the personal and political– or, as Dina puts it, “to start to recognize their relationship with food as symbolic.” Dina’s theoretical influences include second-wave feminist Susie Orbach, writing in the late 70s and 80s about the battle with the body as a feminist issue.

Orbach’s first book on the subject, Fat is a Feminist Issue: A Self-Help Guide forCompulsive Eaters, may sound vulgar to third and fourth wave feminists who see “self-help” as a consumerist conspiracy to make women spend money on elusive ideals of self-perfection. Yet when Orbach was writing, no one had yet articulated the link between the personal–the individual dieting woman–and the political–the fight against patriarchy.

She defines “compulsive eating” as the following: “Eating when you are not physically hungry; Feeling out of control around food, submerged by either dieting or gorging; Spending a good deal of time thinking and worrying about food and fatness; Scouring the latest diet for vital information; Feeling awful about yourself as someone who is out of control; Feeling awful about your body.” She describes her initial response to her feminist consciousness-raising group that focused on the issue of dieting and body hatred: “I was confused, having anticipated a discussion of nutritional standards in the United States
and the Third World, or perhaps a look at the food and fashion industries or the incidence of obesity in ‘rich countries,’” she explains. “I was hesitant to explore the topic of compulsive eating outside the context of a political vocabulary… I was uneasy but held on to the slogan that the personal is political.”

Over time, as feminists have noted the pathologizing tone of the term ‘compulsive eating,’ Orbach’s book has been retitled ‘the anti-diet guide.’

Of course, today it is unthinkable to imagine dieting NOT being a feminist issue. Forty some-odd years after the fact, I feel reassured to know that the politics of the body and body image are at home in the feminist activist and intellectual landscape. But there is still a lot to glean from Orbach’s discovery process. “Women…are brought up to conform to an image of womanhood that places importance on body size and shape,” Orbach writes. Employing a psychoanalyticlens that emphasizes childhood and adolescent development as a crucial time, she draws the line between objectification by society and the process of treating one’s own body as a object for control. It is through this line of reasoning that feminists can begin to discuss the ways in which fatness and thinness are symbolic and gendered in our social world.

The impulse, I think, for those of us that love and respect women, is to intellectualize or
politicize the woman’s experience of her fraught embodiment. But as Orbach reminds us,
feminism has given us tools and vocabulary NOT so we can distance ourselves from the
personal, but so we can draw closer to it. At the end of her 1986 book, Hunger Strike, Orbach writes, “Each woman has a difficult struggle before her. Firstly she is working towards experiencing her body as the place in which she lives. At the same time she has to find a way of reconciling the body as owned and lived in with the opposing cultural thrust of the female body as object.” Yes, this is indeed the challenge: to reconcile the juggernaut of fat-shaming, photo-shopped, white-supremacist media images with the very daily experience of nourishing oneself and inhabiting a body.

Geneen Roth’s Women, Food, and God links disordered eating to the personal and spiritual.

Which brings us back to Dina, whose work is helping people develop self-empathy in the battle for peaceful embodiment. It’s not easy, she told me, to get beneath the powerful intellects of students like those at SLC. Oftentimes the behaviors are hidden–behind specific food choices, like vegetarianism or raw food diets–but always they mask a much deeper emotional or psychological wound, one that is in part personal but also largely societal and political. It is, like all feminist issues, a group solution, employed in the campus support group, in groups beyond campus, and–yes–in intentional communities of feminists. “Turning off one’s judges–mothers, women’s magazines, husbands, lovers, friends, diet doctors, and nutritionists–requires trust in one’s self. Being in a group with other women going through the same process can be of great assistance and support,” Orbach’s book reads. I would add: not just turning off the judges, but talking back to them. Challenging the script about fatness and thinness. Recognizing when we are hiding behind jargon or intellectual rationales when in fact there are political and emotional messages to be heard. And asking our loved ones, classmates, and colleagues to talk about it. Then, listening.


Why Women Can’t Afford to Lose Obamacare

Emma Staffaroni

On June 28, 2012, when the Supreme Court upheld the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act known familiarly as “Obamacare,” women around the nation breathed a sigh of relief. Planned Parenthood reports that in the two years since the law’s passage, 20 million women have received preventative health care services.

It was Nancy Pelosi  who first publicly stated that under this law, “being a woman is no longer a pre-existing condition.”

It is one of my favorite political sound bytes of all time (besides maybe Sojourner Truth asking “Ain’t I a woman?”–sadly they didn’t have sound recording devices back then). But it takes more than rhetorical flourishes to convince American women–especially conservative ones–that health care reform is their law.

