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“No men need apply”: How a Group of “Perfect Little Ladies” Challenged Gender Norms in Turn-of-the-Century New York – Anya Jabour


President Edith Joiner addresses the Perfects. Jan. 29, 1897. May Bragdon Diaries. Rare Books, Special Collections & Preservation, University of Rochester River Campus Libraries.

In the 1890s, a group of young, single, professional women in Rochester, New York, formed a social club they dubbed “The Twelve Perfect Little Ladies.” The club’s members hosted costume dances and dinners, played cards, staged theatrical entertainments, wrote poems and songs, and celebrated holidays and anniversaries. “The Perfects,” as they called themselves, defied conventional definitions of proper femininity by avoiding marriage and motherhood and instead pursuing higher education and professional careers. Instead of prioritizing feminine propriety and family duties, they emphasized female companionship and fun activities. Finally, they challenged conventional gender roles by cross-dressing, role-playing, and pursuing same-sex romance. While the Perfects described themselves, tongue in cheek, as “perfect little ladies” — not as lesbians — they nonetheless defied prevailing gender conventions and thus can be understood as an example of “queer” culture.

The Perfects were not an official women’s organization. They would be invisible in the historical record except for the diaries of May Bragdon, an avid diarist and an amateur photographer. Her diaries record the activities of the Perfects in loving—and lavish—detail. The items she clipped to the pages of her diaries—photos, poems, placecards, and other mementos—also vividly reveal the dynamics of this group of female friends. In particular, Bragdon’s photos capture the group’s close connection and abiding affection. With her trusty Kodak, Bragdon recorded the group’s regular events, such as bonfires at the shore, picnics in the countryside, and card games, as well as special celebrations such as Valentine’s Day, annual balls, and Christmas parties. These images show the women’s easy intimacy, either holding hands or slinging their arms across the nearest person’s shoulders or legs.[1]

Eleven of the Twelve “Perfect Little Ladies.” (May Bragdon, the photographer, is not pictured.) November 20, 1896. May Bragdon Diaries. Rare Books, Special Collections & Preservation, University of Rochester River Campus Libraries.

The Perfects evolved out of a group of friends who met regularly to play cards. Perfects membership changed over time, although a core group persisted for nearly two decades. As a group, the Perfects were educated professionals. Most had completed high school, and several had completed college. Self-supporting women who worked as teachers, salesclerks, office workers, and artists, the majority of the Perfects remained single for life, preferring the company of other women to marriage and motherhood. As Mabel Rogers declared: “No men need apply.”

As a rule, the Perfects avoided men and marriage. They composed original verses poking fun at men, mourning the loss of members to marriage, and celebrating single life. In 1898, for instance, when Mabel Rogers composed a poem for the Perfects reunion, she lamented the loss of two members to marriage and celebrated the single status of the ten remaining members:

On the twelfth of October,

Wednesday night,

Ten little Perfects met for a bite.

Gossip, a little now and then,

May be heard from each and every hen.

For hens we are, for there are no men, . . .

As men we always pass right by,

Our motto reads, ‘No men need apply.’

We’re always in for fun, we ten.

T’wouldn’t be understood by men.

Some of the ten are fond of boys,

To us dignified ones, they’re simple toys. . . .

Two others there are, who are snugly wed,

To the rest of us, they’re as good as dead . . . .

As this poem emphasizes, the Perfects were dedicated to the pursuit of pleasure, which they regarded as incompatible with male companionship. While two of the original members had married, the remaining members disdained marriage, which they regarded as a death knell to female friendship and fun activities — if not a literal death. (The following year, one of the newlyweds died in childbirth; the other attended meetings very inconsistently following her marriage.)

Rather than pursuing relationships with men, the Perfects played men at group gatherings. Favoring literary or theatrical characters, many Perfects showed up to costume balls and card games as couples. For instance, in November 1896, Lura Baker and her widowed mother, Marie, dressed as “Little Lord Fauntleroy & Dearest,” from Frances Hodgson Burnett’s 1886 novel; sisters Mary and Nellie MacDonald portrayed “Chimmie Fadden & de Duchess,” from Edward Waterman Townsend’s 1895 collection of short stories; and Helen “Ned” Dutcher and Edith Joiner came as “Trilby & little Bitter,” from George du Maurier’s 1895 novel. At another event, Ned Dutcher and Edith Joiner came as “an Irish bride & groom,” while sisters Mary and Nellie MacArthur donned kilts and dubbed themselves “Donald MacSchenshy” and “Willie Piffkow.”

