Anti-suffragette postcards

In these days on telephone, email, text, Facebook or Twitter, it is salutary to remember that in early 20th-century Britain the picture  postcard was one of the cheapest and most accessible forms of communication. Over 600m postcards were posted in 1904, rising to over a staggering 900m in 1913.

To cope with the increasing demand for the inexpensive and easy-to-use form of communication, major cities had up to 10 postal deliveries daily while in many other areas up to five were common. Unsurprisingly, it was mainly the growing urban lower middle and working classes who used postcards as a form of communication.

The golden age of the picture postcard in early 20th-century Britain coincided with the rise of the women’s suffrage movement. Although some pro women’s suffrage postcards were produced, particularly by the suffrage societies themselves, their number was small in regard to the vast outpouring by commercial publishers who were overwhelmingly opposed to granting the parliamentary vote to women. (…)

Yet it was suffragettes, in particular, who were deemed fair game since they transgressed the boundaries of what was considered ‘ladylike’ behaviour. Their action in demanding the vote included legal tactics, such as heckling MPs and deputations to parliament, as well as illegal actions, especially from 1912, when some of the militants engaged in mass shop-window smashing, vandalising post boxes and setting fire to empty buildings.

It is impossible to know how many of these postcards were produced or in what year they were printed. Nonetheless, these examples give a flavour of the range of derogatory sex stereotypes that were common during the suffrage campaign.

Feeding a  suffragette by force

postcard 3

From the end of the September 1909, forcible feeding was the common practice of dealing with hunger-striking suffragettes who were protesting against government’s refusal to recognise them as political offenders. Forcible feeding was a painful, dangerous and degrading procedure, performed on struggling female bodies. Nonetheless, some of the commercial publishers considered it a suitable subject for a comic postcard, as in the one showed above. A supine woman has been tamed by physical force, judging by the plaster on the face of the jailor who restraines her legs and the heavy weight on her stomach. A gleeful doctor has one foot on her chest while he holds the weight in place with one hand and, with the other, pours a liquid into the oversized funnel that has been pushed into her mouth.

Taking it out on Hubby

postcard 9

Married suffragists did not escape the gaze of the postcard publishers either and were commonly depicted as domineering, nagging wives. The wife, a harridan with large feet, leans over a table shouting to her puny husband that women will have the vote. She shrieks with such a force that she shakes her hand at him, knocking over the lamp on the table and loosening the hat on her head. An umbrella to which the message “Votes for Women” is tied tells us that she is preparing to go out campaigning. The cowering husband, much smaller physically than his bossy wife, agrees resignedly with her while reading a book titled ‘The Woman at Home’, presumably telling of women’s submissive, domestic nature.

At the Suffragette meetings you can hear some plain things – and See Them Too!

postcard 1

Rank and file suffragettes were most frequently portrayed as ugly, flat-footed, emotionally embittered and man-hating spinsters, as in this postcard. The large noses, protruding teeth and scary expressions on the faces implies that women demanding the vote were abnormal among their sex, lacking those womanly qualities that would attract the husband. The unfashionable clothes and unflattering hats reinforce the idea that suffragettes did not care about their appearance. the posture of the main speaker and her expression emphasises the undesirable consequences of public speaking.

Goose’s Social and Political Union

postcard 2

Christabel Pankhurst, 23 years old when the WSPU was founded in 1903, was regarded by many as the driving force behind the WSPU. Her youth and brilliance as an orator made her a popular figure in her heyday. The crowds she drew to rallies in Hyde Park did not always spare her – but would nonetheless chant “We want Chrissie”. Sometimes she would be portrayed as a cuddly teddy bear or, as in the example, a silly goose leading other silly geese in the postcard above. Although a pun is intended in the question that ‘Miss Hissy’ [Chrissie] asks her supporters, it helped to popularise the word ‘gender’.

by June Purvis


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