This essay by Kären Mason, Curator of the Iowa Women’s Archives, was originally written for Akashic Books.
Chautauqua was an eagerly anticipated event in towns across the United States in the early 20th century. Huge tents were erected and a variety of speakers, performances, and children’s activities took place over the week the Chautauqua was in town. Red Oak, Iowa even constructed a permanent Chautauqua Pavilion in 1907, which is still standing and reputed to be the largest covered pavilion west of the Mississippi.
Many women lectured or performed on the Chautauqua circuit. Some, like Marian Elliot Adams, the main character of Unmentionables, lectured on women’s reform issues. Women’s suffrage was a popular topic in the years leading up to 1920, when the 19th Amendment at long last gave women the vote. Chautauqua provided an important venue for reformers to reach audiences all across the country.