It seems almost farcical that the 2016 presidential campaign has become a referendum on misogyny at a moment when the United States is poised to elect its first woman president.

Not that this is surprising, exactly.

There’s a long tradition of politics clashing spectacularly with perceived gender norms around election time, and the stakes often seem highest when women are about to make history.

Today’s political dialogue—which often merely consists of opposing sides shouting over one another—echoes another contentious era in American politics, when women fought for the right to vote. Then and now, a mix of political tension and new-fangled publishing technology produced an environment ripe for creating and distributing political imagery. The meme-ification of women’s roles in society—in civic life and at home—has been central to an advocacy tradition that far precedes slogans like, “Life’s a bitch, don’t elect one,” or  “A woman’s place is in the White House.”

Today’s memes can be found on T-shirts and bumper stickers, yes, but they’re mostly online—published and shared on platforms like Tumblr and Imgur and Twitter. A century ago, political memes were distributed primarily on postcards, via pamphlets, and in newspapers—with suffragettes as a favorite subject of either mockery or admiration, depending on the illustrator’s beliefs.

Much of the imagery that circulated in the early 20th century made fun of suffragists, even in illustrations that weren’t explicitly anti-suffrage. Mainstream humor at the time relied heavily on gender-based tropes and stereotypes, and political humor was no exception.“It made no difference that the bulk of this material was not intentionally anti-suffrage,” wrote Lisa Tickner in her 1988 book, The Spectacle of Women: Imagery of the Suffrage Campaign 1907-14, “It represented an enormous mass of material, and some very deep-seated prejudice.”

“Suffragette Vote-Getting, the Easiest Way,” published by the Dunston-Weiler Lithograph Company in 1909. (Catherine H. Palczewski Postcard Archive / University of Northern Iowa)

One common theme was the subversion of male and female roles in society—with men often depicted holding crying babies or doing housework, and women portrayed as ultra masculine and detached from home life.

“Election Day,” published by the Dunston-Weiler Lithograph Company in 1909, features a woman leaving her family to vote. A caption reads: “What is a suffragette without a suffering household?”
(Catherine H. Palczewski Postcard Archive / University of Northern Iowa)

Artists who created works with the intention of promoting suffrage were organized and devoted to the cause, Tickner wrote, “but [their efforts] were very small against the accumulated weight of individual and institutional misogyny.”

Sounds familiar, no?

“Uncle Sam, Suffragee,” published by the Dunston-Weiler Lithograph Company in 1909.
(Catherine H. Palczewski Postcard Archive / University of Northern Iowa)

On top of all that, in a sub-genre of suffrage-era propaganda that’s downright internetty, there was even an obsession with cats. (This was likely because of the 1913 Cat-and-Mouse Act, a government strategy to discourage hunger strikes by imprisoned suffragettes in the United Kingdom, according to the historian of social movements Catherine Helen Palczewski.)

(Catherine H. Palczewski Postcard Archive / University of Northern Iowa)
(Catherine H. Palczewski Postcard Archive / University of Northern Iowa)

As Palczewski points out in an essay accompanying her web collection of suffrage postcards, it was common for people to display albums filled with postcards in their homes in the early 20th century. So it made sense that postcards both supporting and opposing the women’s vote were ubiquitous, especially between 1890 and 1915 in the United States. About 4,500 different suffrage-themed postcards were designed during that time, she wrote.

Congress ultimately ratified the 19th Amendment in 1920. But many women, particularly women of color, remained disenfranchised long after that. Early 20th-century suffrage memes were nearly exclusively concerned with white people. In reviewing hundreds of postcards, prints, and illustrations, the only portrayal I saw of a black woman was in a cartoon strip about a white husband struggling to manage housework after his wife had gone off to a suffrage meeting. The woman in the strip is a mammy caricature, only there to help the man with the laundry.

“Mr. Hubby — His Wife Is at the Suffrage Club,” published in The San Francisco Call, in 1913. (Library of Congress)

And though the aesthetic of early comics and other memes isn’t exactly contemporary, many of the formats used back in the day—like inspirational quotes overlaying imagery of revered figures—have lived on. You can find this kind of thing all over sites like Pinterest and Reddit today:

A 1910 postcard of an Abraham Lincoln statue features a pro-suffrage caption. (Library of Congress)

In 1941, George Orwell wrote an essay about the endurance of this art form, focusing in particular on the work of Donald McGill, a British illustrator known for his raunchy postcards. His observations remain salient today, and could easily apply to modern collections of political “shitposts.” (The epithet he uses is jarring to read in 2016, but such racist imagery is still being produced.)

