THE “OUTWARD” AND “INWARD” APPEAL OF SUFFRAGE ARTISTIC CULTURE, 1907-1914
Introduction: Suffrage Art as Visual Propaganda on the Public Stage
The women’s suffrage campaign in England is said to have started in 1865 when women’s enfranchisement was introduced as a topic within the Langham Place circle, which was a group of women who aimed for the improvement of women’s rights (Tickner, 1988, p.4). John Stuart Mill included women’s votes in his election manifesto in 1865, and in 1866 a petition to the House of Commons asking for women’s votes was signed by 1499 women. Before the Reform Acts of 1867 and 1884, only one out of five men were able to vote, but these acts enfranchised the majority of men and isolated women more than ever (Tickner, 1988, p.4). Although suffrage was debated in Parliament, it was turned down multiple times.
As attempts to win suffrage through democratic means were stalled in Parliament, some suffragists adopted a more militant approach. In 1897, The National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) was founded to unite 17 suffrage societies, led by Millicent Fawcett (British Library, 2018). The Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) was established in Manchester in 1903 by Emmeline Pankhurst, and within two years, its members started a campaign involving militant actions. Although effective at drawing attention to the cause, this campaign was controversial within the early feminist movement. In 1907, the Women’s Freedom League (WFL) was established for women opposed to militant actions who wanted to leave the WSPU. Organizations were active through campaigns, demonstrations, petitioning, and raising funds. Both the WSPU and non-militant suffragists held large demonstrations together, which caught the eyes of the public (British Library, 2018).
Although both suffragists and the suffragettes were fighting for voting rights, their shared final aim, growing out of the roots of the movements, had always been to use the vote as a tool to improve women’s living conditions. They sought equal educational and employment opportunities, the right to own property, amongst other goals (Kent, 1987, p.186). Although women could obtain custody of their children under seven and dissolve an abusive marriage after the 1857 Matrimonial Causes Act, this was only in limited circumstances. In order to realize these goals, suffragists wished to have the same political rights as men. Suffragists were active until the outbreak of World War I in 1914. On January 10th, 1918, the House of Lords finally gave women over the age of thirty the right to vote (Wingerden, 1999, p.xix). In 1928, women were given the same voting rights as men, and women over the age of 21 were allowed to vote.
By exploring posters, theatre, and fashion as visual propaganda on the public stage, focusing on the period during the peak of suffrage artistic culture from 1907 to 1914, I would like to understand how art gave women a voice and made the invisible visible. According to Lippard, “Activist art is an art that reaches out as well as in” (1984, p.70). My thesis will explore suffrage art as a simultaneous process of reaching “outward” (to a general public who might be sympathetic to its goals) and “inward” (to other women in the suffrage movement). Suffrage art presented women in a non-threatening and sympathetic image of the suffrage movement that would appeal to wavering men. This involved presenting women as feminine, suffering, and needing external support, reaching out to build alliances with men and conservative women. At the same time, suffrage art also mobilized women and created a sense of feminist consciousness, which led to strengthened bonds of sisterhood. According to Conover and Sapiro, the core of feminist consciousness is “an awareness of and sensitivity to the unequal and gendered nature of society and a commitment to ending the inequalities” (1993, p.1084). Posters, plays, and fashion in demonstrations, as activist art, made inequalities clear to the public and had allowed women to gather together and fight towards the same goal.
Although art gave women a voice, it must not be forgotten that it was mostly upper-class and middle-class women speaking on behalf of lower working-class women who remained voiceless. According to the Women’s Who’s Who (1913), 692 women were active in the suffrage movement, of whom only 3.2 percent were lower-middle-class, and 0.7 percent were working-class (Park, 1988, p.154). On the other hand, 60.6 percent of the women listed were upper and upper-middle-class. Therefore, most visual propaganda used in the public sphere was made by upper and middle-class women. Many upper-class suffragists saw the vote as a tool to improve the living conditions of less privileged women and children, as well as their own (Thane, 2003, p.270).
