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XLVIIe Congrès de la SAES, universtié d'Avignon (11-12 mai 2007) : « L'envers du décor »

The ‘envers du décor’ of Suffragette Imagery: Anti-Suffrage Caricature

Abby Franchitti

Résumé

The visible historical discourse that surrounds ‘the woman question’, and more specifically speaking, the acquisition of the women’s right to vote, most frequently evokes the question from the Suffragette or the Suffragist point of view. Articles, books, photographs and exhibits centre on the unrelenting combat waged for sexual equality, the vote on the ‘same terms as men’. A recent exhibit has revealed the photos taken by the police of the Suffragettes in prison.
Faced with Suffragette ‘publicity’, those opposed to ‘the Cause’ for women were forced to take a stand and create a movement against women’s suffrage. They launched a counter attack using numerous propaganda techniques. Among those were representations of the Suffragette and her goals, which they satirised by caricatures in their newspaper,
The Anti-Suffrage Review, posters designed for their campaign and postcards.
The specific aspect of the anti-suffrage campaign that I will examine in this paper is the use of caricature. Anxious to increase the support and the interest of its readership
the Anti-Suffrage Review adopted this approach to criticize the Suffragettes and their tactics. In addition, they had posters and postcards designed to reinforce their campaign. However, the opposition to women’s suffrage was not confined to the organizations. Editors of popular postcards, quite in vogue at the time, also added their contribution to anti-suffrage propaganda. Indeed what could be funnier than to mock a man doing ‘woman’s work,’ while the wife and mother of the house was attending a political meeting? These are indeed the ‘envers du décor’ of the Suffragette imagery that could be found in newspapers and postcards printed in favour of ‘The Cause’.
Before dealing with the campaigns’ caricatures, this paper will define the historical context: of the women’s movement and the formation of Suffragist and Suffragette (militant) organizations, and evoke the foundation of the Anti-Suffrage Leagues. This will be followed by the examination of the Anti-Suffragists’ utilization of caricature in contrast with Suffragette imagery.
A study of this imagery enables the historian to analyze the values and convictions that were behind the anti-suffrage movement. They were those held dear not only by the eminent Victorians and Edwardians but by a majority of the average citizens as well.

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Texte intégral

1During the Victorian and Edwardian periods the Antis, as they were called, organized and campaigned against those who fought for women’s rights. The specific aspect of the anti-suffrage campaign that I will examine in this paper is the use of caricature. Anxious to increase the support and the interest of its readership the Anti-Suffrage Review adopted this approach to criticize the Suffragettes and their tactics. In addition, they had posters and postcards designed to reinforce their campaign. But the opposition to women’s suffrage was not confined to the organizations. Editors of popular postcards, quite in vogue at the time, also added their contribution to anti-suffrage propaganda. Indeed what could be funnier than to mock a man doing ‘woman’s work,’ while the wife and mother of the house was attending a political meeting? These are indeed the ‘envers du décor’ of the Suffragette imagery that could be found in newspapers and postcards printed in favour of ‘The Cause.’

2Before dealing with the campaigns’ caricatures, this paper will define the historical context: of the women’s movement and the formation of Suffragist and Suffragette (militant) organizations, and evoke the foundation of the Anti-Suffrage Leagues. This will be followed by the examination of the Anti-Suffragists’ utilization of caricature in contrast with Suffragette imagery.

3Anti-Suffrage caricature was used to convey the Antis’ conception of the ideal woman and a woman’s role; to stigmatize the Suffragettes’ physical appearance, sexual orientation and ideological options. The National League for Opposing Woman Suffrage and its sympathizers sought to condemn the militancy adopted by the Women’s Social and Political Union and to propose drastic solutions as well as to minimize Suffragette claims of police brutality and physical torture in prisons.

  • 1 Cf. Millicent G. Fawcett, What I Remember (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1925).
  • 2 B. L. Hutchins, Conflicting Ideals: Two Sides to the Woman’s Question (London: Thomas Murby, 1913).

