9 Apr 20

Selling Suffrage: Visual culture and merchandise


Women in Britain had long used visual and material culture to make statements about social injustice.1 Deborah Cherry, Beyond the Frame: Feminism and Visual Culture, Britain, 1850–1900, Routledge, London, 2000. It was in the early twentieth century, however, that suffrage campaigners began to fully leverage the expansion of the press, photographic innovations and a booming consumer culture. They harnessed the emotive power of the visual and the material to encourage mass social interest and generate funds for ‘the cause’. Artworks and merchandise included lavish portraits depicting leading campaigners draped in suffrage sashes, banners handstitched by women across Britain, themed postcards, board games and souvenir programs. Particularly striking was the repeated amalgamation of the visual and the commercial as campaigners sought out ever more novel ways of making their demands heard.2 Miranda Garrett & Zoë Thomas (eds), Suffrage and the Arts: Visual Culture, Politics and Enterprise, Bloomsbury, London, 2018; Elizabeth Crawford, Art and Suffrage: A Biographical Dictionary of Suffrage Artists, Francis Boutle Publishers, London, 2018; Lisa Tickner, The Spectacle of Women: Imagery of the Suffrage Campaign, 1907–1914, Chatto & Windus, London, 1987.

Artists played a critical role in carving out space for suffrage in the public imagination, directing focus away from anti-suffragist propaganda and the widespread social rhetoric lamenting the ‘unsexed’, ‘masculine’ nature of ‘modern’ campaigners. Although certain artistic women were dismissive of suffrage, and focused instead on professional ambitions rather than ‘suffrage sex wars’, others openly stated that the sexism they faced in the art world encouraged their political interests. Painter and campaigner Edith M. Mason-Hinchley asserted in 1911 that women artists were tired of being ‘hedged about with limitations set by men’.3 Edith M. Mason-Hinchley, ‘Why we want the vote: the woman artist’, The Vote, 12 Aug. 1911, pp. 199–200. Artists were members of all the major British suffrage organisations and often showed their commitment to the campaigns by employing the skills they had honed throughout their lives, using their inventiveness, knowledge of colours and symbolism, and experience with designing and using materials. Taking time out from their artistic careers – whether bookbinding, painting or embroidery – they contributed considerable creative energies to the suffrage movement.

Two groups were even established to facilitate the smooth production of artists’ visual materials for the campaigns: the Artists’ Suffrage League (founded 1907) and the Suffrage Atelier (founded 1909). Members of both artistic groups designed banners for marches and processions, posters to be plastered on billboards and to adorn the walls and windows of suffrage shop branches, and postcards that sent politicised messages through the post and directly into the home. The League was associated with the constitutional National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies, and its banner was stitched with the words ‘Alliance not Defiance’, symbolising members’ desire to work alongside their male peers to bring about political change. The Atelier, although not officially linked to any suffrage group, instead tended to support the activities of the more militant-minded Women’s Freedom League. Moreover, although the Artists’ Suffrage League focused on acquiring works by those designated as ‘professionals’, the Suffrage Atelier sought to encourage women from a wider range of social backgrounds, and often with little formal training, to use art to engage in the fight for the vote.

Amenable-looking, conventionally beautiful middle-class women were routinely the focal point of League and Atelier posters and postcards, and of the wider visual culture and ‘propaganda’ produced for the campaigns. Such representations built on the strategic dress of many campaigners – especially leading members of the militant Women’s Social and Political Union – who took care to present themselves in the latest fashions to combat the ‘shrieking sisterhood’ stereotypes deployed by the movement’s detractors. Joan Harvey Drew’s Won’t you let me help you John? poster from c. 1907 offers a typical example of this approach. Drew was a highly skilled embroiderer and illustrator – praised in leading art journals like The Studio – who increasingly threw her creative energies into the campaigns. Alongside providing cartoons for The Common Cause (the paper of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies, with which she was affiliated) and selling Christmas cards and embroidered shoe bags at suffrage exhibitions, she also provided designs for the Artists’ Suffrage League. In Won’t you let me help you John? she depicts ‘John Bull’, the personification of England, raising his hands to his head, overwhelmed with urgent social issues of the day such as ‘Old Age Pensions’, ‘Infant Death Rate’, ‘Cry of the Children’ and ‘Peace Proposals’. By his side, a woman pragmatically asks the titular question. With the woman’s neatly tied back hair, soothing expression and hand reassuringly held out in support, Harvey Drew offered audiences an instantly recognisable, highly idealised and enduring stereotype of womanhood, reminiscent of Coventry Patmore’s famous Victorian poem ‘The angel in the house’.