Therefore, the texts considered in this thesis raise ethical questions, which remain important in contemporary feminist debates concerning who has the right to represent marginalized classes. According to Alocoff, the act of privileged persons speaking for others can carry risks, as “speaking for or on behalf of less privileged persons has actually resulted (in many cases) in increasing or reinforcing the oppression of the group spoken for” (1995, p.7). In addition, Hinterberger asserts that it is dangerous to “presuppose that one might have unmediated knowledge of who ‘oppressed people’ are and what is in their interests” (2007, p.75). As a result, the exclusion of authentic working-class voices from suffrage art could increase oppression and reproduce unequal power relations. It is crucial to acknowledge that upper and middle-class women were speaking on behalf of working-class women when looking at suffrage art.
Chapter 1: Silenced, Helpless Women Portrayed in the Poster Produced by The Artists’ Suffrage League in 1908
Suffragist artists used posters to make the suffering that British women experienced on a daily basis visible in the public sphere (Cooper-Cunningham, 2019, p.392). Many of these artists belonged to one of two organizations, the Artists’ Suffrage League or the Suffrage Atelier (Lack, 2018, para 5). The Artists’ Suffrage League (ASL) was founded in 1907 to “further the cause of Women’s Suffrage by the work and professional help of artists … by bringing in an attractive manner before the public eye the long-continued demand for the vote” (Tickner, 1988, p.16). It included artists such as Mary Lowndes (1857-1929), Barbara Forbes (1871-1946), Dora Meeson Coates (?-1956), and Caroline Watts (1868-?) (Tickner, 1988, p.244-248). The Suffrage Atelier was formed in 1909 as an “Arts and Crafts Society composed of suffragists, whose objects it is to help any and every Suffrage Society through their art” (Tickner, 1988, p.21). Its members included Edith Craig (1869-1947), Clemence Housman (1861-1955), Laurence Housman (1865-1959), Catherine Courtauld (1878-1972), Jessica Lloyd Walters, and Louise Jopling (1843-1933) (Tickner, 1988, p.244-248).
This chapter will focus on a poster published by the ASL in 1908, “Convicts and Lunatics,” designed by Emily J. Harding Andrews (1850-1940). “Convicts and Lunatics” cast doubt on the fact that university graduate women were treated the same as “convicts” and “lunatics” in terms of their exclusion from the vote and stated that they needed the vote in order to obtain equal educational opportunities to men. The poster portrayed silenced, helpless women, which “articulated patriarchal structures as threatening to women” (Cooper-Cunningham, 2019, p.392). The posters aimed to deliver a message that “the punitive measures used by the government against them and […] gendered laws made women’s lives precarious” (Cooper-Cunningham, 2019, p.392). By portraying silenced women, these artists created a sense of group consciousness within women in the same situation. On the other hand, depicting women as non-threatening, or in other words, as feminine obedient women who would follow the rules given by men, and require external support from men, appealed to male audiences.
The Artists’ Suffrage League (ASL), the first suffrage society to include professional women artists, had become the first group to deliver the suffrage message through visual propaganda (Tickner, 1988, p.16). The society was formed in January 1907 by professional women artists to help prepare for the first large-scale public demonstration by the NUWSS. It was led by Mary Lowndes (1857-1929), who was originally a stained-glass designer and made most of the banners for the NUWSS to use in demonstrations (Tickner, 1988, p.246). On June 13th, 1908, about 10,000 women gathered to march in the public demonstration, and 80 banners were made by the ASL, which attracted publicity (The Common Cause, 1910, p.13). The ASL also sold sixteen different black and white postcards. After this demonstration, they continued their work by producing banners, posters, and newspaper cartoons. The posters were mainly distributed on hoardings, in shops, railway stations, meetings, exhibitions, and at homes (Tickner, 1988, p.45). Posters for particular meetings were usually fly-posted. Supporters were expected to leave posters at hotels, boarding houses, hospitals, cab shelters, and station waiting rooms while traveling during their holidays.
