"Brooklyn Girls are renowned for beauty, grace, and wit... To those so unfortunate as to live outside the boundaries of the borough, all its young women are equally charming... But the native knows that each section of the city has its own peculiar type."
For several weeks in 1902, the Eagle published weekly drawings that represented certain female social "sets" in Brooklyn. Each week, they asked readers to submit a 250 word essay in response to the recent image. Judges selected the best three essays on each set to be published in the following Sunday edition.
The images were drawn by artist and Eagle staffer Harrison Cady, whose work here echoes the famous Gibson Girl images of the early 20th century, complete with fair skin, big hair, and tiny waists.
At first, the essays seem a bit flippant; just an exercise in well-off Brooklynites writing about how wonderful their women are. But upon closer examination, one can find evidence of the changing role of women in this era:
The Heights Girl has "exquisite taste" and "a long line of aristocratic ancestors." She participates in social clubs and charitable causes, but she "is not permitted that degree of independence which her sisters in the newer portions of the borough enjoy."
The Hill Girl (i.e. Fort Greene) has "discovered that the hours spent by her grandmother in hand sewing may be better employed now in study." She is "the woman of the future." She takes her education seriously and is not part of the old aristocracy.
The Suburban Girl enjoys outdoor activities, but she is "near enough to the city to accept its advantages." She is more genuine than her sisters because "she lives further from the artificial and nearer to nature."
The Park Slope Girl is "a blending of types." She is not quite as smart at the Hill Girl, but she is "near enough to the country" and "her aristocratic birth and tastes force her to respect conventional propriety."
(Note: Mr. Cady intended to complete sketches of the Eastern District and Bedford District girls, but discontinued the series due to illness.)
One could argue that these essays are the 20th century equivalent to today's Gossip Girl - a depiction of New York's elite that combines acute observation and overgeneralization. It's fun to look at, but it only represents society to a small degree.
Yet we can not ignore that during this time, also known as the Progressive Era, defining the woman's role in society was a national question. These essays are indeed addressing important issues: education, independence, modernity, charity, beauty, and urban artificiality, to name a few. All four sets are well-educated, but some use their education towards careers and others towards social status. The aloofness of the Heights Girl is contrasted with the genuine nature of the Park Sloper and Suburbanite. And the middle class sensibility of the Hill Girl seems to challenge all three of her other "sisters." You can almost hear Brooklynites questioning what is best: A wealthy heiress with charitable tendencies? A well-rounded aristocrat? An intellectual middle-class graduate? A suburbanite who avoids the artificial city?
In the years to come, women from all of these sets would play an important role in women's suffrage, workers' rights, and other social reforms. Lucy Burns, a real-life "Brooklyn Girl," graduated from Vassar the year this piece appeared and went on to co-found the National Women's Party. Her fellow sisters would assist Margaret Sanger in opening the first birth control clinic in Brownsville; fight for equal rights for women workers; and organize suffrage rallies across the borough. The subtle way these issues appeared in the Sunday paper shows us that Brooklyn Girls were more than "renowned for beauty, grace, and wit." They were preparing for a greater role in their borough and beyond.