4Before it became a movement, it was the ‘woman question.’ Indeed as seen by Millicent Fawcett in her autobiography; the French Revolution had sown the seeds of subversion that would germinate and indubitably contribute to the spirit of rebelliousness against authority in Great Britain. This non conformist spirit favoured the dawn of new aspirations concerning feminine identity quite different from that defined by society.1 In fact the women’s movement defied the patriarchal model of Victorian society and the roles of domesticity, dependence and submission that were considered to be the assets of the perfect woman.2

5During the Victorian period women reformers, or as they were called by their opponents, ‘petticoat reformers,’ demanded better working conditions, wages, better education, job opportunities, and sometimes even equal rights for women. These women became convinced that in order to satisfy their demands they needed Parliamentary representation. In other words the vote was the key. The strengthening of their ties and their apparent effective action, especially concerning the repeal of the Contagious Diseases Acts, would motivate them to band their different organisations together to form the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies. Such alliances were considered to be a great threat to those who wanted to preserve the status quo.

  • 3 1903.

6Disappointed and frustrated by the lack of tangible results obtained by constitutional methods of action, a group of women in Manchester, first and foremost the Pankhursts, Emmeline and two of her daughters, Christabel and Sylvia, along with some friends, formed the Women’s Social and Political Union.3 In 1906 the organization moved to London, where, for the first time, they would be called ‘the suffragettes.’

  • 4 E. Sylvia Pankhurst, The Suffrage Movement, London: 1931.

7Millicent Fawcett, president of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies, was right when she feared the adoption of spectacular and radical methods of action. The suffragettes chained themselves to balustrades requiring the interruption of Parliamentary business in order to allow for the intervention of locksmiths to free the protestors. The Women’s Social and Political Union or W.S.P.U. used violence: smashed windows, set fire to pillar boxes and destroyed both public and private property. ‘Street lamps were broken; keyholes were stopped up with lead pellets. House numbers were painted out, cushions of railway carriages slashed, flower-beds damaged, golf greens all over the country scraped and burnt with acid. […] Telegraph and telephone wires were severed […], fuse boxes were blown up, communications between London and Glasgow were cut off for some hours […]. Works of art and objects of exceptional value were destroyed; buildings were set on fire. Bombs were placed.’4 The following is a photo of a fire in Yarmouth. Rokeby’s Venus would be slashed by Mary Richardson, who would be sentenced to prison.

Figure 1—Museum of London Picture Gallery.

8Neither the modus operandi of the organisation nor this extent of militancy was to the taste of all the Suffragettes. In 1907 seventy members left the Pankhursts’ organisation to form their own, The Women’s Freedom League. Their tactics, although not constitutional, were less violent: i. e.: refusing to pay taxes for example.

9Confronted with these demonstrations and demands, the British who sought peace and quiet in their homes and communities, reacted rather calmly calling for moderation and reminding the reformers and feminists of their heritage and responsibilities as women, wives and mothers of the nation. Woman’s anti-suffrage sentiment was expressed in newspaper articles, letters to the editor, in Parliament and by popular postcards. In 1908, a group of influential women who were adamantly opposed to women’s suffrage on the grounds that they had sufficient influence in the private sphere, that their place was in the home and community and not at the polling booths, or what would be worse, in Parliament, that women were not capable of enforcing authority, moreover that woman’s suffrage would be dangerous for Britain and the Empire, formed The Women’s National Anti-Suffrage League. One year later, in order to assist the women in their efforts, the Men’s League for Opposing Women’s Suffrage was founded. A joint organization, The National League for Opposing Woman’s Suffrage created by the fusion of the two leagues became effective as of January 1911. As far as the Anti-suffragists were concerned, their mission was clear: annihilate the moral decadence, which went far beyond the Suffragette’s demand of the vote. Their newspaper, created by the Women’s National Anti-Suffrage League, The Anti-Suffrage Review, was to be a valuable means of promoting their campaign and mobilising support against women’s suffrage:

Figure 2—Poster designed by John Hassall, published by the N.L.O.W.S., Museum of London collection.