“Convicts and Lunatics,” designed by Emily J. Harding Andrews in 1908, uses a depiction of a silenced, helpless woman to deliver a message to the public sphere about the unfair situation that working women were put in relative to men. Andrews was a miniaturist and an illustrator of children’s books. She illustrated and translated many children’s books in the 1890s, such as Merry Moments for Merry Little Folks (1892) by Rose E. May and Lullabies of Many Lands (1894), translated into English by Alma Strettell before she became a member of the ASL (Tickner, 1988, p.243). In this poster, a woman wearing a cap and gown is locked inside a gate with a “convict” and a “lunatic.” Outside the gate lie two books and a poster that reads, “Convicts and lunatics have no vote for parliament. Should all Women be classed with these?” This poster was probably inspired by Frances Power Cobbe’s essay “Criminals, Idiots, Women, Minors, is the classification sound?” which was published in Fraser’s Magazine, volume 78, in 1868 (Tickner, 1988, picture 4). Cobbe emphasizes in this piece of writing that the Property of Married Women under the Common Law inflicts significant injustice on women (Cobbe, 1987). Under the Common Law, a married woman had no legal existence as the husband and wife were considered as one person. Therefore, women could not own their own property.
The poster depicts the two men who belong in “inferior” classes as eugenically “degenerated,” relative to the upper-class female graduate (Tickner, 1988, p.53). The female graduate has regular physical features and looks upstanding and dignified. On the other hand, the “convict” is very tall and seems to be frowning as he is glaring. The “lunatic” is skinny, has a hunched back, a large nose, and a double chin. On the other hand, the female graduate’s facial features seem to correspond to Victorian feminine ideals. She is also looking straightforward and is holding the lock with one hand while she holds the gate with the other to show that she wants to get out. On the top right corner, the graduate is quoted as saying: “It is time I got out of this place. Where shall I find the key?” The reference to a “key” implies that the help of the (implied male) viewer will be required in order to unlock the gate. According to Tickner, the emphasis on women as helpless victims was “all too familiar, and it risked occluding their active and rational role in the conduct of the campaign” (1988, p.38). She also states that “The WSPU wanted martyrs, and to prove that men’s ‘chivalry’ to women was conditional on a certain class relation and a prescribed form of feminine behaviour.” The depiction of the female graduate as in need of help thus reached outwards to men.
Also, although this poster aimed to present the denial of suffrage to this new class of highly educated women as ridiculous, it notably did so by using the language of class, suggesting that female graduates had more in common with upper-class men than the “inferior” men depicted in the poster. Suffrage imagery which portrayed the stigma of being categorised with lunatics, criminals, paupers, and aliens, was a popular theme at this time (Tickner, 1988, p.37). Usually, a woman graduate would be compared with the “lascivious or stupid or degenerate expressions of the men” (Tickner, 1988, p.37). However, although it was a popular theme at a grassroots level, Lowndes wrote in the Common Cause in 1910: “We (ASL) do not depict drunken men” (Tickner, 1988, p.37). Attacking lunatics, criminals, paupers, aliens, and drunken men was contradictory to the principles of equality that the women’s suffrage movement aimed for. Although this poster appealed to class consciousness, depicting certain people as “inferior” gave the idea that the votes should be given to upper and middle-class women, not all women. This meant that it separated upper-class women from lower-class women. Sisterhood sometimes came at the expense of class superiority.
Andrew’s poster depicts the broader social issue of women’s lack of educational opportunities. At that time, women did not have equal access to tertiary education as they were denied the right to become full members of the university as men. The first women’s colleges at Cambridge, Girton, and Newnham were involved in the women’s suffrage movement (Lewsey, para 12). Also, Newnham provided residential accommodation for women students to attend special lectures in 1871 (Bolt, 1993, p.162). In 1875, two Newnham students were allowed to take the examination for a BA degree, one female lecturer was appointed to the college, and female students were allowed to choose their own studies. At Oxford University, lectures were first given to women in 1873, and two colleges were made for women in 1879, Somerville and Lady Margaret Hall. However, at Cambridge University, women were denied the right to take full degrees, as well as the right to attend lectures and become university members, in both 1881 and 1887. This was because authorities believed that letting women in would “lower standards, disturb the male pattern of college life, and [let women] gain an access to university government inappropriate for a politically disenfranchised group” (Bolt, 1993, p.163). Also, there were some anti-suffrage societies on campus that supported these ideas. At Oxford University, women were allowed to take the degree examination from 1884 but were denied degrees. It was not until 1948 that women were finally able to become full members of the university (Lewsey, para 13).
