Considering the complete maelstrom of chaos that's dominating US politics these days, it can be a challenge to spend much time thinking about past political struggles — and how recently they occurred. For example, though 2017 saw massive Women's Marches around the U.S. and the world, it can be easy to forget that US women haven't had the right to vote for even 100 years yet; the Nineteenth Amendment, which gave U.S. women the right to vote, was ratified in 1920. And though today we're aware of both the great things that suffragettes achieved and the many problematic things they did (such as engage in racist rhetoric and actions, like making women of color march separately or not at all), we don't necessarily have much understanding of how they were received by the culture at the time.
Today, May 15, marks the 148th anniversary of the founding of the National Women Suffrage Association — which makes it a great time to take a look back at how suffragettes were viewed by the media in their era. Because when it comes to coverage of protest in the media, a lot has changed — but a lot has stayed the same, too.
If you thought that people were any less vicious before the creation of Twitter, you're in for a shock.
Suffragettes Were Depicted As Neglectful, Violent Shrews
In examining the media reactions to suffragette protests, something needs to be understood: this was a different media landscape — and not just because of the absence of television and the internet. Pro- and anti-suffrage arguments were put forward in their own publications: the Anti-Suffrage Review in England, for instance, was manned by such luminaries as explorer Gertrude Bell and the writer Hillaire Beloc. The media war was fought in these publications, on the letters and opinion papers of the big newspapers of the time, and in pamphlets, cartoons and postcards.
If you've never experienced the sheer joy of looking at anti-suffrage cartoons, you're in for a treat. Circulated in some of the biggest magazines of the time, from Life to the New York Tribune, they were also created on behalf of organizations like the National League of Opposition to Woman Suffrage (NLOWS) and widely distributed on placards and pamphlets. And they pulled no punches.
Whether they were protesting or merely making their voices heard, suffragettes in general were depicted as unattaractive, unfeminine, neglectful of their families and husbands, or incapable of getting a husband at all. Those who were actually marching were usually depicted as armed and violent, usually with a horde of umbrellas that they were using to beat up some innocent male.
They Were Accused Of War-Mongering
One of the most famous anti-suffrage tracts distributed in England in 1913 was authored by Sir Almroth Wright, the bacteriologist. Despite being a brilliant scientist, Wright was decidedly backward on women's equality, and declared to the world in general that protests by women for the vote would actually lead to war:
"Now it is by physical force alone and by prestige - which represents physical force in the background - that a nation protects itself against foreign interference, upholds its rule over subject populations, and enforces its own laws. And nothing could in the end more certainly lead to war and revolt than the decline of the military spirit and loss of prestige which would inevitably follow if man admitted woman into political co-partnership."
The idea that women's interference in voting would lead to poor political decisions was a widely touted one in publications like The Anti-Suffragist. The protests, according to this perspective, were just part of a spectrum of dangerously weakening behavior that, if successful, would make the country look daft and weak. Charming.
Some Media Reported That Suffrage Would Lead To Socialism & Societal Downfall
Beyond war, anti-suffrage arguments in the media raged violently against both protests specifically and the idea of the franchise in general. Women marching in the street (on the "street corner" instead of at home, according to a famous anti-suffrage lithograph) were both symbolically and literally outside of their sphere, the house and hearth — and that sort of thing, according to anti-suffrage organizations, could lead to utter societal chaos. Arguments against suffrage included the idea that it would increase radicalism, introduce socialism, raise the potential for domestic terrorism, and generally turn the world on its head.
Women stepping outside to protest, anti-suffrage writers also said, were damaging the "traditional home life" that was dictated by gender roles; they said it was destiny for women to be domestic, and that being publicly political and demanding power was not only unladylike but also unnatural. A woman wrote to the New York Times in 1908 to say that “We wish our position in the matter to remain as it is — one of counsel and influence.” It was a common sort of argument, too: the argument put forward in 1911 by the Chairman of the Democratic Caucus noted that "The courageous, chivalrous, and manly men and the womanly women, the real mothers and home builders of the country, are opposed to this innovation in American political life." Protesting, they claimed, wasn't the act of a real woman.
Protestors Were Depicted As "Disgusting"
Women who protested were depicted by anti-suffrage publications and writers as, well, shrill, or simply completely offensive. It was an extension of the "unladylike" argument: women who went so far beyond the pale as to actually argue for votes in public were clearly specimens that offered no attraction to anybody. A 1916 collection of anti-suffrage essays explained that people "grew disgusted with the temperament, the notions, and the methods typical of the few women who clamored for the vote." ("Disgusting" was an adjective that was used for the suffrage movement more than once in the press.) Part of this was that women were supposedly meant to be pure indoors creatures, and politics of any kind was "dirty" and required exposure to the outside world.
The Tone Of News Stories Changed After Suffragettes Got Physically Injured By Law Enforcement
Anti-suffrage or not, the American newspapers always knew a good story when they saw it, and it took scandals around the treatment of suffragettes to affect their take on the protesters, at least temporarily. In 1913, some newspapers reported sympathetically on the treatment of the women taking part in the pre-inauguration protest parade, who were unprotected by police and subject to violence by bystanders. The scandal led to the resignation of a police commissioner; but more media fury would occur in 1917, when stories began to circulate of the brutal treatment of suffragettes who'd been imprisoned in a workhouse in Virginia and beaten up by guards. "OUTRAGEOUSLY HANDLED," the New York Times declared, and the ensuing sympathy from the public may have contributed to the success of the Nineteenth Amendment several years later.
Of course, this isn't quite a parallel to our modern era; our media, our protest movements, and the things we're protesting have all changed. But it's worth remembering that people have been engaging in protests against unfair policies for a long, long time — and negative media coverage has never been able to stop them.