In The Frame: Votes for Women and Tackling the 1%

Aside from looking at artists who happen to be feminist, or happen to be women, I also want to look at how key events in history have led to the creation of art that inspires support of feminism. One example of this is Votes for Women and the suffragettes and suffragists who wanted to achieve gender equality for the electorate.

It's a complex debate, because not all men had the vote when women began campaigning to be included, and women of color were not included at all in most of these movements. Countries around the world were routinely governed using the political beliefs of rich men, which is clearly something we can relate to today with the Occupy protests fresh in our minds. The 1% not had all of the wealth but they also had the power to change how the country was run. Although we might feel that we have it bad in 2011, we really have made much progress compared to life before electoral democracy in the Western world. I want to highlight some of the key movers and shakers in suffrage activism.

The Artists' Suffrage League was responsible for producing banners for rallies and protests, as well as postcards that were sold to spread the word more subtly. There were world marches in central places like London, where various nations were represented by both men and women who wanted change. Dora Meeson Coates painted banners for the Australian protesters at a 1908 London demonstration, and she used classical art to get her point across. By painting women as Goddess-like and graceful, she was moving away from the anti-suffrage propaganda which often featured gossiping girls (mouths wide open, giggling), rowdy housewives (shouting and ignoring their children), or domineering spinster stereotypes (muscular with their hair scraped back in a tight bun). By giving the public a more palatable and classically beautiful image of a female, Dora Meeson Coates was showing the respectable and mature side that misogynistic  aritsts so often overlooked. Unfortunately, the demographic that suffragists were fighting for was that of the white woman, which meant that females of color faced a double struggle in order to get their voices heard. I wish that I could say there had been more of an early protest about the lack of power for non-white women, but sadly this did not come until much later.

An Australian banner featuring two white women in robes that says TRUST THE WOMEN AS I HAVE DONE

[Dora Meeson Coates, Trust the Women, 1908]

Male creatives didn't entirely overlook suffragism in their art. The Artists' Suffrage League held a competition to find the perfect poster in 1909, and it was won by Duncan Grant, the lover of fellow artist Vanessa Bell (who was Virginia Woolf's sister). His image, Handicapped!, shows the struggle that women faced to be heard, with a lady frantically rowing a small boat whilst a well-dressed man breezes past her in a sailboat. The male in this poster has essentially been handed everything on a plate, whilst the woman works hard to try and catch him up. The ableist term "handicapped" is unfortunately used here to indicate the democratic imbalance that the suffragists loathed. Language aside, this is a really powerful picture, and the fact that it was designed by a man adds an interesting element. Many (male) anti-suffrage campaigners liked to present the Votes for Women protestors as ridiculous and completely unpopular, whereas this shows that many men agreed with their cause and understood the need for change.

white woman rowing a boat while a white man breezes past her in a sailboat
[Duncan Grant, Handicapped!, 1909]

Some women refused to support the cause of suffragism, such as Mrs. Partington of the Anti-Suffrage League. This provoked Ernestine Mills to create a postcard that ridiculed Partington's stance, portraying her as a hopeless figure who tries to push back the tide with a broom. Each wave is given the title of a pro-suffrage social group, such as Factory Workers, Civil Servants, or Liberal Women. This is the kind of image that uses humor effectively, without stooping to cartoon-like stereotypes.

Prim older white woman sweeping the beach
[Ernestine Mills, The New Mrs. Partington, 1905-1914]

Modern styles of art were also used to grab people's attention. C. Hedley Charlton created monochrome images that resembled the graphic illustrations of Aubrey Bearsley. By using a style that people would recognize and talk about, the cause of suffrage was better promoted and it showed the need for contemporary thinking. Her art was used to accompany the pamphlet Beware! A Warning to Suffragists, by the feminist writer Cicely Hamilton.

Two black and white illustrations of women. One is a woman baking a pie and reads She cooks and cooks all the while, She looks quite sweet observe her smile! This is the wife all men would like she never thinks or rides a bike! The other image is a woman chained in a cell that reads Beware! A warning to suffragists!

[C. Hedley Charlton, illustrations for Beware! A Warning to Suffragists, date unknown]

What's sad about the efforts of all these artists is that many modern western women still take their voting privileges for granted. It's disappointing that so many of us (and men as well) are apathetic about making political choices and are more enthusiastic about voting for the next big music star than the leader of our country. Poor leadership and half-hearted distribution of wealth leaves most of us around the world at a disadvantage. The Occupy protests have highlighted a need for reform, and by looking at these images we can be inspired to act just as these artists were a century ago. Art is just one of the ways that we can call for equality, and it's also a great political tool. We need to remember that we have a voice, and go out and make it count.

Previously: A Condensed Guide to Prominent Directors of Mainstream Museums in North America, Europe, and Australia, Women of the Harlem Renaissance

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