Therefore, in honor of the four generations of women in my family, I’ve put together this anatomy of the ACA in four acts.

I. The Little Ones
My big Italian family is growing in 2012. One of my cousins had twins in June, and another will have her second baby in October. Under the ACA, it will be illegal for a health insurance provider to deny my baby cousins, and all children, coverage because of a pre-existing condition. Meanwhile, their mothers are guaranteed full coverage of their maternity costs, including neo-natal care for premies like the twins. When Medicaid expansions go into effect in 2014, families making up to 133% of the federal poverty level ($29,700 for a family of four in 2011) will have maternity costs covered for up to 60 days post-partum, according to the Kaiser Foundation. Other great improvements for children’s health include mandatory vision and oral coverage for kids under all plans, effective in 2014.

II. The Big Kids
My sister and I are in our twenties and still covered under our parents’ private insurance until we are 26, thanks to the ACA. Whereas once my healthy 21-year-old sister, newly an R.N. (congrats, Hannah), could be discriminated against by insurance providers simply for being a woman, under the reform she and a healthy 21-year-old man will have the same premiums. As both of us establish financial independence, we will not be burdened by high co-pays, nor will we be forced to dish out for basic needs like birth control and annual exams. (Did I mention free birth control?)

III. Middle-Aged Mamas
My mom’s nest may be empty, but she still deals with and worries about the logistics of her family’s health care, in addition to her own. According to a study from the White House, she is among the majority of American women who plan for their children as well as their parents, and sometimes even extended family. Women are the most important consumers. One of the most significant–and least discussed–aspects of health care reform is its emphasis on improving competitiveness by making health plans more transparent to the consumer. Under the law, your provider is obligated to provide reciprocal services within your region if your family’s needs aren’t met under its plan. Information about competing providers must be clear and accessible. Women–mothers–will benefit most from this pro-consumer policy.

In addition to improved and more transparent access to family-friendly coverage, middle-aged women like my mother will have their own preventative care covered no matter what: that is, a woman will no longer have to forgo a mammogram because her plan has reached its annual limit; she will not have to delay a medical visit or a trip to the pharmacy (see Figure 13). More women in my mother’s home state of Connecticut will be insured overall: starting in 2014, 42% of the currently uninsured in CT will be eligible for coverage under Medicaid. (In New York, that number is 49%, or half a million women.) Every member of the community will have access to preventative care, reducing long-term state spending on health care overall.

All in all, for my mom this law means “peace of mind.” In terms of positive impacts of the ACA, that belongs at the top of the list.

IV. The Young-at-Heart
Finally, women of advanced years are protected in new ways under the Affordable Care Act. Lifetime and annual limits are no longer legal as of 2014. Additionally, discrimination based on age and medical history is banned as of 2014, and if you get sick, your provider is prohibited from dropping you. “It finally allows coverage for those with a pre-existing condition, something my parents didn’t have when my mom found out she had cancer,” my mom recalls. Until the law takes full effect in 2014, a temporary subsidized program protects adults in a “high-risk pool”–predominantly the elderly.

Health care reform also works to close what is called the “doughnut hole” gap in Medicare coverage. (Google search “doughnut hole” and instead of glazed or jelly the first link you get is the Wikipedia page for “Medicare Part D coverage gap.”) If a person on Medicare has prescription drug costs between $2,700 and $6,154, she must pay for everything out-of-pocket. Below $2,700, 75% of the costs are covered, and above $6,154, 95% is covered. Thanks to the ACA, in 2010 seniors in the doughnut hole received rebates of $250. In 2011, they became eligible for 50% discounts on brand name drugs. The law claims to phase the gap out by 2020.

If there is a pre-existing condition of womanhood in the United States, it is that the burden of finding and paying for health care most frequently falls to her. Obamacare is legislation that benefits all women– though above all, it serves the most vulnerable women and girls. Its physical, psychological, social, and economic advantages for women run the gamut of age, health, and income level. This controversial and oft-misunderstood law is more than a political talking-point; it is a giant leap forward that the women in my life–and yours–cannot afford to lose.

Emma Staffaroni is a second year graduate student in Women’s History at Sarah Lawrence College and co-edits this magazine. Her heroes include Frieda Kahlo, Adrienne Rich, Octavia Butler, and Barbara Kingsolver. Emma enjoys post-it notes, board games, and museum gift shops. She can be reached at estaffaroni[at]gm[dot]slc[dot]edu.