Activist Susan B Anthony, whose iconic profile is on the dollar coin was born in Adams in a little house – the daughter of a tight-knit Quaker family with long activist traditions. Her birth home is simple and working class; the small museum offers a free, self-guided exhibit which lays out her life and her influence on the national stage.
Writer Edith Wharton, by contrast, was a socialite from an aristocratic New York family. The Mount in Lenox was designed and built by her in 1901 as a summer home for her and her husband. It’s a huge mansion, with extensive gardens and stable – all of it in the “Cottage Era” tradition of turn of the century architecture. The tour offers great insights into the writer’s life and high society living as a whole.
Both figures were influential and successful in their times, but the differences between them are stark: Anthony was a contented spinster, with the moral support of family and faith, immune to public opinion, and unafraid of flaunting decorum. Her famed arrest for voting illegally in the 1872 presidential election caused a sensation which catapulted the women’s rights movement to a wider audience.
Edith Wharton, by contrast, was private and conflicted over the demands of her social class. In an arrangement encouraged by her mother, Wharton was married by 23 years of age – in a marriage that proved an unhappy one. Befitting a young woman of her class, she was interested in decorum, taste, and her first book, “The Decoration of Houses” outlined the principles of good design. Her later work examines the interior lives of the privileged American class. Her 1921 novel, Age of Innocence details the charms and customs of the upper class as it unfolds its tale of social tragedy. It earned Wharton a Pulitzer Prize—the first Pulitzer awarded to a woman.
Born almost 50 years apart, these two Berkshire ladies’ lives and work influenced our conception of “femininity” — of a woman’s agency – politically and otherwise. Taken together, the tours shed intriguing light on the various strands of feminist dialog.