Girls in secondary education also faced difficulties in receiving an equal education to men. Although the Endowed School Acts in 1869 reformed grammar schools, organized endowments for girls, and allowed women activists to take part in making these changes, there was a negative change when the Charity Commissioners took over their work in 1874 (Bolt, 1993, p.161). The Charity Commissioners “showed less interest in establishing girls’ schools and appointing female governors and failed to evolve an adequate programme for enforcing their schemes” (Bolt, 1993, p.161). To advance girls’ secondary education, The National Union for the Improvement of the Education of Women of All Classes, later known as the Women’s Education Union, was formed in 1871 and pressured the Charity Commissioners. This union worked to “improve the qualifications and standards of women teachers, to help women students with loans and scholarships, [and] to improve the prospects of pupils and teachers alike through founding new schools” (Bolt, 1993, p.161). It held public and drawing-room meetings, published journals, and raised money to achieve these goals. The Girls’ Public Day School Company was also founded with the same aim as the Women’s Education Union, establishing 17 non-denominational schools in ten years and offering academic curricula taught by qualified teachers. By 1895, these schools had “offered 271 external scholarships to university colleges, 587 students had been provided for university colleges, 245 diplomas had been obtained, and 141 students had gone on to training colleges” (Bolt, 1993, p.162). Although this was a big step, this shows that women’s educational organizations still had to rely heavily on charity.
Chapter 2: The Economic and Legal Oppression of Working-Class Women Depicted in Suffrage Plays
Suffrage plays became a part of the suffrage movement in 1908 and grew bigger as organizations used the power of theatre. In 1908, Bessie Hatton (1867-1964) and Cicely Hamilton (1872-1952), who were members of the WSPU, formed the Women Writers’ Suffrage League (WWSL) (Costa, 2019, p.214). In the same year, they established the Actresses’ Franchise League (AFL), a sister organization of the WWSL. These organizations were established not only to challenge anti-suffrage arguments but also to create a platform where silenced voices could be heard (Hansen, 2018, p.2). AFL included active suffragist members such as Elizabeth Robins (1862-1952), who wrote the famous play Votes for Women! in 1907, and Christabel Marshall (1871-1960), who co-wrote How the Vote was Won in 1909. AFL used the power of theatre to persuade the undecided, and by 1911, the AFL had reached 550 members (Hirshfield, 1987, p.2).
Suffrage plays also took audiences into a world where voices were given to women in different classes. In 1911, Edith Craig (1869-1947) and Christopher St. John (1871-1960) founded The Pioneer Players, which produced 150 plays by 1921 (Costa, 2019, p.215). Most plays were only played once or twice to incorporate different views and voices into their plays. Their plays focused on issues not only related to suffrage but also other political messages related to issues women faced. Cockin states that “The Pioneer Players responded in engagement with the political and the play of ideas, which was often indirect, thought-provoking and perplexing” (2017, p.113). Suffragists used the power of theatre as propaganda in the public sphere to bring women’s struggles under the patriarchal structure into the open and to get their voices heard.
