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Her story

On the Lower East Side, an exhibit highlights the work, life and legacies of 29 women


It's Women's History Month. In a world half made up of women and half made by women, there's just one-twelfth of the calendar to celebrate that, so let's get to it.

Artist Adrienne Ottenberg has filled the Museum at Eldridge Street with evocative, inspiring portraits of women in her exhibition, "Twenty-Eight Remarkable Women … and One Scoundrel," on view through May 5. With images of labor leaders, health-care workers, artists, writers, social workers, socialites, Suffragettes and a scoundrel of the exhibition’s title — a pickpocket named Stiff Rivka — the museum buzzes with female energy. Each has a story to tell, and curator Nancy Johnson and Ottenberg tell them through words, images and sound. 

Polish-born Rose Schneiderman (1882-1972) was a labor organizer, unionist and feminist. Starting factory work at age 13, she was the president of the New York Women’s Trade Union League by 24. Schneiderman went on to be a founding member of the American Civil Liberties Union and an advisor to Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Talk about influencers.

Ottenberg explained, "We live with the legacy from Rose Schneiderman. We live with the legacy from Frances Perkins," another labor organizer, who served as U.S. secretary of labor, also under FDR, from 1933 to 1945 "and people don't even know it." 

(Perkins, the first woman to serve in a presidential cabinet, noted that the New Deal began on March 25, 1911, the day a fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in Greenwich Village killed 146 garment workers.)

Ottenberg worked for more than a year to uncover forgotten stories of remarkable women who lived and worked in the neighborhood during the heydays of Eldridge Street Synagogue, which houses the museum. She soon had more names than she could use. "I had to make myself stop looking!" she laughed. More than anything, she was struck by "just how many there were and how brave they were." 

Johnson noted, "To me, the impact is kind of — wow, who knew? There were so many women who had very interesting, vital lives who really created change…. Looking at them all together, it's a piece of the story at Eldridge Street that was missing." 

She added, "It's just the other half of the story."

‘A pretty amazing thing’

The show itself has a story. It started in the synagogue's women's balcony, a space that's filled with light, color, history and beauty. But it wasn't always. "It's the first grand house of worship built in America by immigrants from Eastern Europe. It opened in 1887," Johnson said. 

But she described how historical factors like immigration laws, the Great Depression, World War II and suburban sprawl all led to declining membership and resources, causing the near destruction of parts of the landmark building. Over the course of decades it's been restored, with a luminous, sparkling 2010 stained glass window designed by Kiki Smith as its crowning glory.  

"When you go to the synagogue and you go up to the women's balcony, you feel how inspiring it is, how beautiful," said Ottenberg. "When I was up there it made me wonder what was the 'women's balcony' of the Lower East Side? Who were the women who were here?"

She took inspiration from the palette of the architecture — ochre and gold, topped by deep blue cupolas dotted with stars — painting the portraits to reflect those colors. Then, they're layered with Ottenberg's own maps (she's also a cartographer), images of the sky and snippets of text, such as poet Emma Lazarus' lines on the Statue of Liberty, "Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free." The portraits are printed on gauzy fabric, letting light and glimpses of the space come through. It's all about making these women and their impact visible. 

The artworks react to your presence, gently wafting in the air currents. "It's very ethereal," said Johnson. "They move as you walk by them. I think there's something about that that's very unique and special, and that makes it feel like the women belong there."

Was there something about the Lower East side in the early 1900s that empowered women to step up? Was there freedom here they hadn't had in their earlier lives? Was there some energy unique to the time? Or were these just the kind of women who did what had to be done? 

"I think it was all those things," said Johnson."It was synergistic, especially for the activists. One woman's work fed off the other's. They heard a speech that somebody gave, and it inspired them to act. Lillian Wald, who founded the Henry Street Settlement, she hired one of the first Black nurses and became involved in the NAACP, and health care changed. I think it was a factor of the time, the place, yes. And the rules that governed polite society didn't necessarily hold down there." 

"I'm not sure exactly, but it's a pretty amazing thing,” she added. 

A pamphlet designed by Ottenberg with thumbnails of the portraits and short bios accompanies the exhibition. The Bloomberg Connects app, free to download, has links to more stories from a variety of narrators, some of whom are descendants of the portrait subjects. 

For Ottenberg, the exhibition was a journey of discovery in which she invites others to join her. There are tragic stories, like that of Dora Welfowitz, an 11-year-old victim of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. There are inspiring stories, like that of artist Louise Nevelson who refused to accept the limitations on women inherent in the art world. All of the women are remarkable in some way, even the pickpocket.

"I hope that by connecting to these women one would connect more deeply to oneself and realize more possibility in one's own life," Ottenberg said. "You expand your world, I think, by going through the show and experiencing these women."

"Twenty-Eight Remarkable Women … and One Scoundrel," through May 5 at the Museum At Eldridge Street, 12 Eldridge St., New York.  212-219-0302. eldridgestreet.org


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