They have an utter lowness of mental atmosphere which comes out not only in the nature of the jokes but, even more, in the grotesque, staring, blatant quality of the drawings. The designs, like those of a child, are full of heavy lines and empty spaces, and all the figures in them, every gesture and attitude, are deliberately ugly, the faces grinning and vacuous, the women monstrously parodied, with bottoms like Hottentots. Your second impression, however, is of indefinable familiarity. What do these things remind you of? What are they so like?

Comic postcards, Orwell concluded, were so familiar because they exploited tensions and ideas rooted deeply in Western European consciousness. Finding humor in punching down at women, the depictions of them as grotesque, sexual innuendo at their expense—all this stuff has deep cultural roots. “What you are really looking at,” he wrote, “is something as traditional as Greek tragedy.” Which, of course, brings us back to the 2016 election.

Outspoken and civically engaged women are still a target for humorists and activists, routinely cast as either larger-than-life saviors or power-thirsty demons destroying modern society. “To her critics, the modern woman was a symptom of the social decline she helped to precipitate,” Tickner wrote of the way suffragettes were perceived during the presidential campaign of 1908, “To her champions, she was not unwomanly, but womanly in a new and developing way.”

The only consensus, it seems, is that a woman’s political ambitions cannot be ignored.

This 1915 illustration by Henry Mayer depicts the awakening of the nation's women to the desire for suffrage—with a torch-bearing woman striding across the western states, where women already had the right to vote, toward the east where women are reaching out to her. Printed below the cartoon is a poem by Alice Duer Miller. (Library of Congress)
A postcard featuring a father with his children, and the caption “I Don’t Care If She Never Comes Back,” published by the Dunston-Weiler Lithograph Company in 1909. (Catherine H. Palczewski Postcard Archive / University of Northern Iowa)
“Election Day,” by E.W. Gustin, 1909. (Library of Congress)
“The sky is now her limit,” created by Elmer Andrews Bushnell in 1920, shows a young woman carrying buckets on a yoke, looking up at ladder ascending up to the sky. The bottom rungs are labeled "Slavery," "House Drudgery," and "Shop Work." The top rungs are labeled "Equal Suffrage," "Wage Equity," and "Presidency." (Library of Congress)
Kenneth Russell Chamberlain’s 1917 drawing shows a woman revising a statement on a wall—editing "Woman's sphere is the home" to "Woman's sphere is wherever she makes good"—and holding a list of places, such as "the law," "industry," “the school,” and “business,” that can be used to complete the revised statement. (Library of Congress)
Udo Keppler’s 1914 illustration shows several diminutive figures, men and women, hanging onto a robe labeled "Woman Suffrage" and the sandal of a gigantic woman who is striding forward. (Library of Congress)
William Henry Dethlef Koerner’s 1914 cartoon, “Spring house cleaning—why not,” shows a large broom labeled "womans suffrage" sweeping away a prostitute, gambler, and bartender to represent the idea that giving women the vote could mean an end to those occupations. (Library of Congress)
Rose Cecil O’Neill’s 1915 illustration shows infant "Kewpies," advocating for the women’s vote. The crying infant sitting on the right says, "I'm a girl baby and I'm going to be taxed without representation." (Library of Congress)
John Francis Knott’s 1920 cartoon shows Republican and Democratic versions of Adam taking credit for the passage of the Nineteen Amendment. Each is telling Eve that his party is the one that supports women's suffrage. (Library of Congress)
Joseph Ferdinand Keppler’s 1880 illustration, “A female suffrage fancy,” features a composite of eight caricatures of women dressing and interacting in society as men— drinking; voting for handsome candidates; driving ugly men from the polls—and a domestic scene showing a man taking care of children. (Library of Congress)
Donald McKee’s 1914 cartoon shows two female baseball players, "Feminism" and "Suffrage,” one encouraging the other to hit a male batter in the head. (Library of Congress)
William Ely Hill’s 1915 illustration shows a man standing at a table with three women and another man during a New Year's party. He is concerned that his wife will find him out with a female companion. (Library of Congress)
Merle De Vore Johnson’s 1909 cartoon shows a woman peering over a fence labeled "Woman's Sphere", while her playthings—"fashion" and "gossip"—lay abandoned. Another cartoon shows women voting, one of them pushing a baby carriage. (Library of Congress)