In this chapter, I will be focusing on The Apple (1911), written by the Australia-born Inez Bensusan (1871-1967) of AFL, which gave voices to lower working-class women. Margaret Kenny, in Vote 23 January 1911, stated that pre-suffragette art had portrayed women as “erotic and domestic” and neglected their work lives:
Much of the misrepresentation of women is due to the playwright and the novelist of the past who have depicted women and concentrated on their emotions and finding in erotic and domestic sensibilities the business of their lives….Those men who have had the power of speech have declared that they would represent them [women]. But they have not done so much on the part of the electorate as on that of their representatives. (Cockin, 2001, p.80)
Although women were often depicted in Victorian literature and plays, they were almost invariably depicted by men, and their depictions reflected male stereotypes of women, erotic fantasies, and gender anxieties. Women were portrayed as either “angelic mothers, domestic goddesses, or blushing maidens or as superfluous spinsters, shrieking sisters, or fallen women” and usually “lacked psychological depth and nuance” (Tilghman, 2011, p.345). The negative depictions of women outside the home as “lost” or “fallen” reflected the culturally embedded ideology that women did not belong anywhere outside the domestic sphere. By contrast, these two plays gave voices to lower working-class women’s personal experiences, which “the expression and documentation of women’s oppression as well as their aspirations provided women’s art with a liberating force” (Barry, Flitterman-Lewis, 1980, p.53). In addition, women in manual and domestic labor were often not recognized as workers (Cockin, 2001, p.89). Depicting working women and making them visible “constituted a challenge to the separate spheres ideology” (Cockin, 2001, p.89).
In The Apple, Bensusan depicts an independent woman, Helen, awakening to feminism. As the head of the AFL’s Play Department, an actress, and a playwright, Bensusan supervised many productions of plays for the league. Votes for Women, published in 1911 by the WSPU, had mentioned that the AFL had already “become a powerful political force” (Hirshfield, 1987, p.3). Most AFL plays were focused on anti-suffragist arguments, but this play focused on the emotional frustration that came from the economic inequality between the sexes (Croft, 2009, p.126). Helen Payson, the main character in the play, works as a typist and is portrayed as a smart and strong woman. Her sister Ann Payson is an unpaid housekeeper who does all the work inside their house. Cyril, their brother, is the favored son of the family, and the sisters have always sacrificed everything for him. The title refers to the phrase “the apple of somebody’s eye,” which is “a person or thing that is loved more than any other” (Oxford English Dictionary). When Helen quits her job because her employer sexually harasses her, she decides to go to Canada for a new life, using the money their grandfather has left for them. However, Cyril suddenly announces that he will use all the money left for them for his own marriage. He makes this decision without any discussion between Helen and Ann because the men in the family believe that it is important that Cyril’s future is prioritised over anything else. Helen states that she has become a feminist: “I’ve awakened to a sense of the injustice of it all. I’m going to rebel. I’m going to fight for my rights, your rights, equal rights for all” (Bensusan, 1911, p.130).
Helen is a strong independent woman who challenges gender stereotypes. When Cyril states that he will be using all the money for his marriage, she claims that part of the money is hers. When Helen argues, “And what about my happiness? My future? My chances” (Bensusan, 1911, p.141)? Cyril argues back, “Girls don’t want chances. They only want husbands. If you’d stay at home like a decent young woman, some decent man might want to marry you, but while you prefer-” (Bensusan, 1911, p.141). She cuts him off by saying, “I don’t want your decent husband. I want a little pleasure, a glimpse of life, a taste of the joy – of living, a few pence in my pocket, my right as an individual –” (Bensusan, 1911, p.141). By asserting her rights as a human being and defying gender stereotypes, Helen “refused orthodox ideas about womanhood and positively altered seemingly untenable circumstances” (Tilghman, 2011, p.353). She strongly states that she does not want a husband but wants independence just like men and hints at a desire for sexual liberation. By asserting women’s rights while challenging gender norms, Bensusan gave reasons for audiences to be convinced that the root of the problem lies in a patriarchal society and the denial of suffrage to women.
