Women’s Suffrage

Women’s Suffrage – The Journal of Antiques and Collectibles – March 2006

By Pamela E. Apkarian-Russell

[quote style=”boxed”]“Amid this mighty fuss just let me mention, rights of women merit some attention.”[/quote]

Robert Burns, the Scottish poet, died in 1796 and yet he was very sensitive to the plight of women and their lack of rights.

The “Great McGonagle” (1825-1902) was also Scottish, but unlike Burns, was a miserable rhymester whose work is all but forgotten except in derision. However, he too wrote on women’s suffrage. McGonagle felt that if women had to pay taxes, then they should have been allowed to vote and if they couldn’t vote, then they shouldn’t have had to pay taxes.

It is difficult to separate women’s rights, or the lack of women’s rights from those of suffrage, slavery and social upheaval. Traditionally, in most cultures, women were less than second class citizens and often slaves, animals, and criminals had more rights than women. A woman “given” in marriage was simply a commodity to be bought and sold by her male relatives. A woman sold into slavery as part of the slave trade was and is in a far worse situation. Today in some cultures where the male has, or thinks he has, the right to meter out death or severely harm a woman, little is done to curb the practice or prosecute the culprit, let alone punish him. Women have come a long way from “caveman days” and suffrage certainly has helped in the countries where after arduous battles, the right to vote became law. Concentrating on the English speaking nations, there is a history of women’s rights being not only put on the back burner for everything from war and statehood, but an unending effort to undermine all women’s rights that are not now guaranteed by the 19th amendment or act of Parliament. Keeping or making women “barefoot and pregnant” seems to be the sorry passion of more than a few.

Suffrage came after a long and bitter struggle that many, sadly, take for granted. If a woman wanted to vote she was branded a militant and it was well known that all suffrage desiring women were considered to be ugly, unwanted in marriage and nasty. Any male that agreed with them, and there were ever so many, were either fools or knaves. If, perish the thought, a man was married to a like minded emancipated woman, he was considered henpecked and emasculated.

Perhaps, this card sent to an unmarried woman in 1917 was acceptable but then again it might not have been. A Valentine greeting with no sweet talk just saying what he wanted, but not what he had to offer, would have offended as many then as it would now. Many men enjoy being in the kitchen and are more interested in the woman as a person rather than just a housekeeper. There are some that feel if it all doesn’t work out she can be fired or as in the card by the London View Co., can end in a “Turkish Divorce” by putting her in a sack and tossing her in the Thames or the Mississippi River!

Women who chose to remain unmarried in order to maintain any vestige of financial or private rights were considered “unnatural.” Being an old maid was the worst thing that could happen to a woman according to the popular culture of their times. Women who inherited land or money, especially those who were educated, were in a quandary. If they married they lost all financial rights. If their husband was exemplary, they were fine. But what if he wasn’t?

The suffrage movement was affected not only by those who marched and went to jail, or those who were ridiculed, but by all women. In 1873 Lucy Stone and Julia Ward Howe were actively speaking for women’s suffrage.

The battle was hard won and women like Julia Ward Howe were torn with conflicting tugs to do the right thing for many groups. Slavery, Cuban liberation from Spain, the genocide of the Armenian Christians by the Turkish government, statehood, workers rights and the deplorable working conditions, especially for women, were all important issues that needed to be addressed by these women activists and they pulled time and energy from the women’s movement. Mary Livermore, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Henry Ward Beecher, and Susan B. Anthony were all involved with suffrage but every aspect of social change and the betterment of humankind and society were important and needed to be addressed.

In 1896 Clara Barton, head of the Red Cross, was so active in social movements that she was involved in all aspects of social good and feminine activism. Her trip to the killing field in Turkey to plea for the lives of Armenian women and children was one of the many services she provided to turn the tide toward a better civilization. Global human rights had begun and the women’s rights movement, its spokespeople and the suffragists were the ones who were fueling and fanning that movement. In 1867 Clara Barton asked Civil War Veterans to support the suffrage movement just as the women had supported them, both in the North and the South, during the war between the states. The “Woman’s Journal,” the American Women’s Suffrage Association magazine felt the rights of women were part and parcel of global rights and all had to be addressed.

