From Mannish Radicals to Feminist Heroes: Suffragists in Popular Culture

From collections American Antiquarian Society
Figure 1. David Claypoole Johnston, “Women’s Rights” engraving in Scraps for 1849, plate 2. Courtesy, American Antiquarian Society.
By Allison K. Lange

When you think of the women who advocated for the right to vote, which images come to mind? Perhaps you conjure up Susan B. Anthony’s profile on the dollar coin or photographs of suffragists picketing the White House. Today, the popularity of these pictures reflects the growing interest in past female leaders. Their portraits cover the walls of museums, circulate on social media and in documentaries, and appear on protest posters. However, in the nineteenth century, many Americans mocked suffragists as ugly, masculine women. Elite white men were supposed to occupy visible positions of power. According to popular culture, political women rejected domestic life in favor of politics. Suffragists seemed to threaten the nation’s values and traditions. Artists, editors, authors, publishers, and printers who held these views printed numerous cartoons that mocked the reformers. They reflected and defined the ways that Americans viewed female activists.

Suffragists quickly learned the power of these demeaning cartoons and, starting in the 1860s, they developed visual campaigns to counter them. To win support for their cause, they needed to transform popular visions of political women. First, they distributed portraits to establish an iconography of their leaders, especially for their supporters. By the turn of the century, they coordinated a national campaign to reach a much broader audience. Suffragists produced posters that represented themselves as beautiful mothers, while newspaper photographs depicted them as fashionable picketers. These visual campaigns featured respectable white women and obscured suffragists of color, signaling their choice not to fight for Black women’s votes. The suffragists’ visual campaigns changed the way Americans thought of political women and continue to define our popular memory of the movement.[1]

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The rise of women’s rights activism in the 1840s was accompanied by a rise in mocking representations of female reformers in popular culture. Women’s rights advocates sought better education and job opportunities, positions within the church, control over their own money, and the vote.[2] Their demands sound reasonable today, but at the time they seemed dangerous to many Americans. This burst of activism coincided with the increasing circulation of illustrated weekly newspapers. Innovative new technology made engraved pictures cheap and accessible to more viewers than ever before.[3] Lampooning female reformers became a popular amusement. Articles labeled these women ugly and sexless, while illustrations provided images of an unsettling future with these so-called monsters. Suffrage meetings and publications had a limited audience, but illustrated newspapers reached Americans across the country. (Figure 1)

Cartoons warned that women would become like men physically and usurp men’s separate spaces and roles if they gained political rights. In 1849, a year after the convention in Seneca Falls, New York, David Claypoole Johnston, a Boston-based engraver, circulated one such cartoon mocking female reformers in his publication Scraps.[4] (Figure 1) On the top right of the page, “Women’s Tonsorial Rights” depicts a woman about to be shaved in a barbershop. To her right, a woman stands in an “unladylike” manner with her hands in her coat pockets and a cane. Another female customer with a cane reads the Woman’s Rights Advocate as she sits with her feet up on a chair. On the left, a woman shaves herself using a mirror hanging on the wall. The scene recalls similar pictures of barbershops filled with men.[5] Even the picture on the wall depicts female boxers. In this possible future, women would propose marriage—as in “Popping the Question (A woman’s right)”—and smoke in public—as in “Women’s Fumigatory Rights.” Johnston’s cartoons exemplify how artists, editors, and publishers employed pictures to police gender roles. They prompted laughter to undercut the cause.
Sojourner Truth, collections Library of Congress
Figure 2. Sojourner Truth, 1864, photograph carte de visite, copyrighted by Sojourner Truth. The caption states: “I Sell the Shadow to Support the Substance. SOJOURNER TRUTH.”

Courtesy of Library of Congress, Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Alfred Whital Stern Collection of Lincolniana.

Artists regularly drew cartoons similar to Johnston’s, and reformers quickly recognized the damage these images caused. As early as 1845, writer and thinker Margaret Fuller wrote about the popularity of such pictures in her book Woman in the Nineteenth Century. Opponents feared that if women became political, “The beauty of the home would be destroyed, the delicacy of the sex would be violated, the dignity of the halls of legislation degraded.” Fuller argued that these anxieties resulted in the “ludicrous pictures of ladies in hysterics at the polls, and senate chambers filled with cradles.” She countered that “woman can express publicly the fulness [sic] of thought and creation, without losing any of the particular beauty of her sex.”[6] Suffragists were not inherently hideous, masculine women who threatened “the beauty of the home.” However, since suffragists did not then publish popular newspapers, illustrated or not, they had little power to prove Fuller’s point.