Some Perfects especially enjoyed taking on male personas. Lura Baker gained renown in the group for donning “trousers” on multiple occasions, as when she portrayed Fra Diavolo, the title role from the comic opera about the Italian guerrilla leader. At a “character party,” May Bragdon donned a wig and monocle for her role as a football player. She played her role to the hilt, smoked cigarettes, “kissed all the pretty girls and flirted desperately” with the female characters.

For at least some of the Perfects, same-sex romance was more than role play. Edith Joiner, a bookkeeper, attended several events in costume together with Helen “Ned” Dutcher prior to the latter’s marriage in late 1897. Subsequently, Joiner pursued romantic relationships with other women. In 1903, May Bragdon recorded in her diary: “Edith Joiner & Edith Scott are getting very chummy, lunching with each other every day. I’m glad Edith has ‘someone to love’ at last.” However, Joiner’s relationship with the other Edith, a schoolteacher, evidently did not last. Two years later, Bragdon accompanied Joiner on an outing with her friend “Miss Mays,” also a schoolteacher. “Miss Mays is Edith’s latest love,” May explained. “She is big-boned and enthusiastic . . . and just now also enamored of Edith.” This relationship evidently also was short-lived, as Miss Mays did not make repeat appearances in Bragdon’s diary.

Helen “Ned” Dutcher and Edith Joiner. April 25, 1897. May Bragdon Diaries. Rare Books, Special Collections & Preservation, University of Rochester River Campus Libraries.

May Bragdon was luckier in love. She recorded being “fondled” by at least two fellow Perfects, Mary MacArthur and Edith Joiner, although May was more interested in “Ned” Dutcher, whose affections proved elusive. But May found love beyond the Perfects as well. In 1897, near the end of a summer vacation at Stony Lake, near Ontario, Canada, she recorded a “love affair” with fellow vacationer Maude Marion MacKenzie:

Maude came out and made a declaration of love to me! A very sincere one, it was too —  and as complimentary & expressive as a man could have made it! She said “Don’t think you haven’t had a love affair this summer” — I have had a thrilling one!”

Maude Marion MacKenzie, who resided in Brantford, Ontario and met May Bragdon while both were vacationing at Stony Lake took this photo to commemorate their summer romance. May captioned the photo: “Maude’s attempt at me.” July 24, 1897. May Bragdon Diaries. Rare Books, Special Collections & Preservation, University of Rochester River Campus Libraries.

This summer romance was not an isolated incident. In 1914, Bragdon became increasingly close to Carolyn Upton, recording staying up late listening to the “story of her sad life and love.” She added: “I loved her & felt sorry for her more than ever before.” That same year, she recounted a delightful “Venus time” with her newest love interest:

A wonderful time for me with Carolyn Upton in New York “our Venus time” . . . . She paid for everything & heaped me with presents . . . was the soul of generosity — and when we came almost to parting she put her arms around me & gave me a great hug and a kiss & thanked me for the good time I had given her! I find my heart growing more & more tender toward the dear lady!

This romance did not last, but by 1920, May Bragdon was sharing a household with Edyth Allen, a chiropodist, with whom she continued to reside in both 1930 and 1940.

None of the Perfects identified as lesbians. Nonetheless, their pursuit of professional careers, their lifelong single status, their intentional avoidance of heterosexual romance, their participation in gender-bending activities, and their preference for female companionship and—in some cases—same-sex romance, all defied prevailing norms of conventional heterosexual femininity. The “Perfect Little Ladies” may indeed have been “Perfect Little Lesbians.”

[1] Special thanks to Andrea Reithmayr, Special Collections Librarian at River Campus Libraries, University of Rochester, for digitizing May Bragdon’s diaries, offering valuable research assistance, and providing images for this piece.

Anya Jabour is Regents Professor of History at the University of Montana, where she teaches courses on the history of women, gender, and sexuality in the US and directs the public history program. The author of Sophonisba Breckinridge: Championing Women’s Activism in Modern America (2019), she is now working on a biography of US prison reformer and sex researcher Katharine Bement Davis (1860-1935).