The mostly true story of Miss Panama Pankhurst Imogene Equality
For the past few months I have been researching the activities of the Congressional Union for Woman Suffrage (or CU) at the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco. Seizing the opportunity to spread the suffrage message to millions of visitors, the CU hosted a permanent booth at the Expo throughout 1915. They hosted prominent speakers, distributed pamphlets and buttons, displayed the record of sitting members of Congress on the suffrage issue, and gathered signatures for a petition to President Woodrow Wilson demanding a national suffrage amendment.
(I wrote about their cross-country road trip to deliver the petition on an earlier blog post here: https://www.womanwriting.com/post/a-month-in-the-life-of-a-women-s-historian-or-on-the-road-with-the-suffragists)
Image of the exhibit booth hosted by the Congressional Union for Women's Suffrage
(later the National Woman's Party) at the 1915 San Francisco Panama-Pacific International Expo
In my search for any information about planning and operating the suffrage booth, I came across The Story of the Exposition (1921), a book by Frank Morton Todd, official historian of the Expo, which included an interesting but brief reference to some of the unique sights and attractions to be found in the fair’s Toyland amusement park:
There was a wooden effigy of a suffragette, 90 feet high, and two tin soldiers of about
that altitude whose feet were large enough to shelter small merchandise booths. There
was a Crazy Town, and a Flea Circus, and a Midget's Theater, and a Cobweb Lake,
and a Giant's Kitchen, and a Mother Hubbard's Cupboard, to mention but a few of the
Wait, back up a minute. Among the *many* questions raised in this short passage... There was a 90-foot tall suffrage statue?!
This definitely did not sound like something the suffragists themselves would have commissioned. Besides the expense of such an undertaking (the suffrage organizations were consistently underfunded), if the Congressional Union did have anything to do with a statue, there would have been plenty of publicity and press about it. Everything that suffrage leader Alice Paul did was calculated for maximum publicity effect, whether imagery, maps, banners, pageants, music, the road trip, and the fair booth itself.
The San Francisco Chronicle and San Francisco Examiner reported on daily happenings throughout the Expo year and so my first question was, did either of these papers (or any paper) mention a 90-foot suffrage statue at the Toyland exhibit to corroborate Todd’s history?
The Answer: Yes, they did! And, of course, where there are suffragists involved, controversy is sure to follow:
This “Little Eva” article from the SF Examiner opens with the wonderfully well-worn (even by 1915) stereotype that feminists have NO sense of humor.
The paper reports that the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) did not like the association of the statue with “suffragettes” and suggested the statue be renamed.
What was the statue's original name, then? And what so offended the premiere national suffrage organization that they felt compelled to issue a complaint from their publicity department?
A possible clue: Is “The Billboard” magazine mentioned as a source for further news about the statue the same Billboard music magazine that is still around today?
Article from San Francisco Examiner (March 12, 1915)
Indeed, it is! I was thrilled to find that there is a complete online archive of past issues of Billboard magazine going all the way back to 1894 and my quest eventually led me to two 1915 issues of The Billboard which not only reported on the statue's installation at the fair, but explained the suffragists’ complaint that many women visitors to the fair were already enfranchised western voters who would surely be offended by the representation of a suffragist as a child’s toy.
Special Panama-Pacific International Expo issue of The Billboard magazine (February 20, 1915)
Now that the statue had a name, it was back to newspapers.com and a search for “Little Eva” brought up a few other newspaper reports, including this one from the SF Chronicle that extends her height to 98 feet and gives her an alternative name:
“Panama Pankhurst Imogene Equality.”
WOW! There is so much going on here, but it’s becoming clearer why the suffragists didn't think the statue was so funny!
Panama is a reference to the fair.
Pankhurst is clearly a reference to Emmeline Pankhurst, the most prominent British suffragist of the era, or to the Pankhurst family in general, since Emmeline’s daughters - Christabel, Sylvia, and Adela Pankhurst - were also suffrage activists.
Imogene could refer to a specific “Imogene” (I haven't yet found one) or perhaps it just sounded like an old-fashioned suffragist name.
Equality is, of course, her cause!
Article from San Francisco Chronicle (March 17, 1915)
This article also adds the detail that the statue held “a suffrage flag in her hand,” which had now been “changed to a broom.”
Oh, snap! Women should go back to their domestic work! Feminists are witches on brooms!
Whether you’re reading this in 1915 or 2022, you get the joke.