In the 1860s, suffragists began to distribute portraits of themselves to counter these cartoons. Sojourner Truth pioneered strategies for using photographs to challenge racist and sexist caricatures.[7] After escaping enslavement in New York in 1826, Truth became a women’s rights and antislavery advocate. In 1850, she published her autobiography to raise money and awareness. A decade later, when new technology made reproducing photographs inexpensive, she decided to sell her portrait. By 1864, Truth selected a preferred pose and props.[8] In one print, Truth, about age sixty-seven, sits next to a table with her knitting needles and work in her left hand. (Figure 2) Her signature white head wrap, simple dark-colored dress, and modest shawl resemble Quaker attire.[9] The blank background draws the eye to her face, which has a serious expression. Her right hand grips the tail of her yarn, which snakes down her skirt as if the photographer interrupted her mid-stitch. Knitting alluded to feminine domesticity, but also represented a practical skill for any woman who sought to keep her family warm. The bouquet of flowers and table imply a parlor setting, while her book and wire-rimmed glasses reference her intelligence and inclusion in elite, educated circles. The pictures suggest that she subscribed to mainstream notions of femininity, even though her speeches declared no such thing.

Truth lacked the status of middle-class white women, so she used her photographic portrait to claim it. Her photographs telegraphed her modesty, intelligence, and Blackness. For Americans, who associated the visual medium with truthfulness, photographs provided evidence that other illustrations, with their visible marks of an artist’s hand, did not. At that time, most white female reformers never sold their portraits. Keeping their likenesses private helped them maintain respectability in a society that frowned upon public, political women. In contrast, as stated on her picture, Truth sold her photograph—known at the time as a “shadow”—as a means to support herself, or the “substance.” Unlike elite reformers, she needed the money for her livelihood. She copyrighted her picture, an unusual step at the time, to ensure that no one else profited. Truth sold it at her lectures, through reform papers, and her friends.[10] Some photographs were a larger cabinet size, but most were small, cheap cartes de visite, roughly the size of a modern baseball card. By purchasing and displaying Truth’s portrait, a buyer associated with her causes.

Taking a cue from Truth, the leaders of the new suffrage organization founded in 1869, the National Woman Suffrage Association, distributed portraits to construct their own public image of their movement. When Susan B. Anthony, Matilda Joslyn Gage, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton compiled the volumes of the History of Woman Suffrage in the 1870s, they spent significant money and time to print portraits of themselves and fellow white female leaders.[11] The series established an iconography of leaders who remain the most famous suffragists today. Anthony and Stanton portrayed suffragists in a similar manner to leading male politicians, encouraging viewers to imagine women as political leaders. The editors did not include portraits of Truth or any other Black reformers in their publications. They emphasized that refined white women sought the vote. Suffragists wanted to quell fears about increasing the number of Black voters. The History of Woman Suffrage marked a shift toward distributing portraits to define the movement’s public image, but the expense of the volumes meant that their iconography still largely reached supporters rather than the general public.
Wash Day. From the Library of Congress
Figure 3. “The New Woman.—Wash Day.” American Stereoscopic Company, 1901, stereograph. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.
Despite their efforts, popular publications still mocked suffragists. Technology changed, but pictures that ridiculed political women remained profitable.[12] Between 1871 and 1907, at least fifty different stereographs (and an unknown number of copies) lampooned the New Woman.[13] Stereographs were photographs that appeared three dimensional when viewed through a stereoscope. In one stereograph from 1901, a woman sits and reads a newspaper called the Truth, while her husband stands doing the laundry. (Figure 3) The man stands over the washboard and glares at her. Labeled the “New Woman,” the female figure reflects a new ideal of womanhood, which, according to this caricature, disdains female domesticity to seek an education, a profession, a social life, and a voice in politics. On the wall behind her is a picture of two women in their undergarments, implying her rejection of heteronormative relationships as well. She disdains men and prefers for them to perform chores. Pictures like these recall visual themes established by cartoons such as Johnston’s sixty years earlier. The suffragists produced innovative visual campaigns, but their opponents relied on familiar themes.