Alice Blackwell’s friend Ohannes Chatschumian was asked once while in Divinity school by Professor Thayer, why it was that women were not mentioned in the feeding of the multitudes on Mount Tabor. Chatschumian, a suffrage activist said it was: “Because women did not have the right to vote.” Most activists were working on multiple projects and most agreed that the elevation of the status of women was very important.

Unfortunately, when the emancipation of the slaves occurred, women were excluded and this formed a schism between some of the activists. World War I once again found women putting aside their needs and desires for self determination to work in the factories and assume every and any job they could to support the country. The women in England were also dealt setbacks such as these due to wars and social instabilities. Time after time, women were forced to place suffrage second during times of crisis, but when the crisis was over, they had changed and become more needful of suffrage. But it was business as usual and they were dismissed from their jobs and sent home to become “good little mothers and wives.” Times changed, women changed, but the powers that be were damned if the “status quo” would change as well. With the war over, the emancipation of the slaves achieved, the activists had more time to devote to suffrage.

The plethora of ephemera that was printed about suffrage is predominately anti and because it was often so scurrilously anti, ironically helped turn the tide in favor of suffrage. Postcards helped to remind men that their mothers, wives and daughters were women and deserved to be treated justly.

Men had seen women working in factories, working as nurses, building bombs, and as ambulance drivers on the war front. They had seen that women were competent, hard working and dedicated. The flighty, brainless fantasy who was to be treated like a frail flower but expected to bare children, sew, clean and run a home was no longer acceptable to either gender.

“Men don’t make passes at women with glasses,” became too bitter a pill and cultured educated men protested. Yet, the majority of suffrage memorabilia, apart from the English portraits of women like Mrs. Pankhurst, were to glorify “the lamb to the slaughter” syndrome and laughed at any man who allowed a woman to say her piece or better herself.

When Ibsen wrote “[amazon_link id=”1580495982″ target=”_blank” container=”” container_class=”” ]A Doll’s House[/amazon_link]” he was writing about suffrage. When the play was first produced, people were horrified that Nora left her “happy home.” The door slams, and it is said that the sound reverberated around the world. Nora had had enough. Though she loved her family, she could not conform to the “doll” her husband had wanted for a wife.

The education of women, as it became universal throughout the West, was as much forced on women as desired. Yes, they wanted to better themselves, as everyone knew how horrible the sweat shops were. The amount of women who died in factory fires exceeded even those of men who died in mines. Mother Jones traveled everywhere there were mines, helping the miners and organizing them to fight for their rights. She became a catalyst for labor to support women’s rights. Unfortunately for the girls who worked in factories, there wasn’t anyone to speak up for them until an outraged public protested the amount of terrible fires and loss of lives. Women needed education just as men did to get better jobs. Equal compensation still has not been achieved.

One of the tragedies of WWI, the shooting of nurse, Edith Cavell, so incensed the British that they were able to override men like Asquith so that the voice of women began to be accepted into the halls of Parliament. Indirectly, Margaret Thatcher could never have been had there not been an Edith Cavell. A nurse during the war, Cavell helped British soldiers escape from the hospital which was in German hands. Placed in front of a firing squad, she fainted. The officer in charge whipped out his revolver and shot her in the head. One of the German soldiers refused to be party to the firing squad and he was shot. After the war both were exhumed and a large statue was erected in London opposite St. Martin in the Fields. Another was erected in Norwich and where she had been shot. In the eyes of the British, this incident was equal to the sinking of the Lusitania. A series of twelve cards depicting the incident by artist Tito Corbella can fetch up to $450.