10‘Deeds not words,’ promised the W.S.P.U. In contrast the N.L.O.W.S. and their unaffiliated allies had adopted ‘the words’ as well as iconographic representations of these to persuade the public at large and more specifically electors, parliamentarians and ministers to actively and effectively oppose woman’s suffrage. In conjunction with petitions and deputations, the Antis portrayed the ideal woman or ‘angel in the house’ and warned against the disaster that would occur at home, should women leave their private sphere to engage in public activity. They were convinced that the vote would destroy traditional family unity and domestic peace. This theme was used during their subscription campaign:

Figure 3—‘Anti-Suffrage,’ http://spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk.

Figure 4—Women’s Freedom League, Museum of London Collection.

11Should women engage in voting, homes would be neglected, children abandoned and husbands obliged to take on women’s work. In contrast, as shown above, the Suffragettes worked at proving that these accusations were false.

Figure 5—Museum of London Postcard Collection

Figure 6—Museum of London Postcard Collection.

Figure 7—Museum of London Postcard Collection

12Caricature was also used to attack the credibility of the Suffragettes as they were considered by their opponents as outcasts or physically and socially marginal. It was common to mock and stigmatize Suffragettes’ physical appearance. They were represented as too fat or too thin, ugly and repulsive. Their behaviour was considered unfeminine and aggressive and totally anti social.

13Anti-suffragists from all socio-economic and political milieus considered women’s cause activists as frustrated old maids.

14They were viewed as neither coquette nor feminine. Their fortune was to remain alone. Their aspirations for economic and social independence were assimilated to masculine or socially deviant behaviour.

Figure 8—Museum of London Postcard Collection.

  • 5 Lisa Tickner, The Spectacle of Women, Imagery of the Suffrage Campaign, 1907-14 (London: Chatto and (...)

15In her book, The Spectacle of Women, Lisa Tickner says ‘One of the chief strategies of both organised and informal anti-suffrage imagery was to characterise the Suffragists not as individuals or according to their membership of social groups, but by pathological stereotypes: the masculine woman, the unsexed woman, the hysteric and the shrew.’5

  • 6 ‘The Suffragette Face: New Type Evolved by Militancy,’ Daily Mirror, 25 May 1914, 5.

16The Daily Mirror even published a series of photos entitled ‘The Suffragette face: New type evolved by Militancy’ with the following commentary ‘There is no longer any need for the militants to wear their colours or their badges. Fanaticism has set its seal upon their faces and left a peculiar expression which cannot be mistaken. Nowadays, indeed, any observant person can pick out a Suffragette in a crowd of other women.’6

Figure 9—Dominic Casciani, ‘Spy Pictures of Suffragettes Revealed,’ http://news.bbc.uk/​2/​hi/​uk_news/​magazine/​3153024.stm, Fridey 3 October 2003.

Figure 10—Museum of London Postcard Collection.

  • 7 Ibidem.

17The well-defined physical characteristics, so to speak, which were reproduced by photographers and caricaturists were supposed to reveal Suffragettes’ behavioural and mental characteristics as well. With spectacles on their noses, they could only be bitter, envious, pretentious, and too autonomous: ‘The middle-class school-teacher type.’7 In reality, propaganda published both commercially and by the Anti-Suffrage Leagues created the cliché of the ‘Suffragette’ which would serve to further reinforce opinion against woman’s suffrage. One unexpected consequence of this campaign was the perpetuation of this stereotype which would transcend the British movement and become universal.

Figure 11—Museum of London Postcard Collection.

Figure 12—Museum of London Postcard Collection.

18The Daily Mail photos can be contrasted to some of those taken by the police in secret. Number 13 is a photo of Christabel Pankhurst.

19Suffrage ideology and demands that could be read on the posters carried during processions and demonstrations were also mocked by the supporters of anti-suffragism. They were frequently portrayed brandishing umbrellas as weapons against men, and more specifically against policemen.