However, unlike the suffragettes, Helen is not militant and non-threatening, making her character more agreeable to the British public in 1911 (Hirshfield, 1987, p.4). Her emotional, feminine side is shown throughout her conversation with Mr. Dean. When Mr. Dean tries to kiss her in her office, she throws a ruler at him to protect herself, hitting him on the forehead. However, when Mr. Dean later comes to her house with a plaster on his head, it is written in the stage directions that Helen “gives an exclamation of horror” as “tears start to her eyes” and apologizes “weakly” (Bensusan, 1911, p.142). Her sincerity is shown, as well as her emotional side. When the Dean tells her to return to the office tomorrow, Helen is “struggling with her tears” (Bensusan, 1911, p.143). She listens to Mr. Dean with “quivering lips” (Bensusan, 1911, p.144), and when Mr. Dean asks her, “Was it the kiss you objected to – or the principle,” Helen “bursts into tears” (Bensusan, 1911, p.144). Although the play has a strong message that women needed the votes to correct these wrongs and that they needed to fight, it still attracted male audiences by depicting women as emotional and non-threatening, and in need of external help.
The Apple shows how the economic independence of women like Helen is held back by limited work options, low employment rates, and low wages. When Cyril and Helen get into a fight and Cyril makes fun of her for being a “typewriting girl,” Helen fights back by saying:
Typewriting girl! You would turn up your nose – it’s what one expects of you. You think it’s degrading for a girl to work in an office, you and Father with your high and mighty notions of woman’s sphere, and all that bosh! You’d like me to be a cipher in the house like Mother or sit at home like Ann, wearing my fingers to the bone over the housework, slaving for your comfort, with never a sixpenny piece in my pocket but for what you, in your magnanimity choose to bestow. Yes, that’s your idea of how a girl ought to live. But because I choose to earn a decent living, you do nothing but sneer! (Bensusan, 1911, p.136)
By challenging gender norms and questioning whether women should be confined to the domestic sphere, Bensusan allows the audience to understand that the root of the problem of suffrage lies in the gender binary and the stereotypes that come along with it. The play also shows the historical reality of the limited work options available for women. A typist was the seventh most common occupation for women according to the census in 1910 (Atkins). Ann was a housekeeper, which was the ninth most common occupation for women. Bensusan depicts her as being kept inside the house all day and having barely any money of her own. During that time, other popular occupations for women included servants, factory workers, and laundresses, all occupations that were “in some way connected with their roles as mothers and domestic workers in the home” (Medaille, 1995, p.6). In 1910, only 12 percent of women were counted as professionals, mainly as “teachers, trained nurses, musicians, or teachers of music” (Atkins). There was no increase in this number in the 1920 census. Clergy, academics, physicians, surgeons, artists, and actors accounted for an even smaller percentage of female workers: unsurprisingly, given that women were effectively barred from most of these professions. Although women were included in all but 35 occupations out of the 572 occupations in the 1920 census, about 200 of these occupations “represented less than 1 percent of women classified as gainfully employed” (Atkins).
Also, women had difficulty establishing a career due to the dominant cultural belief that women belonged in the domestic sphere. The reasons that women were not able to establish a career at this time were multilayered and began with the restriction of family planning due to the lack of birth control, confining many to childrearing in the domestic sphere. In addition, women were legally restricted from working outside the house and earning the same amount of money as men. They were only allowed to take on jobs that were suitably feminine due to the ideology of “separate spheres” (Medaille, 1995, p.6). Shanley argues that the opposition to women’s enfranchisement also came from the deeply rooted idea that men’s and women’s spheres must be different (1986, p.66). In reality, the WSPU had accepted that there were sexual differences and retained the “separate spheres” ideology in their strategy (Tickner, 1988, p.156).
There were also differences between men and women in employment rates and wages. In 1911, the number of women in the total paid labor force was only 29.7 percent (Tickner, 1988, p.176). In 1906, Sydney Webb (1859-1947) had estimated from the Board Trade Report on Earnings and Hours that an average man earned 25 shillings and 9 pennies a week, while an average woman only earned 10 shillings and 10 and ½ pennies a week. Additionally, working-class women in sweated and home-working trades earned less, such as chainmakers and pin makers who earned as little as 3 shillings a week, according to the Women’s Work and Wages (1904) (Tickner, 1988, p.176). According to Thane, single mothers and single older women were the two most likely groups to be in poverty at that time because women did not get paid enough to support their families (2003, p.269). The work women pursued was always considered “supplementary to her husband’s” regardless of the kind of work (Medaille, 1995, p.6). Cyril’s mockery of Helen shows how it was difficult for women to work outside the domestic sphere. The Apple thus brings to light deep-rooted issues which hindered women from being financially independent from men. This appealed to the class consciousness of working women who shared the same struggles as Helen.
