Race and Class in Women’s Suffrage Cartoons

Race and Class in Women’s Suffrage Cartoons December 11, 2019

After yesterday’s post I went looking for women’s suffrage cartoons, and came upon this one, from the UK:

The point being, this well-dressed, upper class woman can clearly be trusted to make a more informed, responsible choice at the ballot box than this sloppily dressed, patched, Cockney accented man, so why can he vote while she can’t? That’s … yeah I’ll just say it. That’s classist. And more than a little cringe inducing.

There’s a version of this that was published in the U.S., too:

It’s not just the Irish man and the black man who are being derided as unworthy of the ballot box—there’s also the rich banker and the knock-kneed woodsman. And I imagine the other men there are meant to be stereotypes too. Still, the idea that white women needed to have the vote to counteract uneducated votes by Irish men and black men, among others, was a pro-suffrage argument.

These messages were intentional and carefully tailored:

Both the NWP and NAWSA created and perpetuated a singular image of a woman suffragist. The ideal was white, young, educated, and middle-class. Most active suffragists were middle-class women who had received higher education at universities like Vassar. Suffragists so desperately wanted to distance themselves from the poor that they proposed a float for a 1913 parade that included hobos. “Tramps,” one article for the Chicago Tribune wrote, “to appear in Washington, D.C. as horrible example.” The float was intended to show that uneducated, unmotivated homeless people had more political authority than women with degrees and ambitions. The woman suffragists wanted to find “four or five of the toughest hobos” near the nation’s capital to sport a sign reading, “but we kin vote.” The float never made it into the parade, but the suffragists clearly resented their relative lack of political rights.

This one confused me for a bit, and I can’t say I’ve completely figured it out yet:

The text under the image reads “Savagery to ‘Civilization'” and “The Indian Women: We whom you pity as drudges reached centuries ago the goal that you are now nearing.”

The plaque to the right of the image reads:


Own the land, the lodge, the children.
Ours is the right of adoption, of life or death;
Ours is the right to raise up and depose chiefs;
Ours is the right of representation at all councils;
Ours the right to make and abrogate treaties;
Ours the supervision over domestic and foreign policies;
Ours the trusteeship of the tribal property;
Our lives are valued again as high as man’s.

Is the argument that Native American women were the real civilized ones all along? Or is the argument that women’s suffrage would take society down into savagery? Or something else entirely?

According to one website:

In this picture, Native American Iroquois women overlook women marching under a “Woman Suffrage” banner. In the text box, it lists the rights of Iroquois women, noting they have the political agency that is desired by suffragists. The title “Savagery to ‘civilization,’” is meant to emphasize how Native Americans were viewed as “uncivilized,” but provided more rights and equality to its members.

Even if the intent is to nod positively toward women’s rights among the Iroquois, this use of Native Americans in a promotional like this at a time when Native American children were being stolen from their parents and imprisoned in boarding schools where they were forced to give up their culture feels … off. The image was published in 1914, which means it came shortly after the end of the “Indian Wars” in the American West, which were replete with horrific massacres of Native Americans.

It strikes me as very wrong to use someone’s culture as an argument without also taking a strong stance against the annihilation of that people and their culture.

I’ll finish on less of a dark note:

Is it just me, or is there some serious male fragility on display here?

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