Further research about the fair’s “Toyland” exhibits led me to a report on the suffrage statue in Playthings, an early toy and game industry journal. Unfortunately, Playthings is not digitized, but I found that the Strong National Museum of Play in Rochester, New York currently holds the archives of the magazine and a helpful archivist scanned and sent me a pdf of an article about our “Monster Militant.” The magazine also included a photo (finally!) of the statue under construction the summer before the fair even opened, and this detailed description:
The lady is clad in a long red cutaway coat and white skirt, with an up-to-date slit,
and a bonnet seven feet in diameter. She also carried a huge drum, which she holds
about forty feet from the ground, and a flag pole with a banner bearing the slogan
'Votes for women.'
More than five hundred yards of cloth are draped on the gigantic figure and the
material of her hat would be sufficient to stock an ordinary millinery store. A score of
workmen were engaged in getting the lady ready for her appearance.
Photo of statue being constructed in place the summer before the Expo opened.
Image from “Monster Militant at Panama Fair,” Playthings (June 1914), p.72.
Courtesy of The Strong National Museum of Play
Detailing her size and the work involved in preparing the statue, the editors determined that she displayed “considerably greater vanity than is credited to most militants,” setting up another joke about feminists as not only humorless, but as women who rarely care about their appearance. Hilarious!
Most intriguing, though, is that this article published seven months before the Expo even opened, already declared the statue’s name as “Miss Panama Pankaline Imogen Equalrights.” (Here the reference to Emmeline Pankhurst is made through a conflation of her first and last names as “Pankaline,” a slight variation on the name later printed in the SF press.)
The Playthings article described “a flag pole with a banner bearing the slogan ‘Votes for women,’” but neither of the two photos I've found of the statue shows a flagpole (or broom) or a banner, just a drum.
A view of completed statue at “Toyland Grown Up, at the Zone,”
Panama-Pacific International Exposition, 1915.
Anne T. Kent California Room, Marin County Free Library, San Rafael, California. http://contentdm.marinlibrary.org/digital/collection/PPIE/id/0
There do appear to be three short words on the drum, but does it say “Votes for Women?"
It’s hard to tell from the photos, but another clue reveals that the original joke may have been to show a female statue marching for “Votes for Men.” Designer Fred Thompson submitted photographs in early 1914 to the U.S. Copyright Office for several planned exhibits, rides, and sculptures, including a “Tin soldier,” a “Yellowstone wonders for amusement exhibit,” and a piece entitled “Votes for men.”
Given the spacing and length of words from even a blurred photo, it is quite likely that "Votes for Men" is what is inscribed on her drum. If so, the annoyance the suffragists had with the statue is even more understandable!
So that is the story of the 90 (or 98) foot suffragette statue at the 1915 San Francisco Panama-Pacific International Exposition!
One does wonder how a politically-motivated statue - surrounded by other more innocuous representations of childhood play, such as toy soldiers and animals - was read by Toyland’s primary audience of children? Was she clearly a suffragist? Or simply a giant doll figure? Did anyone really know her as Panama Pankhurst Imogene Equality, or was that just the newspapers poking fun?
But wait, there’s more! Lest we think that Toyland was the only fair exhibit poking fun at the humorless suffragists, let’s head over to the North Dakota exhibit and their “Potato Day” celebration… What could be more apolitical and uncontroversial than potatoes??
The organizers from the town of Larimore, North Dakota promised to serve “10,000 Hot Potatoes, with Butter” on their celebration day and to present “Emmy Panthorst, the bearded suffragette of Belch Creek…and show the crowd just what a militant suffragette, as they grow in North Dakota, really looks like.”
Here we have another reference to Emmeline Pankhurst (with “Panthorst” a play on potato-based borscht?), apparently the only suffragette with wide enough name recognition to carry the joke across multiple exhibits. And if a POTATO is not insulting enough for comparison to a suffragist, she (the spud) is “bearded” and “militant”!
Clearly the Larimore, North Dakota organizers just wanted to join in poking fun at suffragists as a way to get some publicity for their exhibit.
What I love about this article the most, though, is that it at least acknowledges the presence of the suffragists at the fair - free advertising, if you will - by telling fairgoers where to find them:
Suffragists, State and national, are well
represented at the exposition. There is a
suffrage exhibit in the Palace of Education,
where women of national prominence in the
movement are almost daily visitors.
It appears the bearded suffrage potato never made an appearance at the fair, though, because, as the article reports, word somehow got over to those humorless, can’t-take-a-joke actual suffragists and they put a stop to it!
Article from San Francisco Examiner (April 28, 1915)
Instead of potato-suffragette Emmy Panthorst, the mascot for the day was this adorable girl-child on a pile of spuds:
Image from San Francisco Examiner (April 28, 1915)
It’s comforting to know that Little Miss Jean Campbell at least grew up to have the right to vote!
Note on research: In addition to primary source research, I relied upon Woody Register’s book, The Kid of Coney Island: Fred Thompson and the Rise of American Amusements (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001) for background info and source leads on SF-PPIE Toyland architect Fred Thompson.
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