20To admit women to politics was considered a ‘dangerous leap in the dark’. The Suffragettes were accused of trying to undermine British institutions.

21A series of postcards using the theme ‘The house that Jack built’ were published to illustrate this threat. The postcards of this series shared a common image. In the background were the Houses of Parliament, whereas in the foreground paraded hysterical and masculine looking women once again brandishing umbrellas. They incriminated the Suffragettes asserting that they were going to annihilate British democracy. Behind the women’s procession were the policemen, overwhelmed by these demonstrators.

22Although the following photographs show Suffragettes marching and a peaceful unidentified suffrage poster procession, this does not signify that their demonstrations were non-violent.

23In fact, window smashing was practised repeatedly and may have been considered a common exercise. The following document shows the Suffragettes in action and the results:

Figure 13—Museum of London Postcard Collection.

Figure 14—P. Atkinson, The Anti-Suffrage Review, May 1912, 109.

24Those who opposed woman’s suffrage condemned the militancy adopted by the W.S.P.U. as did a majority of the British. No self-respecting male would ever consider marrying a Suffragette.

25Some postcards proposed rather drastic solutions.

Figure 15—E. Dusedau, Jersey, L. Tickner, 52.

Figure 16—Museum of London Postcard Collection.

26To add force to these, pamphlets written by distinguished Anti-suffragists proposed imposing fines for damage and deportation to the colonies for those who were convicted of acts of violence and destruction.

27A question of serious concern for the government was the arrest and imprisonment of suffragette demonstrators. Anti-suffragists denied or minimized the accusations of ill-treatment or abuse and scorned suffragettes and their claims of police brutality by making them the subject of amusement.

Figure 17—Museum of London Postcard Collection.

Figure 18—Museum of London Postcard Collection.

28However, photographs testified to police determination when making arrests as well as to cruel incidents during demonstrations. In fact police were often required to wait before intervening, letting the crowd do their work.

Figure 19—Museum of London Picture Gallery.

Figure 20—Museum of London Picture Gallery.

29Suffragettes’ prison sentences could be months long. Various accounts exist describing the prison experiences. This photo of a Suffragette in prison is a commemorative stamp issued in 1999.

Figure 21—Museum of London Picture Gallery.

30As militancy intensified, the public at large and Antis in particular, became less and less sympathetic to the treatment of women demonstrators. To prove their determination and intensify their movement many militants went on hunger strikes putting their very lives in danger. To prevent strikers from starving themselves to death, the government, specifically the Home Secretary Herbert Gladstone, initiated ‘forcible feeding,’ a procedure which became the subject of controversy. The following postcard, which illustrates the practice carried out by the police or prison officials, does not really condemn it. The two public servants have round faces and rosy cheeks and the prisoner’s bonds are barely visible, revealing most certainly the artists’ complacency toward the matter. The caption ‘Fed up’ adds a note of humour but also implies the exasperation felt by the general public. This opinion coincided with that expressed by the Anti-suffragists’ organization and newspaper as both frequently questioned the veracity and the frequency of the practice. Therefore, faced with the exasperation provoked by militancy this process became justifiable. Society’s perception of the overall situation allowed, because of its indifference, this inhuman procedure to continue as the ends justified the means or ‘business as usual’.

Figure 22—‘Fed-Up,’ www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk.

Figure 23—Museum of London Picture Gallery.

31The truth was quite different. In her article entitled ‘The Prison Experiences of Suffragettes in Edwardian Britain,’ Jane Purvis evokes true accounts of this torture.

Figure 24—Museum of London Picture Gallery.

32To avoid such procedures, the government adopted The Prisoners’ Temporary Discharge for Ill Health Bill, commonly known as the Cat and Mouse Bill, which provided for the release of hunger strikers until their health had improved, then they were to return to prison to finish their prison sentence.

33The advent of the Great War put an end to militancy. The Representation of the People Act adopted in 1918 gave women over 30, under certain conditions, the right to vote. As shown in this pro Suffragist postcard, the Anti suffragists could not hold back the tide of change.

