Visible Women

This is how misogynists tried to stop women from winning the vote

Posted by
Susan Devaney
Published

As we celebrate 100 years since some women got the vote, we look back at the anti-suffrage propaganda that circulated at the time…

One hundred years ago, a war on women waged in the form of posters, postcards and illustrated propaganda.

From ugly depictions of evil women to violent portrayals of unwanted females, these savage images had one aim: to stop women from ever being granted the right to vote in parliamentary elections.

Created by the National League for Opposing Woman Suffrage, founded in London in 1908, the campaign focused on illustrating what men had to lose if women gained equality.

From plays and novels, to letters published in newspapers, propaganda found its way into every pop culture reference possible. In short, the material was relentless in denouncing women as unfeminine, unnatural and militant.

“As militancy and ‘direct action’ escalated, the suffragettes became subject to satirical representations in the popular press,” Beverley Cook, the curator of the Museum of London’s new Votes for Women display, tells Stylist.co.uk. “Many commercial picture postcard makers published postcards depicting suffragettes as ugly, manly harridans who had abandoned their domestic roles as wives and mothers.

“In response, the militant Women’s Freedom League published their own series of postcards, called ‘Suffragettes at Home’. These depicted leading members undertaking traditional domestic duties including ‘making jam’, ‘bathing the baby’ and ‘cleaning the stove’.

“At its height, those who opposed the militant campaign even resorted to ‘hate mail’ sent to the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) headquarters. Both men and women opposed the militant tactics of the suffragettes, even though many were in support of the votes for women cause.”

Unfortunately, there is no accurate way of knowing exactly how much anti-suffrage propaganda was created at the time. Since it was a women’s movement, there were no official records made - until the suffragettes began archiving the material themselves in 1928.

Fighting for the right to vote was no easy feat, but women were prepared to lose everything – their homes, jobs, children and their lives – for this basic right. Some women were finally allowed to vote in 1918, paving the way for universal suffrage 10 years later.

Read on to see some of the vile depictions of women from the time:

We Want the Vote and This is the House that Man Built

The ‘We Want the Vote’ postcard (on the right) was sent to Christabel Pankhurst, a founder of the suffragettes,  in 1909 with the message: “Don’t you think you had better sew a button on my shirt?” 

The postcard depicted women as ugly, unwanted and vicious – a common portrayal of suffragettes at the time. The newspaper Votes for Women called a meeting in Lewisham later that year, where a man commented that if suffragettes were “better looking” they would have a better chance of winning the right to vote. The suffragette speaker replied: “If good looks are to be the basis of the franchise, many of the gentlemen present would lose their vote, and most decidedly our friend”. 

The ‘This Is The House That Man Built’ postcard (on the left), featured a poem making a case against women gaining the right to vote, with the Houses of Parliament in the background. Postcards featuring similar poems were common in 1909. 

Mummy’s a Suffragette

Images conveying a crying child were central to the anti-suffrage movement, as the opposition believed women were fighting to gain the vote in a bid to abandon their domestic duties – including raising their children. The movement even went so far as to say that women in their pursuit were becoming neglectful wives and awful mothers. 

The back of the postcard, circulated in 1909, reads: “Mummy is a suffragette, and I am no one’s pet. Oh, why am I left all alone, to cry and suffer yet.”

Home, Sweet Home 

In the movement’s pursuit to portray women as violent, this postcard tried to illustrate how difficult a man’s home life would become if women gained the vote. Used as hate mail, the card was sent to the headquarters of the WSPU in Lincoln’s Inn. Openly addressed to ‘Miss Pankhurst and Her Crew’, it also attempted to show suffragettes as ‘unnatural’ single women without a home to go to, with the unknown sender scribbling on the front: “Striking example of a suffragette’s home – if they have any homes”.

No Votes Thank You, The Appeal of Womanhood

Designed by Harold Bird, this postcard was created to announce an anti-suffrage meeting at the Royal Albert Hall, organised by the National League for Opposing Woman Suffrage. The central figure in the middle of the card aimed to portray a very feminine woman, wearing an elegant white dress and with flowers in her hair. Behind her is a suffragette, painted as a hysterical maniac with a hammer in her hand, heading towards the Houses of Parliament. The card was sent to suffragette Lillian M Slade in 1912. 

A Suffragette’s Home

This ‘A Suffragette’s Home’ poster was created by the National League of Opposing Woman Suffrage, to convey women abandoning their home lives in pursuit of equality. Arriving home after a ‘hard day’s work’, the man finds his children alone and crying. Pinned to a Votes for Women poster is a note saying, ‘Back in an hour or so’. This portrayal of women leaving their children home alone to attend suffragette meetings was common at the time. 

Stylist is celebrating the 100th anniversary of some women getting the vote. See more of our commemorative content here.

Images: Getty / Rex / Museum of London