Chapter 3: Femininity and Fashion in Suffragette Propaganda and Street Protest
The WSPU, also known as the “suffragettes,” were notorious for their militancy and large-scale demonstrations. The suffix –ette of the word “suffragette” was added to things that were “wee or womanly” during this time, and in 1906, a newspaperman first named these women “suffragettes” to mock them (Steinmetz, 2015). However, WSPU members soon started to call themselves “suffragettes” as well. After parliamentary bills extending suffrage to women in 1870, 1886, and 1897 had all failed to pass, peaceful methods were brushed aside, and the WSPU started to adopt militancy with the slogan “Deeds, not words.” From 1912, the WSPU started to engage in militancy, including setting fire to empty buildings and pillar boxes, pouring acid on golf courses, slashing famous paintings, and smashing windows of shops in London’s West End (Purvis, 2005, p.358). About 1000 women were sent to prison due to their militancy, and many went on hunger strikes to protest when they were imprisoned. Suffragettes who went on hunger strikes were forcibly fed, had rubber tubes inserted in their throat or nose, and were often accompanied by physical violence (Purvis, 2005, p.357). In 1913, the “Cat and Mouse Act” was passed, which allowed the suffragettes to go home to regain their health, only to be arrested again when they were healthy. In June 1913, Emily Davison (1872–1913), an active suffragette who was imprisoned eight times, threw herself in front of the king’s horse at the Epsom Derby and passed away (Vito, 2014). The WSPU held a public funeral for her and paraded through the streets of London.
Out of the many techniques the WSPU used to deliver women’s voices to the public, I would like to focus on their use of fashion in demonstrations as part of their propaganda. Suffragettes always took great caution in their appearances. To be genuinely fashionable, they had to display an appropriate body, face, age, personality, and dress (Rolley, 1990, p.47). Suffragist Cicely Hamilton mentioned in her autobiography that “A curious characteristic of the militant suffragette movement was the importance it attached to dress and appearance, and its insistence on the feminine note” (Rolley, 1990, p.47). The suffragettes had a valid reason to emphasize how they looked. According to Nita, “opponents of the movement have almost universally represented the Suffragist as a dowd, caring nothing for dress” (1909, p.87). An ideal woman during the Edwardian time was “maternal, capable, sexually aware and with a mind subordinate to her body and emotions related closely to a fashionable ideal who was tall, mature, voluptuous and elegant” (Rolley, 1990, p.47).
The anti-suffragettes misrepresented suffragettes in the media as unfeminine or as driven by personal resentment against men. To eradicate this image, the suffragettes held large-scale demonstrations and showed that the women supporting the cause did not resemble how they were described or portrayed by the anti-suffragettes (Tickner, 1988, p.59). The glamorous spectacle of many women dressed in a feminine way proved that suffragettes looked nothing like how they were portrayed in the press (Tickner, 1988, p.59). Suffragettes literally used their bodies to present themselves as a model of respectable femininity in demonstrations.
In order to refute the anti-suffragette depictions of them, suffragettes showed their feminine side through fashion and tried to gain public respect through a show of conformity with patriarchal views. Tickner identifies two approaches in international suffrage propaganda movements. Suffragists either tried to redefine “femininity” as they believed it was artificial, or they accepted “femininity” while asserting that public life needs feminine virtues. WSPU suffragettes usually adopted the latter strategy. They stated that “men and women belong in different spheres,” but that both spheres should be represented in Parliament, and that therefore giving the vote to only men and not women would be an imbalance (Bennette, 1998, p.3). On the other hand, Irish suffragettes argued for the similarities between men and women. The Irish Citizen, which was the newspaper for women’s suffrage in Ireland, wrote, “In the great intellectual and moral qualities there is no sex” (Bennette, 1998, p.3). They asserted that men and women had the same abilities for political responsibility. Therefore, they did not focus on dressing in a feminine manner as they believed there should be no separate spheres.
