Featured Guest:
Allison K. Lange

Dr. Allison K. Lange holds a Ph.D. in History from Brandeis University. An associate professor at the Wentworth Institute of Technology in Boston, she lectures on women's fight for the vote. Her book Picturing Political Power: Images in the Women's Suffrage Movement was published by University of Chicago Press in 2020. 



 

What's the most important idea you hope readers take from your book, and is it tied to your desire to write the book in the first place?

Pictures are political and powerful. Images are often used as illustrations that don't seem to need serious analysis in the same way that texts do. When we analyze historical images related to women's rights activism, we can see the visual debates about gender and power that played out over a century. It's one that continues today.

Pictures of the National Women's Party picketing the White House in 1917 brought me to this topic. Why did they choose to stage such a visible protest? Why did they hire professional photographers to cover it? My research on historical images allowed me to trace the shift away from women's lack of visibility and power in the eighteenth century to suffragists claiming space on the White House sidewalks and on the front pages of newspapers in the 1910s.

 

The suffragists were not one monolithic group.

Yes. We often say "suffragists" as though they all thought the same thing, but in reality women's voting rights advocates held different ideas about why they needed the vote and how they should secure it. Unfortunately, the term "suffragist" usually implicitly refers to the middle- and upper-class white women who dominated the largest organizations. In reality, women from all backgrounds fought for the vote and often formed their own groups even as they collaborated with white suffragists.

 

Tell us about the ways in which they were portrayed in the popular culture of the early years. 

From the nation's founding through the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920, popular pictures mercilessly mocked women's rights activists. Cartoons depicted them as manly, aggressive women who rejected caring for their families as well as traditional gender norms. In these images, men were often represented caring for babies or doing other domestic chores. Many feared that if women took on masculine responsibilities like voting, then they would become more masculine while men became more feminine.

Throughout the nineteenth century, illustrated newspapers, prints, and photographs regularly conveyed these ideas. Artists, editors, and publishers could rely on a largely anti-suffrage audience. They expected their readers to laugh at the cartoons and scoff at the idea that women might cast a ballot. 

 

Discuss the importance of Victoria Woodhull.

Victoria Woodhull, the first female candidate for president of the United States, was amused by these popular cartoons that mocked women in politics. In one portrait from around the time of her run, she posed wearing a top hat and a military-style jacket, a direct response to the cartoons that made fun of suffragists. She demonstrated her power over sexist ideas that permeated society and teased Americans who feared that political women would become masculine.

Woodhull might have also embraced a masculine aesthetic in her portrait to evoke popular ideas of political power, which was often associated with men. Even in the twenty-first century, we associate masculinity with power. Female politicians often work to balance femininity and masculinity in their appearance. For example, Hillary Clinton largely rejected fashionable, tailored dresses during her 2016 presidential campaign. Instead, she and her staff favored the more masculine pantsuit, often in bright feminine colors. She received criticism for supposedly appearing too masculine, just as other female politicians receive criticism for being concerned with feminine fashions.

 

What was the impact of moving from engravings to photographs?

Engravings were created by an artist's hand, and the viewer could see the lines that the person drew. In contrast, we see little evidence of the photographer. Photographs were often perceived as more realistic and authentic. In response to cartoons that portrayed women's rights activists negatively, reformers distributed photographic portraits to convince Americans that they were respectable women. In the 1860s, Sojourner Truth pioneered this strategy to challenge racist and sexist ideas. Suffrage leaders like Susan B. Anthony adopted the strategy to try to change the ways that Americans thought of leading political women.

 

Which photos are the most pivotal?

When Sojourner Truth decided to sit for and sell her portrait in the 1860s, she developed an important strategy that white suffragists quickly adopted. After decades of popular racist and sexist cartoons, she wanted viewers to see her as a respectable woman as mentioned earlier. She, along with Frederick Douglass, honed the tactic of using photographs to change ideas and advance reforms since photographs were seen as truthful and authentic. Portraits became an essential component of the suffragists' campaign through the 1920s. They distributed portraits (in their reform newspapers, at their events, and by the early twentieth century sent them to the mainstream press) because they wanted Americans to know who their leaders were and see that they were dignified women.

Starting in 1890, the largest suffrage group, the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA), developed an infrastructure to launch one of the first modern visual campaigns. They had national, state, and local press committees and hired publicity professionals to run it. Most of NAWSA's visual propaganda directly responded to the anti-women's rights cartoons that had been popular for over a century. Their imagery, like this cartoon by Rose O'Neill, suggested that white women needed the vote because they were women, not because they were equal to men. Supposedly, more virtuous women would decrease political corruption and use their motherly expertise to support legislation that would improve schools for their children. The visual campaigns carried out by white suffragists demonstrated that they fought to win the vote for white women. They feared they would lose supporters if they fought for the vote for women of color.

Throughout my many years of research, I did not find any NAWSA or National Woman's Party propaganda that focused on securing the vote for women of color. The only example of a pro-black woman's suffrage image may be an  illustration by John Henry Adams that emphasizes that bIack mothers need the vote to protect their families. It was printed in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People's publication The Crisis and as a broadside in the 1910s. In the image, a black woman is ready to knock down an eagle labeled "Jim-Crow Law" with a bat labeled "Federal Constitution." She's trying to protect the two children hiding in her skirts. The image claimed for black women the same moral superiority long associated with white women. This image, along with the one by O'Neill above, illustrates the racial divide in the 1910s.

 

So racial issues remained a problem throughout the movement?

Yes, it did. Race divided activists, particularly after the passage of the Fifteenth Amendment. White suffragists founded and led their own organizations. They often excluded black women and refused to consider their concerns. As a result, black women and other women of color created their own groups such as the National Association of Colored Women. Unfortunately, suffrage histories have previously overlooked these organizations, but that is changing now.

 

Unfortunately, the passing of the Nineteenth Amendment didn't solve all problems?

It really didn't. It's worth taking a moment to mark the 100th anniversary of the amendment, but it's even more valuable to recognize its failures and the work that still needs to be done to create a more just society. Many women could not vote after the amendment's passage. Women who were Puerto Rican, Native American, Chinese, and Japanese had to keep fighting. Black women in the South faced discriminatory laws and violence, only gaining access to the ballot with the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

 

You state, "Visual debates about gender and politics continue today."

One famous photograph that sticks with me from June's Black Lives Matter protests was of Brianna Noble riding her horse in Oakland, California.  The image captures a majestic representation of Noble on a horse against the backdrop of a major city. Her pose resembles statues and portraits of prominent military leaders, but the pose also recalls a once-popular photograph of suffragist Inez Milholland in Washington DC's first suffrage parade. Like Milholland before her, Noble acts as a herald of the movement, still calling for change.

 

 




Spring 2020

Leslie Kreiner Wilson, Editor

https://americanpopularculture.com/journal/articles/spring_2020/lange.htm

 


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