Over the course of the 1910s, however, support for woman suffrage gradually spread. Progressive Era reformers argued that female voters would help them achieve their goal of purifying politics. By 1915, eleven states had enfranchised women, and suffragists launched a major campaign to win the vote in New York, a center for publishing. In February 1915, Puck, a leading humor magazine that had regularly mocked the female reformers, printed an entire pro-suffrage issue, under the editorial direction of a number of suffrage organizations. Readers could cut out the pictures and pin them to their walls. Suffrage organizations could have free copies of the illustrations. The editor had recognized that “The skilled ‘campaigner’ has learned the enormous value of a clever cartoon, a pithy editorial, used immediately and with telling effect.” Hoping the new political stance would be profitable, the editor encouraged suffragists to “see that Puck comes into your home regularly” because “its propaganda value alone will balance the cost many times over.”[14]

As women gained access to education and a greater range of professions, female artists began designing suffrage imagery for widespread publication. Puck commissioned Rose O’Neill to draw pictures for its February 1915 issue. O’Neill, who regularly drew for Puck, represents a wave of professional female illustrators—such as Nina Allender, Blanche Ames, and Mary Ellen Sigsbee—who produced suffrage art for popular publications as well as suffrage papers.[15] Famous for her kewpies, one of O’Neill’s pictures features four of the child-like figures marching in step. (Figure 4) The leader holds a “Votes for Our Mothers” flag. With their large eyes and pleading looks, they appeal to parents who want to protect them. The accompanying stanza declares that men’s votes regulate “our food, our health, our home, our schools, our play.” The kewpies do not understand why “father cannot see / Why mother ought to have a vote / On how these things should be.” A similar illustration on the right depicts a baby who is crying because she is “going to be taxed without representation.” In both cases, the vulnerable kewpies emphasize their dependence on their parents—especially their mothers.

The most powerful suffrage group, the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA), published O’Neill’s illustrations as part of its campaign to demonstrate that women needed the vote to protect their families. In the 1890s, NAWSA built up national and state press committees, and, by 1915, had its own publishing company and employed publicity professionals to coordinate its public image. O’Neill’s pictures articulated NAWSA’s message perfectly. NAWSA distributed pictures to argue that white, motherly, political women would enhance—rather than threaten—traditional gender roles and American values. NAWSA had the most funding, expertise, and compelling message of any suffrage organization. During the 1910s, pictures with NAWSA’s message dominated popular publications because they had the widest appeal.

NAWSA’s imagery dominated, but other suffrage organizations orchestrated competing visual campaigns. The National Woman’s Party (NWP) organized public protests, ranging from parades to pickets, and hired professional photographers to capture them.[16] The NWP incorporated tactics from British suffragists to win the public’s attention.[17] Like NAWSA, it hired publicity professionals. The NWP wanted to promote a positive version of suffragists as pretty, educated, and white New Women. Newspapers across the country printed photographs of suffragists protesting in front of the White House, which won them publicity as well as controversy. NAWSA leaders openly condemned NWP tactics. But the shocking photographs of picketers, followed by photographs of imprisoned suffragists accompanied by testimonies about terrible prison conditions, prompted public outcry that forced officials to address the issue.
From the Library of Congress
Figure 4. Rose O’Neill, “Votes for Our Mothers,” published in Puck, February 20, 1915, p. 8. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.
Organizations led by women of color contested the vision that more powerful suffrage groups promoted, but they had less money and power to coordinate a visual campaign. NAWSA did not officially prevent Black women from joining, but local organizations could and did exclude them. As a result, Black women founded the National Association of Colored Women (NACW) in 1896 to fight for Black women’s voting rights, improve education, and “uplift” Black communities. The NACW relied on the reform papers and individual leaders to promote a positive image of its cause.[18] Mary Church Terrell, the group’s first president, became a model for the elegant, educated, and refined Black political womanhood the NACW promoted. Like Susan B. Anthony had done decades earlier, Terrell distributed portraits of herself and often worked with reform publications to promote the NACW’s vision. Although its pictures reached fewer people, they countered the dominant image of suffragists to create opportunities for women of color.