This print from the back cover of The Woman Citizen, published in 1918, is from an original painting by Evelyn Rumsey Cary. The text, which was well known to suffragists, was taken from Proverbs 31:31. (VCU Libraries)
In this cartoon, published in Puck magazine in 1915, an anti-suffragist sings “I Did Not Raise My Girl to be a Voter,” evoking the antiwar song “I Didn't Raise My Boy To Be A Soldier.” Back-up singers include a group of morally questionable men, including a child labor employer and a sweatshop owner.
(Library of Congress)
“The apotheosis of suffrage,” created by George Yost Coffin in 1896, depicts the famous suffragists, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, sitting with George Washington. The illustration is meant to evoke “The Apotheosis of Washington,” the fresco painted in the eye of the Rotunda of the U.S. Capitol by Constantino Brumidi in 1865. Coffin’s sendup is intended to mock the idea of Stanton and Anthony deserving such stature—a message that’s obscured in 2016, an era when Stanton and Anthony are revered for their dedication to women’s rights. (Library of Congress)
An illustration and photo featuring the women’s rights activist Lucretia Mott, 1897. (Library of Congress)
An illustration and photo of the civil rights activist George William Curtis, 1897. (Library of Congress)
“The Vote Girl,” featured in the British magazine Suffrage Atelier in 1909. (Museum of London)
A postcard featuring a woman's face framed by the rising sun and the slogan "Let Ohio Women Vote," 1915. (Ohio History Connection)
A popular poster created by the artist Bertha Margaret Boye for the 1911 California suffrage campaign. (Harvard University, Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America)
In this 1912 postcard, illustrated by Harold Bird for Britain’s National League for Opposition to Women's Suffrage, an anti-suffragist is depicted as a classically feminine compared with a scrawny suffragette. (NLOWS / Ann Lewis Women’s Suffrage Collection)
(Harvard University, Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America)
A postcard, published by the Dunston-Weiler Lithograph Company in 1909. (Catherine H. Palczewski Postcard Archive / University of Northern Iowa)
“Sufragette Madonna,” published by the Dunston-Weiler Lithograph Company in 1909. (Catherine H. Palczewski Postcard Archive / University of Northern Iowa)
A postcard produced by the Artists’ Suffrage League, an advocacy group in Britain, in 1907.  (Catherine H. Palczewski Postcard Archive / University of Northern Iowa)
A postcard made by the Artists’ Suffrage League, an advocacy group in Britain, in 1907.  (Catherine H. Palczewski Postcard Archive / University of Northern Iowa)
A postcard from the National American Woman Suffrage Association collection produced in 1910. (Catherine H. Palczewski Postcard Archive / University of Northern Iowa)
A postcard from the National American Woman Suffrage Association collection produced in 1910. (Catherine H. Palczewski Postcard Archive / University of Northern Iowa)
A postcard from the National American Woman Suffrage Association collection produced in 1910. (Catherine H. Palczewski Postcard Archive / University of Northern Iowa)
“The Blot on The Escutcheon,” by the National American Woman Suffrage Association, 1910.
(The Suffrage Postcard Project)
A postcard, published by Banforth & Co., shows a suffragette coercing the man next to her to support the cause. The caption reads: “Will those in favour of Women’s Suffrage please hold up their hands?” (Catherine H. Palczewski Postcard Archive / University of Northern Iowa)
Nelson Green’s 1914 illustration shows a woman labeled "Votes for Women" entering a bedroom. A man labeled "Male Voter," is smoking and lying on a bed labeled "Equal Suffrage." The caption reads: “How true it is that politics make strange bedfellows!” (Library of Congress)
“Life is just one damn thing after another,” an illustration published by Wall Ullman Mfg. Co. (Catherine H. Palczewski Postcard Archive / University of Northern Iowa)
A 1915 postcard illustrated by the Bernhardt Wall. (Catherine H. Palczewski Postcard Archive / University of Northern Iowa)
Ralph Wilder's 1909 cartoon shows a series of drawings in which a young man's proposal is rejected by his sweetheart until women can vote. He promises to advocate for her rights but ultimately fails.
(Library of Congress)
An anti-suffrage postcard published in 1906 attempts to make the case that women were not sophisticated enough to handle civic decisions. (Suffragette Postcard Project)
A 1915 postcard illustrated by Bernhardt Wall, who was nicknamed the “King of Postcards.”
(Catherine H. Palczewski Postcard Archive / University of Northern Iowa)