Meet Some of Alexandria’s Earliest Progressive Women

“We’ve focused on an era in which some very forward-thinking women were living here at the Lee-Fendall House,” says Amanda Roper

“Stereo” entertainment had a very different meaning a century ago. Amanda Roper — who curated this exhibit — poses here with a stero-optican viewer. (Photo: Rita Mattia)

By Rita Mattia

ALEXANDRIA, VA – Women’s History Month may have just ended, but you can still celebrate in style by combining a lunch outing in Old Town with a very engaging new exhibit at the Lee-Fendall House.

An 1897 photo taken at Colonial Beach, Virginia, where early Lee-Fendall resident Maude Downham dressed up for a day at the beach. This damaged tintype was restored for the exhibit by Alexandria’s RitaRestores. (Photo: Rita Mattia)
Ladies were expected to wear this sort of “costume” while touring the countryside on their bicycles. This example is on loan from The Maymont Foundation in Richmond. (Photo: Rita Mattia)

A New Woman: Life in Progressive Era Alexandria, 1890-1920 not only tells how local ladies were comporting themselves on their new bicycles — in hilarious detail — the exhibit features a “cycling costume” that includes yards and yards of linen fabric and not much in the way of Spandex.

The “boater” hat was all the rage at the turn of the last century. This early photo shows early Lee-Fendall resident Maude Downham sporting hers. (Photo: Rita Mattia)
Early Lee-Fendall resident Maude Downham kept scrapbooks chronicling her adventures, travels and interests. This clipping lists over 100 tips for the lady cyclist and is on display in its entirety in the exhibit. (Photo: Rita Mattia)

“We’ve focused on an era in which some very forward-thinking women were living here at the Lee-Fendall House,” says Amanda Roper, Manager of Education and Public Programs. “At this exhibit, you’ll see what a young woman might have pasted in her scrapbooks and what she and her friends were doing to stay fit. These were not women who spent a lot of time sitting around. In fact, one traveled the country as a stage performer!”

Young ladies were encouraged to stay healthy and fit; these wooden dumbbells are part of the Lee-Fendall House collection.(Photo: Rita Mattia)

The Lee-Fendall House is at 614 Oronoco Street at the corner of North Washington Street. It was built in 1785 to house the family of Revolutionary War hero “Light Horse Harry” Lee, and was home to many other equally interesting families in the centuries to follow. Hours of operation are Wednesday – Saturday 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. and from 1:00 p.m. – 4:00 p.m. on Sundays. This exhibit runs through November. For more information call 703-548-1789 or visit online at