In marked contrast, working-class women were often portrayed in suffrage materials as in need of a saviour, and women of colour were noticeably absent. As such, despite the prominent rhetoric and earnest attempts to promote the importance of ‘sisterhood’ to ‘the cause’ through visual culture, such materials often upheld and indeed further engrained essentialised ideas about class, racial and ethnic differences. Furthermore, artists also embedded visual culture with overtly maternalistic and nationalistic messages. Several images promoted the patriotic role women had to play, stressing that the ‘progress’ of the nation could only be assured through the feminisation of public life. One of Joan Harvey Drew’s later works, The March of England’s Women, was emblazoned on the front page of The Common Cause on 15 June 1911 to advertise the ‘Coronation Procession’ in honour of George V’s ascent to the throne. Several readers complained about the piece’s subordination of the extensive contributions made by women outside England. The editor issued an apology in a subsequent issue, writing that the piece ‘was most certainly not intended as an insult to any Celt or Australian’.4 ‘The march of England’s women’, The Common Cause, 29 June 1911, p. 217.

But not all representations were so overtly fixated on women’s respectability or nationality. In militant circles there was a trend of depicting women as inspiring warriors and leaders, physically strong and often on horseback. Many pieces used humour to poke fun at the outdated attitudes of anti-suffragists. The artist Jessica Walters produced a number of amusing works about Prime Minister H. H. Asquith for the Suffrage Atelier, such as her c. 1909 postcard Let us in, Fido (also known as Peoples House). It features a crowd of behatted women positioned with ‘Votes for Women’ banners at the bottom of the stairs leading up to the ‘People’s House’ (representing Parliament) while an aggressive – if rather pathetic looking – dog bars their way, barking ‘No; some of you have teased me and pulled my tail, so now I won’t let any of you come near me’. Let us in, Fido exemplifies how the campaigns encouraged aesthetic experimentation: Atelier prints are striking in their rough, handprinted immediacy, while League works (such as Won’t you let me help you John?) were outsourced to printing firms and have a noticeably sleek, high-quality finish.

Outside of the League and the Atelier, many other artists and campaigners used art and visual culture to attract interest in the cause. Similarly to Walters, illustrator Louisa Thomson-Price took advantage of the power of the comedic, with its curious ability to offer a seemingly depoliticised, entertaining atmosphere for the casual observer while conveying pithy, politicised messages. Like many women who were inspired to produce politicised artistic pieces, Thomson-Price did not solely identify as an illustrator. Her work ranged from political journalism to being chairman of a popular restaurant chain. Most famously, however, in 1909–10 she illustrated a series of twelve cartoons for the Women’s Freedom League’s paper The Vote (of which she was a consultant editor), each depicting different stereotypes of ‘Anti-Suffragists’. No. 2 featured a pince-nez-wearing pseudo-intellectual with carefully twirled moustache and slicked hair, leaning haughtily against his chair and declaring, ‘Women are not sufficiently intelligent to vote, don’t you know’. Other ‘types’ included ‘The man who thinks that “Votes for Women would ruin the beer industry and destroy the Empire”’ and ‘The lady who thinks that “tears and smiles and pretty wiles are better weapons than votes”’. The Women’s Freedom League later reproduced these cartoons for sale as postcards, presumably due to their popularity.

In their professional lives, women artists were routinely critical of the horrors of capitalist society and ‘cheap’ merchandise, and tended to disguise financial and commercial aims. But campaigners in the early twentieth century found the alluring possibilities of mass consumer culture impossible to ignore in their quest for enfranchisement.

Increasingly, a series of ever more extravagant marches, parades, exhibitions and pageants constructed an alternative world of suffrage where souvenirs, props and ‘goods’ played a central role. This sense of spectacle reinforced for onlookers the femininity and cultured status of campaigners, and helped them feel unified in a common cause.

