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Art and the Suffrage Movement

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"Women who sought the vote were invariably portrayed as unnatural and unwomanly, and often viciously caricatured as grotesque and hysterical"

The debate over women’s suffrage in turn-of-the-century Britain was not just a war of words, but a war of images. Artists on both sides of the question attempted to sway public opinion by deploying provocative visual propaganda, and both sides relied on artificial stereotypes of femininity in doing so. The politicized images used in the suffrage debate were broadcast widely in a variety of formats, including posters slapped onto the walls of buildings, banners carried in public processions, and postcards issued by the thousands.

One of the most intriguing aspects of pro- and anti-suffrage propaganda is its appropriation of imagery derived from late-nineteenth-century paintings of classical subject matter. Through frequent exhibition and reproduction, paintings by prestigious academic artists such as Frederic Leighton (1830-1896), President of England’s Royal Academy of Art, had become entrenched in popular awareness as authoritative icons of “high art.” These paintings crystallized an image of "classical" womanhood that gradually permeated the commercial mainstream and was used to sell everything from soap to chocolate. The traits most closely associated with this timeless feminine ideal—beauty, grace and repose—also shaped expectations for contemporary women.

anti-suffrageEfforts to oppose women’s suffrage used the stereotype of “classical” womanhood as an ideal standard against which to contrast the physical and psychological pathologies ascribed to the modern suffragette. Women who sought the vote were invariably portrayed as unnatural and unwomanly, and often viciously caricatured as grotesque and hysterical. An overt comparison of the "classical" feminine ideal and the degenerate suffragette appears in a postcard produced in 1912 to announce an anti-suffrage meeting organized by the National League for Opposing Woman Suffrage. Captioned “The Appeal of Womanhood,” the image represents a statuesque female figure symbolic of Womanhood dressed in a flowing Greek chiton and holding up a polite sign reading “NO VOTES. THANK YOU.” Curvaceous, graceful, and symmetrical, the goddess-like figure of Womanhood stands in marked contrast to the scrawny, angular limbs and asymmetrical pose of the militant behind her, who runs toward the darkened Houses of Parliament wielding a hammer in one hand and a “VOTES” sign in the other.

To counter negative imagery of this kind, pro-suffrage artists made use of the same stereotypes of “classical” femininity employed by the anti-pro-suffragesuffrage opposition. The artist Louise R. Jacobs produced a poster in 1912 which directly countered the anti-suffrage message of the “Appeal of Womanhood” postcard. She echoed the postcard’s caption and imagery, but instead of politely declining the vote, her representation of Womanhood raises a sign that explains, “WE WANT THE VOTE TO STOP THE WHITE SLAVE TRAFFIC, SWEATED LABOUR, AND TO SAVE THE CHILDREN.” Behind her, in place of the hysterical, sprinting suffragette, there stands a group of disenfranchised people who would allegedly benefit from a woman’s right to vote: mothers, children, workers, and the indigent. By adopting the authoritative stereotype of classical femininity, Jacobs was able to suggest that women’s ideal nature uniquely qualified them to serve as political forces for good.

Louise Jacobs was among numerous women artists who banded together in the early twentieth century for the purpose of financing, producing, and circulating pro-suffrage visual propaganda. The institutionalized prejudices faced by professional women artists made many of them early feminists. A list of supporters published by the Committee of the National Society for Women’s Suffrage in 1897 included the names of seventy-six painters. Ten years later, the Artists’ Suffrage League became the first society of professional women to organize in support of voting rights for women. The group produced posters and postcards as well as banners and decorative schemes for meetings and demonstrations of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies. Another group, the Suffrage Atelier, was founded in 1909 and worked closely with the Women’s Social and Political Union, a militant organization led by Emmeline Pankhurst (1858-1928) and her daughter Christabel (1880-1958). A film clip documenting one of the WSPU’s processions through London shows 66,000 women marching and carrying banners portraying famous women in history. Many examples of the banners, postcards, and posters produced by the Artists’ Suffrage League and the Suffrage Atelier are preserved in the Women’s Library at the London School of Economics and are available online through the Visual Arts Data Service (VADS) searchable database.

The coming of war in 1914 accelerated the process that the suffrage movement had begun, further breaking down the barriers between men and women and undermining the notion of separate spheres. Shortly before the war’s conclusion, the Representation of the People Act of 1918enfranchised British women over the age of thirty who met certain property qualifications. It was not until 1928, however, that women received universal suffrage at the age of twenty-one, gaining at last the same voting rights as men.

Robyn Asleson- National Gallery of Art

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