Shoulder to Shoulder: UK Suffrage Postcards!

One of the things I love most about the Internet is the way that it allows us to find people with similar interests, no matter where they are on the planet. I was delighted recently to come across a blog by David Dismore on this website in which he discussed some of the American postcards of the women’s suffrage movement. As a UK collector of suffrage postcards I am conscious of the differences in the UK and U.S. cards. In the UK, the number of postcards put out by political organizations (pro and con), such as the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), the Women’s Freedom League (WFL) or the National League for Opposing Women’s Suffrage (NLOWS), was dwarfed by the number of cards produced by commercial publishing companies. On the whole, these commercial cards drew on a tradition of “humor” which was found in the music hall–humor that was pointedly anti-suffrage and often quite misogynistic.

A common depiction of the result of allowing women the vote was the collapse of family roles and care–i.e., the notion that if a woman was not looking after her house, children and husband then chaos would descend. In the card below there is a note from the wife informing her husband that she will be delayed due to an important committee meeting, an event which leads to a domestic crisis as he scalds the cat. The “humor” of this card is, of course, at the expense of both sides: the wife who abandons her responsibilities and the inept husband who cannot cope.

In parallel with suffrage cards in the U.S., UK postcards also represented suffragettes as children, as is seen in this relatively common card in which the judge sentences the naughty suffragette to “two months without chocolate.”

This infantilizing of the women and their cause contrasts with another commercial card which shows a doctor and male prisoner holding a woman down in order to force feed her.

The “humor” of the image stands in stark contrast to the accounts of force feeding which were given by women who underwent this treatment, often many times. It is difficult to ignore the parallel with rape in some of the descriptions. The following is an excerpt of a speech by one woman, Lady Constance Lytton, given on January 31, 1910. Lytton created a false identity in order to expose the differential treatment of working-class women as opposed to women such as herself of higher social standing:

At last they came. It is like describing a hospital scene–and much worse. The doctor and four wardresses came into my cell. I decided to save all my resistance for the actual feeding, and when they pointed to my bed on the floor I lay down, and the doctor did not even feel my pulse. Two wardresses held my hands, one my head. Much as I had heard about this thing, it was infinitely more horrible and more painful than I had expected. The doctor put the steel gag in somewhere on my gums and forced open my mouth till it was yawning wide. As he proceeded to force into my mouth and down the throat a large rubber tube, I felt as though I were being killed; absolute suffocation is the feeling. You feel as though it would never stop. You cannot breathe, and yet you choke. It irritates the throat, it irritates the mucous membrane as it goes down, every second seems an hour, and you think they will never finish pushing it down. After a while the sensation is relieved, then the food is poured down, and then again you choke, and your whole body resists and writhes under the treatment; you are held down, and the process goes on, and, finally, when the vomiting becomes excessive the tube is removed. I forgot what I was in there for, I forgot women, I forgot everything except my own sufferings, and I was completely overcome by them.

What was even worse to me than the thing itself was the positive terror with which I anticipated its renewal.

In the UK, some people fighting for the vote engaged in more violent means of campaigning than in the U.S., although not all groups subscribed to this. The violence was represented in a large number of images. The first card below was released in 1912 by an official anti-suffrage group, National League Opposing Women’s Suffrage. It draws attention to the organized breaking of shop windows. Fighting with the police was a particular favorite of the commercial publishers. This usually involved presenting the suffragettes as either ineffective and hysterical in the face of calm authority (as below) or as enjoying the attention of the male police officers. Reports at the time suggest that this presentation was far from the truth and that sexual assaults on the women by police and the male crowds were ignored by the media.

The cards above use a very common UK stereotype of the suffragette as a old maid who is unattractive and unable to get a man. All women who were involved in the feminist cause, not just the militant members, were considered “wild women” and unladylike. Another common stereotype was the hysterical female who would be incapable of using a vote.

The text on this very popular card (above) in a series by Birn Brothers, London emphasizes the qualities of “mind fearless and bold” that men possess and contrasts those with a woman who is “afraid of a poor little mouse.” The verse uses a children’s nursery rhyme, ‘The house that Jack built,” to focus attention on the Houses of Parliament, the seat of UK political power.

In the UK, postcards related to suffrage are dominated by the commercial, largely antipathetic views of the movement. Their representations of women include the hysterical, the bitter old maids and the irresponsible wife who abandons her family. These stereotypes and images that illustrate them stand in stark contrast to the postcards which were released by the pro-suffrage organizations. On the whole, they did not belittle their opponents or berate the general public, but chose to represent themselves with dignity, their arguments as rationale and their cause as just. The final cards here demonstrate this perfectly, the first showing one campaigner, Edith How Martyn in two images–the gowns of a university lecturer and the garb of a female convict. The second portrays another campaigner, Muriel Matters. Both are simple but powerful visual messages.

