Art Responds to Women's Suffrage: Pro and Con

the allegorical bugler, calling her "troops" to battle: a popular image on both sides of the Atlantic

Names of Suffrage cartoonists and Organizations

Nina Allender: (1872-1957): studied art at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts; became the official National Woman’s Party cartoonist
Winsor McCay: (1869-1934): a self-taught artist who made comic strips and animated cartoons; also worked as an editorial cartoonist
Ida Proper Sedgwick (1873 - 1957): studied art at the Art Students’ League and in France; became the art editor of Woman Voter
Boardman Robinson (1876 - 1952): cartoonist for the New York Tribune and the Masses; taught art at the Art Students League
Lou Rogers (1879-1952): studied art in Massachusetts and at the Art Students League; became a cartoonist and published widely in newspapers
Heterodoxy: a club for professional women in NYC; members were writers, artists, theorists, educators and social activists; all the members supported suffrage and cartoonists such as Sedgwick and Rogers were members

Artists Suffrage League (ASL) and the Suffrage Atelier (workshop) (SA): these were groups of artists who organized specifically for the purpose of providing visual materials for the suffrage campaign.
National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies (NUWSS)
National League for Opposition to Women's Suffrage (NLOWS)


Just as the battle for suffrage attracted women who were unconventional and boldly challenging the status quo, the women who became cartoonists were likewise engaged in unconventional activities.  Cartooning was considered a masculine domain–it was not decorative, it was not always pretty, it was political, and it was aggressive.  But women did become cartoonists, and the suffrage movement was the impetus for their entry into this field.  Many of the women who became cartoonists had already decided to study art and they transferred their styles to the political images they cartooned.  Others were self-taught and their only involvement with art was through cartooning.

The similarities between British and American suffrage cartoons are strong enough to allow us to consider them as an example of the same phenomenon: political art, for and against women's suffrage.  Whether British or American, cartoons related to the suffrage movement generally followed one of two paths: either they portrayed the female as (1) weaker, victimized, suffering from oppression and therefore in need of the vote in order to get the protection she needed, or as (2) morally superior, someone who would sweep corruption out of government, and therefore deserved the vote in order to protect the country.

Regardless of nationality and which group the artists belonged to, they all recognized the importance of using visual imagery to reach larger audiences.  So did the anti-suffrage campaigners who very quickly created their own visual propaganda and stereotypes.  Stereotypes are implicitly negative (although positive stereotypes can also exist, they are usually used for negative reasons): they take an idea or object or person which in real life exists in various forms and they impose a single form which essentially denies those variations.  The challenge for the suffragists was the challenge of subverting anti-suffrage stereotypes which already existed and creating equally compelling new stereotypes which would be recognizable but communicate an opposing message.

anti-suffrage stereotypes

Rodney Thompson: cartoon for Life magazine, March 27, 1913 anti-suffrage poster made for the NLOWS, 1912

When we examine these stereotypes, it is immediately obvious that the idea of women voting presented the same threat to men on both sides of the Atlantic.  An illustration in Life magazine depicted three rows of faces of feminists: "as they are" (the top row)--they are hags, dowagers, with masculine features; "as they think they are"--saints, heroines, angels; "as they appear to the police and shopkeepers" (the bottom row)--bestial, with horns and pointed ears, baring their teeth.  The usual approach to mocking these women involved showing them in the vicinity of a woman who was visibly feminine, attired in billowing and lacy clothing, with a fancy hairstyle and probably blond hair, and a fan in her hand.  These images became less useful in both England and the U.S. as more women began to work outside the home, and they weren’t all ugly or spinsters, and clothing styles began to change.

The womanly woman versus the suffragist--poster made for the NLOWS in 1912 Modern types: illustration which appeared in the Bystander, in 1913 Boardman Robinson: The type has changed (NY Tribune, Feb. 24, 1911)

Robinson's cartoon is not an anti-suffrage cartoon--it is part of the suffrage attempt to associate a more modern woman with the suffrage campaign, just as Nina Allender did.  Yet there might still be something disconcerting about the image of the woman who appears dressed for both housework and a day on the town, carrying her suffrage banner over her shoulder.

Instead of associating physical types with pro or anti-suffrage positions, another strategy was to suggest that women's brains (and personalities) were not equipped to deal with making decisions for the country.

The stereotypes did not completely disappear, although they were softened or modified to be more in tune with present-day realities.
Meanwhile, a new image appeared: the husband of the suffragist.  Nothing, apparently, was more amusing than the man who tried to do the housework–that was funny back in the mid-19th century when Spencer painted the young father doing the marketing.  But where she showed some tenderness in her portrayal of the poor inept father, the anti-suffrage cartoons did not.  The closely related cartoon was the house which the husband of the suffragist came home to: disheveled, grimy, obviously the home of someone who didn’t care about her wifely duties.