Figure 25.– Museum of London Postcard Collection

34Regarding the common reference, woman’s role in society and her rights, each of the parties felt invested with a mission. Each worked toward legitimizing claims in the name of the majority. All factions were convinced their cause was just. The Suffragists and Suffragettes wanted to free women from subjection; the Antis did not feel women were dominated by men but that woman’s influence was worth as much, if not more than the vote. Perhaps because the Suffrage movement fought against ‘the powers that be,’ it was more visible; should that be the case, the Antis’ campaign against female suffrage might rightfully be considered the ‘envers du décor.’

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Bibliographie

Archives

Anti-Suffragist Files, Women’s Library, London, (GB 106 2/WNA).

Millicent Garrett Fawcett Papers, Women’s Library, (GB 106 7/MGF).

Fawcett Society Papers, Women’s Library, (GB 106 2/LSW).

Hansard’s Parliamentary Debates, House of Commons Parliamentary Papers, 1867–1917.

London Society for Women’s Suffrage Papers, Women’s Library, (GB 106 2/LSW).

National Union of Women’s Suffrage Society Archives, Women’s Library, (GB 106 2/WNS).

Suffrage and Suffragette Banners, Games and Postcards, Suffrage Collection, Museum of London.

Women’s Franchise League Papers, Suffrage Collection, Museum of London.

Women’s Suffrage Papers, Suffrage Collection, Museum of London.

Women’s suffrage and Government control, 1906–1922: papers from the Cabinet, Home Office and Metropolitan Police files in the Public Record Office (CAB 41, HO 45, HO 144, MEPO 2 & MEPO 3), Marlborough, Matthew, Adam 2000, 15 microfilm reels, British Library.

Harrison, Brian. Private Archive Collection, Oxford. [His documentation, which is remarkably abundant, contains recordings, photos, newspaper articles, reports and primary source documents that witnesses and participants in the movements contributed to his collection.]

Newspapers

The Anti-Suffrage Review, 1908–1918.

Daily Mail, 1905–1914.

Secondary Sources

Casciani, Dominic. ‘Spy Pictures of Suffragettes Revealed.’
http://news.bbc.uk/2/hi/uk_news/ magazine/3153024.stm, last updated Friday 3 October 2003.

‘Fed-Up,’ www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk

Tickner, Lisa. The Spectacle of Women, Imagery of the Suffrage Campaign, 1907–14. London: Chatto and Windus, 1987, 334 p.

Vicinus, Martha, (ed.). Suffer and Be Still: Women in the Victorian Age. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1972. 239 p.

Vicinus, Martha. A Widening Sphere: Changing Roles of Victorian Women. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1977. 326 p.

‘Anti-Suffrage,’ http://spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk

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Notes

1 Cf. Millicent G. Fawcett, What I Remember (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1925).

2 B. L. Hutchins, Conflicting Ideals: Two Sides to the Woman’s Question (London: Thomas Murby, 1913).

3 1903.

4 E. Sylvia Pankhurst, The Suffrage Movement, London: 1931.

5 Lisa Tickner, The Spectacle of Women, Imagery of the Suffrage Campaign, 1907-14 (London: Chatto and Windus, 1987) 173.

6 ‘The Suffragette Face: New Type Evolved by Militancy,’ Daily Mirror, 25 May 1914, 5.

7 Ibidem.

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Table des illustrations

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Abby Franchitti, « The ‘envers du décor’ of Suffragette Imagery: Anti-Suffrage Caricature »Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens [En ligne], 67 printemps | 2008, mis en ligne le 26 janvier 2021, consulté le 29 septembre 2022. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/cve/8555 ; DOI : https://doi.org/10.4000/cve.8555

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Abby Franchitti

Université François Rabelais de Tours

Abby FRANCHITTI est membre du Groupe de Recherches Anglo-Américaines de l’Université François Rabelais de Tours. Elle est membre de la Modern Language Association aux États-Unis où elle poursuit ses recherches sur ‘the woman question’.

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