In particular, the militant Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) embraced the power of modern forms of merchandise to foster a sense of social connectedness between different women and attract diverse audiences. The Union used a range of innovative marketing strategies, drawing from artistic, commercial and propagandistic strands. The aim was to bolster and shape the public identity of the organisation and its leading participants, and to saturate society with endless reminders of the outrage that was British women’s lack of enfranchisement. A postcard from c. 1909 depicting the little-known campaigner Grace Chappelow exemplifies this amalgamation of strategies. The image is simultaneously a postcard and a photograph of Chappelow (with neatly rolled hair, sizeable hat and wistful – yet determined – stare), who is positioned with a copy of the Votes for Women newspaper while also holding a poster by the artist Hilda Dallas in which a smiling woman marches jauntily with a placard stating ‘Read our paper’. This was one of many cheap postcard photographs of campaigners produced for ‘rank and file’ supporters to collect (others included ‘Mrs. Pethick Lawrence, Treasurer of the National WSPU Union’ and ‘Annie Kenney, Organiser’). Such imagery simultaneously encouraged understanding of campaigners as celebrities and cultivated a sense of intimacy and familiarity, as supporters could purchase these prints relatively cheaply and keep them at home.

The Union’s fastidious attention to marketing is illuminated further by the tea sets designed and made for the refreshment rooms at its fundraising ‘Women’s Exhibition’ in 1909. The manufacturer H. M. Williamson and Sons, of Longton, Staffordshire, was commissioned to produce these simple yet stylish white china sets. They were decorated with suffrage campaigner Sylvia Pankhurst’s ‘Angel of Freedom’ design in purple and green, with the rims also picked out in green. Decorating and using fine teacups, saucers and plates further signalled the respectability and fashionability of campaigners (alongside the talents of Pankhurst). By taking tea together, campaigners both adhered to expected feminised domestic conventions and subtly subverted them. The sets were quickly offered for sale after the exhibition, again reiterating the shrewd focus of Union campaigners in redirecting money back into the cause.

Surviving objects offer little clue as to whether manufacturers themselves – like H. M. Williamson and Sons or the manufacturers of the Pank-a-Squith board game – were active supporters of ‘the cause’.5 Pank-a-Squith was a game similar to Snakes and Ladders. Players move their game figure, a suffragette, through a series of playing squares depicting scenes from the daily life of a suffrage campaigner. The first player to reach the final square, the Houses of Parliament, wins. They may have just been aware of the increasing public interest in all things suffrage, which was connected with and bolstered by the wider realisation of the power of women as consumers in their own right. Although certain advertisements in the suffrage press emphasise how the campaigns enabled artists to market themselves – leatherworker Roberta Mills advertised in Votes for Women that there was ‘Nothing like leather for suffragettes’ wear’ – these same pages were also littered with advertisements placed by companies selling everything from soap to motor car lessons.6 Roberta Mills advertised regularly in Votes for Women during this era. See for instance, ‘Nothing like leather for suffragettes’ wear’, Votes for Women, 22 Oct. 1909, p. 63.

Ultimately, the campaigns offered women new opportunities to self-actualise roles as artists, designers, makers and consumers, and to challenge gendered marginalisation through both creative and commercial means. In the process, campaigners disrupted prominent hierarchies between the artistic, the commercial and the popular. They fostered an expansive women-focused cultural milieu that went far beyond simply fighting for women’s political emancipation, solidifying the concept of women as a force to be reckoned with in a booming consumer culture. Although, in some cases, brazen commercialism raises questions about the ethical implications of this diversification of politically focused art, these strategies, spaces and objects offered ways to democratically open up the campaigns to new audiences. Cheap one-penny badges and souvenirs could be bought by many in society, while advertisements in the press, humorous postcards and board games such as Pank-a-Squith all fostered new debates about suffrage on the street and in households across Britain.

Notes

1

Deborah Cherry, Beyond the Frame: Feminism and Visual Culture, Britain, 1850–1900, Routledge, London, 2000.

2

Miranda Garrett & Zoë Thomas (eds), Suffrage and the Arts: Visual Culture, Politics and Enterprise, Bloomsbury, London, 2018; Elizabeth Crawford, Art and Suffrage: A Biographical Dictionary of Suffrage Artists, Francis Boutle Publishers, London, 2018; Lisa Tickner, The Spectacle of Women: Imagery of the Suffrage Campaign, 1907–1914, Chatto & Windus, London, 1987.

3

Edith M. Mason-Hinchley, ‘Why we want the vote: the woman artist’, The Vote, 12 Aug. 1911, pp. 199–200.

4

‘The march of England’s women’, The Common Cause, 29 June 1911, p. 217.

5

Pank-a-Squith was a game similar to Snakes and Ladders. Players move their game figure, a suffragette, through a series of playing squares depicting scenes from the daily life of a suffrage campaigner. The first player to reach the final square, the Houses of Parliament, wins.

6

Roberta Mills advertised regularly in Votes for Women during this era. See for instance, ‘Nothing like leather for suffragettes’ wear’, Votes for Women, 22 Oct. 1909, p. 63.