Women’s Suffrage: Getting creative

10 July 2018

Gender and Sexuality | History | Politics

Recently, I attended an event at the National Archives celebrating 100 years of women’s suffrage. Whilst there, I listened to a talk about Edith Garrud, the woman who taught ‘Suffragette jiu-jitsu’. She was one of the first professional female martial arts instructors in the world, teaching suffragettes how to defend themselves in difficult, violent situations. These skills were also used in comedy performances, where policemen were shown to be overpowered by the ‘underdog’ suffragettes. These performances were an accessible form of entertainment and helped to raise support for the suffrage movement.

Although news reports were often negative about the suffrage movement, supporters found new ways of changing public opinion, particularly in the form of cartoons and art pieces. Adam Matthew's recently published resource Gender, Identity and Social Change includes plenty of highly visual contemporary material which supports this view. The U.S. cartoon by C.D. Batchelor (pictured below) shows a woman carrying the weight of the world on her shoulders. Batchelor writes: ‘It is a man’s loss as well as her own that a woman’s influence is unused. There is nowhere a more glaring instance of the waste of natural resources’.

"A Thankless Burden", n.d., Content compilation © 2018, by Bryn Mawr College. All rights reserved. To see this document in the collection, click on the image. 

One of the arguments against women having the vote was that the household would fall apart if women began taking an active role in politics. The image below utilises the traditional role of the mother in the home, taking care of the children, with the caption ‘Double the power of the home – two good votes are better than one’. The cartoon uses a widely accepted image of the woman as caregiver to change perspectives – she is still a mother, capable of raising children and increasing the power of the household’s influence on politics.

"Double the Power of the Home…", 23 Oct 1915, Content compilation © 2018, by Bryn Mawr College. All rights reserved. To see this document in the collection, click on the image.

Men who were against the movement were turned into comedy figures in publications. The old man in the cartoon below ignores the lashing rain around him as he clings to his old umbrella, representing his outdated views. The umbrella is shown to be tatty and insubstantial against the onslaught of evidence, promising hope for the future.

"The Old Umbrella's Leaking Badly", 1 Mar 1915, Content compilation © 2018, by Bryn Mawr College. All rights reserved. To see this document in the collection, click on the image.

This image goes further in illustrating the dissenters as corrupt and dangerous, hiding in ambush from the stoic figure of a woman carrying a suffrage bill. This has an almost pantomime quality to it, with a clear hero and villain. Looking at that image, it’s unlikely that anyone would want to be associated with the crowd clutching weapons labelled ‘white slaver’ or ‘corrupt politician’…

Waiting in Ambush, c.1913-1914, Content compilation © 2018, by Bryn Mawr College. All rights reserved. To see this document in the collection, click on the image. 

The creative ways in which suffragists sought to demonstrate the importance of their cause offer a fascinating insight into the views of society at the time and highlight how crucial these methods were in fighting for change.

Further examples of documents about Women’s Suffrage can be found in our Gender: Identity and Social Change collection. For more information, including free trial access and price enquiries, please email us at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

About the Author

Natalie Dale

Natalie Dale

Since joining Adam Matthew in January 2018, I have worked on some fascinating collections, including Colonial America and Age of Exploration. I have a Masters in Literature and Creative Writing from Aberystwyth University and my interests include gender studies, literature and the First World War. 

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