Contrastingly, the WSPU dressed in a feminine way and presented a socially acceptable appearance so that they could prove that suffragettes did not lack femininity (Rolley, 1990, p.56). Montz mentions that anti-suffragettes caricatures imply that “a woman’s unkemptness and wildness directly correlates with her political anger” (2012, p. 62). In order to deny this, suffragettes used fashion to present themselves as “womanly women” and as intellectuals. By doing so, they pointed out that suffrage and womanliness could be respectably combined. In order to advocate for this, they used photographs of young and stylishly dressed women on postcards (O’Hagan, 2020, p.338). Adverts of fashionable suffragettes in elegant postures showed that suffragettes were women who were “capable of finding pleasure in fashion and enjoying the exclusive finish of a garment” (Kociolek, 2018, p.92). Suffragettes also took great care in their richly decorated hats, which proved their respectability. They put particular effort into looking smart to contradict their negative representations in media as disorderly and aggressive (Kociolek, 2018, p. 93).
Suffragettes had to be fashionable not only at demonstrations but at all times so that their femininity would not be questioned (Bennette, 1998, p.7). This meant that they needed to keep up with the latest trends. How the members of WSPU should dress was minutely discussed in their papers and pamphlets. Votes for Women started to include fashion columns from 30 July 1908 and ran a total of 16 fashion columns up until 17 November 1911 (Rolley, 1990, p.52). In one of the columns, it is stated, “The suffragette of today is dainty and precise in her dress; indeed, she has a feeling that, for the honour of the cause she represents, she must ‘live up to’ her highest ideals in all respects. Dress with her, therefore, is at all times a matter of importance” (Rolley, 1990, p. 51). Votes for Women also touched on the topic of fashion, stating, “there is nothing in her [the suffragette’s] appearance to distinguish her from a royal princess” (12 June 1914). Others also stated that the fashion ideal should be “‘a dainty young lady in evening dress,’ ‘a rather smartly dressed lady in furs,’ ‘charming to look at, very well turned out, extremely feminine,’ who wore ‘a hat with pin roses,’ ‘of thin semi-transparent materials combined in a harmony whose prevailing tone was blue’” (Rolley, 1990, p.53).
Although WSPU suffragettes accepted “femininity” in this way, it cannot be said that England suffragettes merely conformed with patriarchal views by dressing in a “feminine” manner. Hamilton suggests, “‘many of the militants were extraordinarily touchy’ on the subject of [the] ‘masculine’ suffragette” (Rolley, 1990, p.60). This was not because they were offended by how the anti-suffragettes depicted them, but because “it threatened to deprive them of their sexual identity.” Also, Vicinus states that “exaggerated stylishness was symbolic of women’s bodily control … Men were taught women’s claims by recognizing this controlled sexuality, swathed in layers of material” (1985, p.264). Although conforming to existing gender norms meant that women had to conform with patriarchal views, it could be said that dressing in a feminine manner gave suffragettes independence and identity at the same time.
By using posters, plays, and fashion, suffragist and suffragette women’s voices and struggles were brought into the public sphere. Visual art reached “inward” in a way that allowed women to create a sense of feminist consciousness and gatherings in sisterhood. At the same time, art also reached “outwards” to wavering men and conservative women, presenting a non-threatening image of the suffrage movement to enlist the help of moderate men. This “outward” action involved the presentation of women as feminine, helpless, and in need of external support. The inward aspects of art allowed more radical ideas to emerge by gathering women together. On the other hand, the outward aspects of art pulled in a completely opposite direction, as they supported patriarchal views. Although this led to the support from men who would help them become enfranchised, it also supported the false idea that men and women belong in separate spheres and women would always need help from men.