Over the course of their movement, suffragists gradually developed visual campaigns to challenge the popular, disparaging cartoons of political women. Their propaganda presented an appealing image of female voters to win support for the cause. The campaigns carried out by the comparatively well-funded NAWSA and NWP advocated for the rights of white women, especially those of the middle and upper classes. They promoted heteronormative families and white supremacy to quell concerns that female voters would threaten these longstanding American values. These suffragists did not include women of color in their vision or feature leaders such as Sojourner Truth and Mary Church Terrell as faces of the cause. White suffragists followed through on the promises of their visual campaign. They chose not to ensure that all women could vote after the amendment’s passage—Black, Puerto Rican, Native American, and Asian women continued to fight for voting rights long after 1920.

The imagery promoted by suffragists and their opponents still resonates today. Cartoons of suffragists might seem distant, but the image of the masculine, angry feminist who threatens American values still appears in the media. The suffragists’ visual campaign to transform popular ideas about gender and politics still defines the way we remember the movement in museums and documentaries. Their pictures incorporated what are now outdated ideas about gender, race, class, and sexuality, yet their vision remains relevant. Female politicians still position themselves as mothers who entered politics to improve life for their families. Protestors capture the attention of the press, but women who adhere to a more traditional vision of womanhood tend to occupy visible government positions. A more modern vision of gender and politics, however, rather than rewarding elite white women who perform a complicated balancing act of femininity and political power, could require less engagement with outdated social norms and provide new opportunities for women in twenty-first-century politics.
Allison K. Lange is an assistant professor of history at the Wentworth Institute of Technology. She is currently completing a manuscript, under contract with The University of Chicago Press, entitled Picturing Political Power: Images and the Fight for Women’s Votes in the United States. She is also guest curating suffrage exhibitions at the Massachusetts Historical Society and Harvard’s Schlesinger Library.
[1] For an in-depth look at gender, images, and political power throughout the suffrage movement, see Allison K. Lange, Picturing Political Power: Images and the Fight for Women’s Voting Rights in the United States (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, forthcoming).
[2] Lori D. Ginzberg, Untidy Origins: A Story of Woman’s Rights in Antebellum New York (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2005); Nancy Isenberg, Sex and Citizenship in Antebellum America (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998); Susan Zaeske, Signatures of Citizenship: Petitioning, Antislavery, and Women’s Political Identity (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2003).
[3] Georgia B. Barnhill, “Transformations in Pictorial Printing,” in A History of the Book in American vol. 2, An Extensive Republic: Print Culture, and Society in the New Nation, 1790–1840, ed. Robert A. Gross and Mary Kelley (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2010), 422–439; Joshua Brown, Beyond the Lines: Pictorial Reporting, Everyday Life, and the Crisis of Gilded-Age America (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002).
[4] For more on David Claypoole Johnston, see Clarence S. Brigham, “David Claypoole Johnston, the American Cruikshank,” Proceedings of the American Antiquarian Society 50 (1940): 98–110; Jennifer A. Greenhill. “Playing the Fool: David Claypoole Johnston and the Menial Labor of Caricature,” American Art 17, no. 3 (Autumn 2003): 32–51;Jack Larkin, “What He Did for Love,” Common-Place 13, no. 3 (Spring 2013).
[5] See, for example, “Patent Democratic Republican Steam Shaving Shop,” lithograph, published in New York by Willis & Probst Lith., 1844, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.
[6] Margaret Fuller, Woman in the Nineteenth Century (New York: Greeley & McElrath), 1845. Fuller, Woman in the Nineteenth Century, 23–24. For more on Fuller, see Megan Marshall, Margaret Fuller: A New American Life (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013).