One of the most famous posters of the war is of this incident by Belgian artist, Louis Raemaker, who had the distinction of being so hated by the German government that they placed a hefty bounty on his head. Many people worked for suffrage even though they trod different roads to get there.

Dr. Howard W. Haggard wrote in 1929, “The position of women in any civilization is an index of the advancement of that civilization.” Unfortunately, many trivialize it and some forget how important the struggle was and is today. An advertising trade card was produced showing a woman in a jesters costume.

“Compliments of the Salem Witches Campaign, 1888. We Vote a Straight Republican Ticket.” Women didn’t even have the vote so how could they vote a straight ticket? The card also had a quote from Gilbert and Sullivan “and so do our sisters and our cousins and our aunts. “Was someone making fun of the movement or was this wishful thinking?

India, Pakistan, Israel, England, etc. have had women as heads of state, but it is unlikely that any women will ever attain that status here. In 1990 a postcard was produced by Preziosi Postcards which addresses the “Incredible Shrinking Woman’s Right to Choose.” Hard won battles to ensure a woman’s right to control her body and mind are under constant attack and are still in jeopardy of being taken away. Complacency and inertia have put the once roaring lion to sleep. Forgotten are the marches and the arrests, the hunger strikes and force feedings.

Women who fought for suffrage were considered mentally unbalanced. The first person to go over Niagara Falls in a barrel was a woman and they locked her up as a lunatic. Shortly thereafter a man attempted it and was lauded as a hero. Traditionally, the strong woman is considered a culprit or seriously deranged.

An important book on the graphics and psyche of suffrage is overdue. It is not only an important look into the past, but reflects on what is happening with present day social history. The following quotes from pre-1920s postcards could have been written today by those who are as anti women’s rights as the old codger in the comic card when seeing a sign asking if he was a suffragist said, “Yew jes bet I am! Suffered from chills an’ fever for forty years!”

Some famous sayings of the day include:

[quote style=”boxed”]“I protest against man-made laws.”[/quote]

[quote style=”boxed”]“Henpecked Husband the way you brag in the saloons, you’d think you were boss in the house, but at home you wash the dishes, and keep just as quiet as a mouse.”[/quote]

[quote style=”boxed”]“For the work of the day, for the taxes we pay, for the laws we obey, we want something today.”[/quote]

[quote style=”boxed”]“If, instead of ranting of Woman’s rights, you tried to look after some, sickly mites, and talk of their rights, long, strong and loud, you would then be a woman of whom we would be proud.”[/quote]

These milder insults reflect how far we have progressed as a species and how much further we need to go. As for those countries where suffrage doesn’t exist and the dowry system survives, that is a global tragedy which Henry Ward Beecher, his sisters and his wife would be horrified to learn still exist. “Woman be subservient unto thy husband” still remains as part of the wedding ceremony in many faiths in this country. Beecher didn’t want a slave, he wanted a wife who would be his equal and work along side of him to emancipate slaves and women alike. If all one wants out of marriage is someone to cook and clean, it is easier to go to a restaurant. Men are also being emancipated by the ongoing women’s movement and are increasingly active in it. World suffrage is the goal of many, but it is unfortunately a sore subject to those who have enjoyed the hubris of holding the power of elitism over others. Inclusion not exclusion is what makes a civilization survive and grow. Women are a resource just as men are and Beecher was very aware that to waste resources was to rob civilization.

“Love thy mother and treat her as you would yourself. Honor her by treating all women thus allowing them to achieve suffrage and human rights if not everyone will lose and no one will have the right to vote.” Suffrage is a hard won right and if not exercised will deteriorate and evaporate. One vote for each individual, thoughtfully and intelligently executed will preserve and advance civilization. The vote not used or thrown away is a travesty and a vote against suffrage and human rights and those who devoted their lives to advancing civilization. The ephemera of suffrage provides us with a visual documentation of the advance or decline of our world.

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