|The Campaign for women's enfranchisement (1906-1914) has left a wide-ranging visual legacy. Photographs, postcards, posters, cartoons, banners, letterheads, medals and even tea sets all colour our mental image of this historic struggle. These artefacts are not simply the by-products of the campaign, but the remnants of a dynamic medium used in innovative ways that was of central importance to it.|
|Some historians have sidelined
the Campaign for the Vote on the grounds of its failure to attain women's enfranchisement before
the First World War and have criticised the militant Suffragettes for seeming to push that goal
further out of reach by their antagonisation of the political establishment. Such a purely political
analysis, however, fails to explore, among other things, the liberating and challenging impact of
the visual spectacle that these women created. Respectable and feminine Edwardian women were crossing
the boundaries of their private lives into the very visible spaces of Edwardian men.
The most powerful example of this is the mass marches. In an article in the Daily Mail (1906) Cicely Hamilton describes the catalytic affect that being part of such a spectacle had on the women involved and how it inspired in them:
"A force of womanhood conscious of its own individuality, conscious of latent capacities and eager, fiercely eager to develop them a womanhood that declines to see life henceforth only through the eyes of men "
These theatrical events provided arresting stills that were swiftly produced and distributed as photographic postcards. The postcard was in its heyday a cheap, popular and collectable commodity. Through it the suffragettes and suffragists claimed a far wider audience, amplifying their impact.
|The image of the campaigners themselves became a battlefield and a pivot around which key issues were debated. The leaders of the movement were conscious that its members should not be dismissed as aberrations either by seeming to have discarded their femininity and become men or by attracting the stigma of disrespectability that often clung to women who operated in the public/male sphere. To attempt to redefine gendered spaces women had to retain familiar symbols of respectable femininity and import these into male spaces. To this end the movements newspapers advised women on dressing stylishly for the marches. This picture demonstrates the result and embodies their ideal of marching through the streets with dignity and grace.|
The Anti-Suffrage movement was quick in seeking to deride the Suffragettes over the issues of their sexual status. They articulated the attack by creating alternative images in their characterization of Suffragettes. The image above "Suffragettes who have never been kissed" satirises them as sexually unattractive and idiotic. They are portrayed in a no-mans-land between femininity and masculinity desexed as women but without the capability of men. The picture to the left, uses the same criteria. A masculine, yet impotent looking Suffragette expostulates before an audience of children - a comment on her supposed intellectual level and a glance at where her proper sphere is seen as lying.
|The Suffragettes replied in kind. The picture below right uses appearance as a metaphor and inverts the traditional references used by the Anti-Suffragists. The Anti-Suffrage Society (the ASS) is a dressmaker trying to force the Suffragette into the ill-fitting and old-fashioned dress of her grandmother. Here it is the Anti-Suffragist who is cast as the unattractive winging women a familiar character of 19th century caricature (see below left).|
|The programme of mass demonstrations tapped into a tradition of pageants and popular theatre. However the Campaign for the Vote claims a place in the history of design for its use of what we have come to call corporate image building. Colours, logos and merchandising were used to cement the internal identities of the Suffrage organisations, to maximise their political presence and to create an interface with the public.|
The Women's Social and Political Union led the way with the pervasive use of its purple white and green colours, its logos designed by Sylvia Pankhurst and the awarding of medals for acts such as undergoing imprisonment and hunger strike. The colours contributed to the impression of style and dignity and inspired a whole Suffrage fashion that was followed up profitably by entrepreneurs outside of the movement. They also added a military gloss to the organization emphasizing the idea of fighting for a cause while giving women the means of displaying their allegiance and creating an almost religious focus. They were the first political body to employ a corporate identity and use merchandising for propaganda purposes. It was a strategy that was soon copied by organisations around the world.
The visual campaign was one of the Suffragettes and Suffragists most successful instruments, both in inspiring members and propagating and defending its message. Its lasting legacy in the way that imagery is used in politics is a tribute to this success.