Riffling through old suffragette postcards earlier this week, I was struck by the images of men used by opponents of the movement. They showed how the contested social territory of the aughts and teens of the young 20th century remains contested ground even 100 years or more later. Giving women the vote was fraught with social peril, these images suggest, for women's formal emancipation might upend gender relationships so much that it would lead to men also taking on womanly tasks, such as caring for babies or doing the laundry. The horror!
The "Suffragette Madonna" was a popular though gentle image among those who questioned the movement for women's voting rights in America, according to Kenneth Florey, who maintains the Woman Suffrage Memorabilia site.
One of 12 cards issued by the firm Dunston-Weiler, this 1909 version of the Suffrage Madonna was part of a series that highlighted fears that "somehow giving votes to women would mean that male and female gender roles would be completely overturned," Florey told The Atlantic. "If women got the vote, women would be going out in business and men would be forced to take care of the households" -- part of a "general fear working on male insecurity."
"Most of these images are caricatures about how men will be feminized," observed Margaret Finnegan, author of Selling Suffrage: Consumer Culture and Votes for Women.
"A lot of these images played on this tensions that men and women were feeling in the age of the new role," she said.
Those tensions are more obvious later in the series, in an image of a man washing laundry while caring for a baby and a cat. "I want to vote but my wife won't let me," the tagline reads -- as if power were a total zero-sum game and women voting and working meant men would experience a wholesale role reversal.
"I think what you're seeing again in an image like that is a complete inversion of gender roles," said Finnegan. "It's sort of suggesting that women aren't doing the traditional roles that they should be, that they are being selfish actually...now he can't even do the things he is expected to do because of her selfishness. I read this as him being really emasculated.... Surely if they can vote and they can be active in politics then men are going to be taking care of babies!"
Another image, from Florey's collection of British anti-suffrage materials, shows how exciting a prospect that was to some.