[7] For more on Truth and her portraits, see Darcy Grimaldo Grigsby, Enduring Truths: Sojourner’s Shadows and Substance (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015); Nell Irvin Painter, Sojourner Truth: A Life, a Symbol (New York: W. W. Norton, 1996); Sojourner Truth and Olive Gilbert, Narrative of Sojourner Truth: A Bondswoman of Olden Time, with a History of Her Labors and Correspondence, Drawn from Her “Book of Life,” ed. Nell Irvin Painter (New York: Penguin Books, 1998); Teresa Zackodnik, “The ‘Green-Backs of Civilization’: Sojourner Truth and Portrait Photography,” American Studies 46, no. 2 (July 2005): 117–143.
[8] Truth regularly reproduced this photograph. Grigsby also agrees that this was Truth’s favorite portrait. Grigsby, Enduring Truths, chap. 4, “Truth’s Captioned Cartes de Visite after 1864.” An engraving of this portrait appeared in Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper on December 25, 1869; “Sojourner Truth, the Eloquent Negress,” 245.
[9] Augusta Rohrbach, “Shadow and Substance: Sojourner Truth in Black and White,” in Pictures and Progress: Early Photography and the Making of African American Identity, ed. Maurice O. Wallace and Shawn Michelle Smith (Durham: Duke University Press, 2012), 85.
[10] Untitled Advertisement, in Winning the Vote: The Triumph of the American Woman Suffrage Movement, by Robert Cooney (Santa Cruz, CA: American Graphic Press, 2005), 11; Kathleen Collins, “Shadow and Substance: Sojourner Truth,” History of Photography 7, no. 3 (September 1983): 189, 200; Truth and Gilbert, Narrative of Sojourner Truth, 258–259; “Sojourner Truth,” Revolution, January 21, 1869, 44; Rohrbach, “Shadow and Substance,” 90.
[11] For more analysis of the History of Woman Suffrage series, see Lisa Tetrault, Myth of Seneca Falls: Memory and the Women’s Suffrage Movement, 1848–1898 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2014).
[12] For more on the New Woman, see Elizabeth Otto and Vanessa Rocco, “Introduction: Imagining and Embodying New Womanhood,” in The New Woman International: Representations in Photography and Film from the 1870s through the 1960s, ed. Elizabeth Otto and Vanessa Rocco (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan, 2011), 1–17; Mary Davis, “The New Woman in American Stereoviews, 1871–1905,” in Otto and Rocco, New Woman, 21–38; Melody Davis, “Doubling the Vision: Women and Narration Stereography, the United States, 1870–1910” (PhD diss., City University of New York, 2004); Martha H. Patterson. Beyond the Gibson Girl: Reimagining the American New Woman, 1895–1915 (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2005).
[13] Davis, “Doubling the Vision,” 332.
[14] “A Note to Our Suffrage Friends,” Puck, February 20, 1915, 3.
[15] Alice Sheppard, Cartooning for Suffrage (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1994), chap. 4, “Becoming a Suffrage Cartoonist.” For more on female illustrators, see Martha H. Kennedy, Drawn to Purpose: American Women Illustrators and Cartoonists (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2018).
[16] For more on the National Woman’s Party and its tactics see Belinda A. Stillion Southard, Militant Citizenship: Rhetorical Strategies of the National Woman’s Party, 1913–1920 (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2011); James Glen Stovall, Seeing Suffrage: The Washington Suffrage Parade of 1913, Its Pictures, and Its Effects on the American Political Landscape (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2013).
[17] For more on British suffrage imagery, see Miranda Garnett and Zoë Thomas, Suffrage and the Arts: Visual Culture, Politics and Enterprise (London: Bloomsbury, 2018); Edith M. Phelps et al., eds., Selected Articles on Woman Suffrage, 2nd and rev. ed. (Minneapolis: H. W. Wilson Company, 1912); Lisa Tickner, The Spectacle of Women: Imagery of the Suffrage Campaign, 1907–14 (London: Chatto & Windus, 1987).
[18] For more on the National Association of Colored Women, see Brittney C. Cooper, Beyond Respectability: The Intellectual Thought of Race Women (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2017); Treva B. Lindsey, Colored No More: Reinventing Black Womanhood in Washington, D.C. (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2017); Alison M. Parker, Articulating Rights: Nineteenth-Century American Women on Race, Reform, and the State (DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 2010).

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Part of a series of articles titled The 19th Amendment and Women's Access to the Vote Across America.

Last updated: April 4, 2019