Spencer: Young Husband--First Marketing, 1854 A Suffragette's Home, John Hassall, for NLOWS, 1912
Currier and Ives, "The Age of Iron," lithograph, 1869

The suffragists' task was to take already existing images of women and recast them in terms that showed the importance or benefits of suffrage.  They also had to take the image of the problem woman and banish her by producing an image which could become associated with their cause and serve as a unifying flag, as it were.  Two strategies might serve this goal: rather than creating stereotypes, such as the anti-suffragists did, the suffragists could try to depict images of individual but recognizable social types depicting women working in the public domain.  The second strategy was to avoid both stereotypes and images that approximated the real world and to promote allegorical personifications in their place.

Re-framing stereotypes and allegories

poster by Duncan Grant, winner of the ASL 1909 competition W.F. Winter, co-winner of the competition

One of the social groups that the suffragists used in images was the working woman.  These posters attempted to demonstrate that an alliance existed between suffragists and workers, that work was not a glamorous activity pursued for vain or idle reasons but a necessary aspect of the woman’s life, that oppression of the worker resulted at least in part from the fact that women did not have the vote.  This set of beliefs tended to support the ideological position that politics alone would not change the status of lower-class workers but that a new voice needed to be added to the political realm and that the voice of women would bring about these changes.  If they were able to make this argument successfully, then people who looked at the posters would interpret women’s suffrage as helping more than women–it would benefit all workers and in doing that, it would benefit the economy.

1912, by Mary Lowndes, for ASL 1910, by Alfred Pearse (signed A. Patriot) another example of the allegory of the militant woman (pro-suffrage)

In the next example, a pro-suffragist created a direct response to the anti-suffrage image of the Greek goddess who doesn't want to vote.  Brinkley, meanwhile, takes a different allegorical image (the three graces) and re-dresses them as suffragists and icons of suffrage, preparedness and Americanism.

NLOWS poster Louise Jacobs, for SA, 1912 Nell Brinkley: The Three Graces (International News Service, 1916)

The New Woman was another image which the suffragists tried to adopt.  She was not only an American development: there was a new woman in Britain, France and in Russia, although she wasn’t the same thing in all these places.  Suffrage arguments which drew on the image of the New Woman tended to argue from an evolutionary position–that she represented a higher form of evolution and would therefore be a better mother and contribute more to society; that the earlier images of the womanly woman were based on outdated images of life and did not correspond to reality; and that the New Woman, because she did represent evolution, incorporated the best of all the traditions of womanhood which had come before.

Nina Allender: Our hat in the ring (publ. in the Suffragist, Apr. 8, 1916) Allender: Supporting the President--Women come to Washington to demand democracy at home.  (publ. in the Suffragist, Aug. 3, 1918)

Nina Allender was probably one of the key artists to develop this new image of the suffragist as someone who was younger and active, who represented a new generation of women, who was not afraid to let the shape of her body show through her clothing–in a sense, her image of the suffragist was as popular an image as Gibson’s image of the new woman had once been.  Meanwhile, other women created suffragists who were older, who were workers, who represented a range of types or no types of all, and these various women generally appeared at the same time in individual cartoons of crowds working for suffrage.

Ida Sedgwick Proper: The Anti-Suffrage Parade (Woman's Journal, Sept. 21, 1912)

Suffragists also developed cartoons which were reciprocals of the anti-suffrage caricatures of suffragists: caricatures of the anti-suffragists.  in response to the attacks against women who wanted suffrage–attacks which depicted her as unwomanly, as undesirable, as a nag, as bitter, as someone who couldn’t get a husband–the suffragists began to caricature the anti-suffragists, whether male or female.  Ida Proper’s Anti-Suffrage Parde depicts the anti-suffragists marching in lock-step and chained together by their dogmatic and false beliefs.  The female anti was generally seen as being locked in some old-fashioned, distant past or as a frivolous woman who gave nothing back to society and dressed in silly and inappropriate clothing; the male anti was usually upper class and therefore fashionably dressed, but his posture and face became symbols of vacuous stupidity.  Proper’s cartoon captures all the caricatures in her fifteen characters who are chained together by such qualities as selfishness and indifference.  The men are fat, smoking cigars, and wearing hats–they don’t want anything to disturb the order of things since it has obviously been good for them.  Some of the figures can be identified as real people while some of them are clearly invented.

There will always be some equivocations about calling cartoons art, especially when the person who makes them does not have a history of making any other form of art.  But there are some writers and historians who consider the cartoon a pointed form of political art and who likewise point to suffrage cartoons as the earliest examples of feminist art.

for the American suffrage movement:
Alice Sheppard.  Cartooning for Suffrage.  (Albuquerque: Univ of New Mexico Press, 1994).
for the British suffrage movement:
Lisa Tickner.  The Spectacle of Women: Imagery of the Suffrage Campaign, 1907-14.  (Chicago: Univ of Chicago Press, 1988).