“The new woman, in the sense of the best woman, the flower of all the womanhood of past ages, has come to stay — if civilization is to endure. The sufferings of the past have but strengthened her, maternity has deepened her, education is broadening her — and she now knows that she must perfect herself if she would perfect the race, and leave her imprint upon immortality, through her offspring or her works.”
— Winnifred Harper Cooley: The New Womanhood. New York, Broadway Publishing Company, 1904
At the end of the nineteenth century, old-guard New Yorkers might still have defended the domestic boundaries of woman’s life as a separate sphere, ordained by Nature, if not God: public life was male, private life female. But the nineteenth-century construct of separate spheres had been shaken, and would soon crumble, under the weight of the city’s economic imperatives and the pressure of a growing Progressive hunger, among women, for civic influence. As the century turned, New York women of every class were everywhere, suddenly; not only visible in the public sphere, but energetically transforming it.
It was the age of the Women’s Club: voteless women working collectively to promote their values on a municipal and national scale. Women’s clubs became incubators, supportive environments where women of every class, race, ethnicity were able to examine, develop, and create strategies to implement their convictions.
Interplay between the public and private spheres characterized a lot of women’s early collective actions–the personal, even early on, was political. The conceptual framework of “municipal housekeeping,” used by many women’s groups, leveraged the virtues attributed to women in their private role to rationalize their involvement in public life. Female prohibitionists not only decried the social costs of alcoholism, but publicly reviled the traditionally very private problem of women’s helplessness and desperation at the mercy of alcoholic men, insisting that domestic tranquillity should and would dictate the government of individual behavior.
Women’s activism fanned out beyond long-standing concerns with social welfare and cultural literacy, into arenas previously considered hyper-masculine. Female industrial workers organized strikes and marches for decent working conditions. Suffragists demanded a political voice for women and faced down disbelief, derision, and denial to get it. Active new ideals emerged: the glamorous Gibson Girl, bicycling elegantly through the social psyche, her more disruptive sister, The New Woman, striding along behind.
It was not only activism that brought women into the public, masculine sphere. As the twentieth century progressed women, already working side-by-side with men in urban markets and factories and sweatshops, entered the white-collar workplace in droves, as telephonists and typists and telegraphers, transforming the sober business of the day and, with Prohibition in 1920, the less-sober business of the night. The twin demons of twentieth-century feminism-anxiety—the dour, excoriating reformer and the amoral, soulless libertine—were born in this period.
Women’s political culture had its own timbre, and the middle-class female version of the smoke-filled room was the club luncheon, where the food that fueled these various revolutions was dainty, a word that swelled in popularity, almost exclusively in female-focused publications, throughout the years of New York women’s tumultuous entry into public life.
A frivolous counterweight to strong-minded ideals, dainty food was pale, soft, and often achingly sweet; familiar, but special, like birthday cake, a vestigial remnant of dainty cuisine. It encompassed delicate creamed meats in fragile pastry shells; sweet sandwiches hidden under cream-cheese frosting; topiary, marshmallow- and fruit-intensive salads, often sculpted to look like something other than food.Daintiness implied a surplus of money and leisure, and an inclination to invest both in feminine fripperies. By association, it elevated. Tea-party food transforms a room full of women into a room full of ladies.
The feathery bread below can be enjoyed with a wide variety of delicate fillings, should you and your sisters need energy for your own plans to change the world.
Dainty Tea-Sandwich Bread
via King Arthur Flour
This rich loaf is the best bread for slicing super-thin for delicate tea sandwiches, especially when baked in a Pullman pan.
3/4 cup milk
1 cup lukewarm water
3/8 cup (6 tablespoons) butter
2 teaspoons salt
3 tablespoons sugar
2/3 cup nonfat dry milk
1/3 cup potato flour or 3/4 cup potato flakes
3 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/2 cups white whole wheat flour
2 1/4 teaspoons instant yeast
- Combine all of the ingredients, and mix and knead them — by hand, mixer, or bread machine — to form a smooth, supple dough.
- Transfer the dough to a lightly greased bowl or dough-rising bucket, cover the bowl or bucket, and allow the dough to rise until puffy though not necessarily doubled in bulk, about 1 1/2 hours.
- Lightly grease a 13″ x 4″ x 4″ lidded pain de mie pan. Transfer the risen dough to a lightly greased work surface, shape it into a log, and fit it into the pan. Flatten the top as much as possible.
- Cover the pan with lightly greased plastic wrap, and allow the dough to rise until it’s about 1/2″ below the lip of the pan, about 45 minutes.
- Preheat the oven to 350°.
- Carefully slip the cover onto the pan, and let it rest an additional 15 minutes while the oven heats.
- Bake the bread for 25 minutes. Remove the pan from the oven, carefully remove the lid, and return the bread to the oven to bake for an additional 10 to 15 minutes, until it’s golden-brown on top and tests done; an instant-read thermometer inserted into the center will register 190°F. Remove the bread from the oven, and turn it out of the pan onto a rack to cool completely.
- Store, well-wrapped, on the counter for up to 3 days, or freeze for up to 3 months.
For advanced daintiness, Helena Judson, editor of Light Entertaining: a Book of Dainty Recipes for Special Occasions (New York, Butterick Publishing Company, 1910) offers the following:
Scented sandwiches, such as clover, nasturtium, rose and violet, are made as follows: Trim the crusts from a loaf of bread, put it into a large soup tureen in a bed of clover (or any highly scented flower) ; wrap the butter in a piece of cheese-cloth and put it also in a tureen; cover with clover. Next day butter and bread will be filled with the flavor and odor of clover.