Odd Vintage Postcards Document the Propaganda Against Women’s Rights 100 Years Ago


The vicious, vit­ri­olic imagery and rhetoric of this elec­tion sea­son can seem over­whelm­ing, but as even casu­al stu­dents of his­to­ry will know, it isn’t any­thing new. Each time his­toric social change occurs, reac­tionary counter-move­ments resort to threats, appeals to fear, and demean­ing caricatures—whether it’s anti-Recon­struc­tion pro­pa­gan­da of the 19th cen­tu­ry, anti-Civ­il Rights cam­paigns 100 years lat­er, or anti-LGBT rights efforts today.


At the turn of the cen­tu­ry, the women’s suf­frage move­ment faced sig­nif­i­cant lev­els of abuse and resis­tance. One pho­to­graph has cir­cu­lat­ed, for exam­ple, of a suf­frage activist lying in the street as police beat her. (The woman in the pho­to is not Susan B. Antho­ny, as many claim, but a British suf­frag­ist named Ada Wright, beat­en on “Black Fri­day” in 1910.) It’s an arrest­ing image that cap­tures just how vio­lent­ly men of the day fought against the move­ment for wom­en’s suf­frage. [It’s also worth not­ing, as many have: the ear­ly suf­frage move­ment cam­paigned only for white women’s right to vote, and some­times active­ly resist­ed civ­il rights for African-Amer­i­cans.]


As you can see from the sam­ple anti-suf­frage post­cards here—dating from the late 19th to ear­ly 20th cen­turies— pro­pa­gan­da against the women’s vote tend­ed to fall into three broad cat­e­gories: Dis­turbing­ly vio­lent wish-ful­fill­ment involv­ing tor­ture and phys­i­cal silenc­ing; char­ac­ter­i­za­tions of suf­frag­ists as angry, bit­ter old maids, hatch­et-wield­ing har­ri­dans, or dom­i­neer­ing, shrewish wives and neglect­ful moth­ers; and, cor­re­spond­ing­ly, depic­tions of neglect­ed chil­dren, and hus­bands por­trayed as saint­ly vic­tims, emas­cu­lat­ed by threats to tra­di­tion­al gen­der roles, and men­aced by the sug­ges­tion that they may have to care for their chil­dren for even one day out of the year!


These post­cards come from the col­lec­tion of Cather­ine Pal­czews­ki, pro­fes­sor of women’s and gen­der stud­ies at the Uni­ver­si­ty of North­ern Iowa. She has been col­lect­ing these images, from both the U.S. and Britain, for 15 years. On her web­site, Pal­czews­ki quotes George Miller’s com­ment that post­cards like these “offer a vivid chron­i­cle of Amer­i­can polit­i­cal val­ues and tastes.” Pal­czews­ki describes these par­tic­u­lar images as “a fas­ci­nat­ing inter­sec­tion [that] occurred between advo­ca­cy for and against woman suf­frage, images of women (and men), and post­cards. Best esti­mates are that approx­i­mate­ly 4,500 post­cards were pro­duced with a suf­frage theme.”


As she notes in the quote above, the post­cards print­ed dur­ing this peri­od did not all oppose women’s suf­frage. “Suf­frage advo­cates,” writes Pal­czews­ki, “rec­og­nized the util­i­ty of the post­card as a pro­pa­gan­da device” as well. Pro-suf­frage post­cards tend­ed to serve a doc­u­men­tary pur­pose, with “real-pho­to images of the suf­frage parades, ver­bal mes­sages iden­ti­fy­ing the states that had approved suf­frage, or quo­ta­tions in sup­port of extend­ing the vote to women.” For all their attempts at pre­sent­ing a seri­ous, infor­ma­tive coun­ter­weight to incen­di­ary anti-suf­frage images like those you see here, suf­frage activists often found that they could not con­trol the nar­ra­tive.


As Lisa Tick­n­er writes in The Spec­ta­cle of Women: Imagery of the Suf­frage Cam­paign 1907–1914, post­card pro­duc­ers with­out a clear agen­da often used pho­tos and illus­tra­tions of suf­frag­ists to rep­re­sent “top­i­cal or humor­ous types” and “almost inci­den­tal­ly” under­cut advo­cates’ attempts to present their cause in a news­wor­thy light. The image of the suf­fragette as a triv­ial fig­ure of fun per­sist­ed into the mid-twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry (as we see in Gly­nis Johns’ com­i­cal­ly neglect­ful Winifred Banks in Walt Disney’s 1964 Mary Pop­pins adap­ta­tion).


Palczewski’s site offers a brief his­to­ry of the “Gold­en Age” (1893–1918) of polit­i­cal post­cards and orga­nizes the col­lec­tion into cat­e­gories. One vari­ety we might find par­tic­u­lar­ly charm­ing for its use of cats and kit­tens actu­al­ly has a pret­ty sin­is­ter ori­gin in the so-called “Cat-and-Mouse Act” in the UK. Jailed suf­frag­ists had begun to stage hunger strikes, and jour­nal­ists pro­voked pub­lic out­cry by por­tray­ing force-feed­ing by the gov­ern­ment as a form of tor­ture. Instead, strik­ing activists were released when they became weak. “If a woman died after being released,” Pal­czews­ki explains, “then the gov­ern­ment could claim it was not to blame.” When a freed activist regained her strength, she would be rear­rest­ed. “On Novem­ber 29, 1917,” Pal­czews­ki writes, “the US gov­ern­ment announced it plans to use Britain’s cat and mouse approach.”


You can see many more his­tor­i­cal pro- and anti-suf­frage post­cards at Palczewski’s web­site, and you are free to use them for non-com­mer­cial pur­pos­es pro­vid­ed you attribute the source. You are also free, of course, to draw your own com­par­isons to today’s hyper­bol­ic and often vio­lent­ly misog­y­nist pro­pa­gan­da cam­paigns.


via Dan­ger­ous Minds

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Down­load All 239 Issues of Land­mark UK Fem­i­nist Mag­a­zine Spare Rib Free Online

11 Essen­tial Fem­i­nist Books: A New Read­ing List by The New York Pub­lic Library

Down­load Images From Rad Amer­i­can Women A‑Z: A New Pic­ture Book on the His­to­ry of Fem­i­nism

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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