All postcards from Michaela Borg’s personal collection.

Photo at top of British suffragette c. 1900-1919 from George Eastman House collection, public domain.

Comments

  1. yoteech2002 says:

    There needs to be much much more published information on line and in print about the abuses women were (and are) subjected to for wanting equal treatment under the law.
    Women who fought for our rights in the last two centuries and today are and need to be recognized as the courageous heroes we are.
    The struggle is far from over and many men are as cruel and committed to domination of women as they ever were.

  2. There’s a small exhibition on at The Women’s Library in London til October that people interested in this post might like:

    http://www.londonmet.ac.uk/thewomenslibrary/whats-on/exhibitions/femail-suffragettes-and-the-post.cfm

    • Michaela Borg says:

      Thanks for that. I visited the exhibition which was really interesting. Norman Watson also has a book entitled 'Suffragettes and the Post' which includes a number of really nice postcard images. He is selling it on ebay.co.uk

  3. Thanks for sharing ! A century ago, the suffrage movement was worldwide, and it’s important, as well as wonderfully entertaining, to see how it was promoted – and opposed – in different societies. (Especially Britain, as some of our own suffragists here in the U.S. either began their activism there, like Alice Paul, or visited there regularly to share ideas.) Of course, one thing seems totally uniform, regardless of time or place. Opponents of women’s rights, from the earliest days on, have always promoted a “zero sum game” theory in which any increase in rights for women must come at the expense of the family, and total equality for women would be totally destructive of it. Several of your cards are perfect examples of this idea – something for which we should still be on the lookout, since this argument still persists today in an only slightly less blatant manner. I think it’s a real tribute to the suffragists that despite all the frustrations of working for decades for something so basic as the vote, and enduring everything heaped upon them, that both here and in Britain they didn’t resort to the standard propaganda technique of making their opponents unattractive caricatures, but instead stuck to positive, logical arguments. The two suffragist-produced cards shown are fine examples, and are just as positive as the widely-distributed series of cards produced by the National American Woman Suffrage Association which used short observations as a way to raise consciousness : “The Declaration of Independence was the direct result of taxation without representation. Either exempt woman from taxation or grant her the right of equal suffrage.” Antisuffrage cards are essential to understanding what our ideological ancestors had to put up with, and it’s great that these are now on-line for people to see, so thanks for posting !

  4. "In the UK, postcards related to suffrage are dominated by the commercial, largely antipathetic views of the movement. Their representations of women include the hysterical, the bitter old maids and the irresponsible wife who abandons her family."

    Unfortunately, as an English feminist, I see that these representations have not been lost with time. They are what springs to the minds of many when the f-word is mentioned.

    • I see that often with several popular actresses and singer who insist that they are NOT feminist. It’s disappointing since they are role models to many younger women and girls.

  5. Although I am late to this blog, I still am delighted to see all of this interest in suffrage postcards, a passion of mine. I also think that the comparison between American and British cards is valuable. I do have a website on suffrage memorabilia, including a page on postcards, that might be of interest:
    womansuffragememorabilia.com. If you check out period suffrage publications, you can see how interested the suffragists themselves were in postcards. There were probably 1500-2000 cards issued on the subject in America and somewhere between 2,000-3,000 in England.

Trackbacks

  1. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Ms. Magazine, Rick . Rick said: RT @msmagazine: Suffragist sentenced to two months without chocolate & other UK suffragist postcards! http://ht.ly/2ecDb [...]

  2. [...] Shoulder to Shoulder: UK Suffrage Postcards! : Ms Magazine Blog A common depiction of the result of allowing women the vote was the collapse of family roles and care–i.e., the notion that if a woman was not looking after her house, children and husband then chaos would descend. In the card below there is a note from the wife informing her husband that she will be delayed due to an important committee meeting, an event which leads to a domestic crisis as he scalds the cat. The “humor” of this card is, of course, at the expense of both sides: the wife who abandons her responsibilities and the inept husband who cannot cope. (tags: gender satire feminism history uk political.cartoons) [...]

  3. [...] Super-cool collection of UK suffrage postcards at the Ms. Magazine blog. [...]

  4. [...] Shoulder to Shoulder: UK Suffrage Postcards! (Ms. Blogs) [...]

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