International Feminist Journal of Politics


Learning from the British Suffragettes: How Posters Were Used to Announce (In)Security


Feminist work has always been important, but it seems, with the growing backlash against ‘gender ideology’ and an increasing refusal to identify as feminist, that it is increasingly so. Most important will be to clarify the core message(s) of the feminisms’ varied politics: highlighting gendered power structures and norms. Cautious of the developmental tropes that come with, looking historically may prove a useful tool for demonstrating the injustices of the past that risk being replicated and equipping us with the strategies of our feminist forebears. In 2018, the UK celebrated the centenary of somewomen’s suffrage and since 2016 Women’s Marches have been taking place the world over. People have taken to the streets to protest the election of Donald Trump, his anti-women statements, and Queerphobic policies, as well as the general anti-feminist sentiment (re)surging worldwide. 

What these marches demonstrated was how powerful visual material is. Protestors used a variety of visual material from controversial Pussy Hats, live-streaming and sharing images (often with personal stories) on social media to more traditional printed posters like Shephard Fairey’s ‘We the People’series. The visual aspect of political movements is often under-appreciated, but it has great potential, not just in protests, for capturing the politics of the feminist and Queer movement(s) and showcasing the violences and discrimination experienced by marginalised individuals. Looking historically, in the case of the British Women’s Suffrage movement most argue that it was ‘Deeds, not words!’ that won women the vote. However, the poster was an important medium, used by Government and Suffragettes, respectively, to try to seek Suffragettes silent and to bring women’s poor treatment and status as second-class citizens into public discourse. For Suffragettes in particular, posters were fundamental for communicating their political goals and the extraordinary actions (e.g., hunger striking) they used to achieve those goals. The lesson here: showing may do as much as telling.

In this post, I draw on my recently published IFJP article to highlight the importance of the visual aspect of social and political movements. Particularly, how images can be used to circumvent oppression and bring attention to key political issues. The images that pro-suffrage organisations used often positioned themselves against government-supported anti-suffrage images, as can be seen in the “Is your wife a suffragette?” figure displayed below. While the image relies heavily on symbolic value, it clearly captures the threat under which elites felt gender roles to be. The poster poses a rhetorical question, which draws the audience in and forces them to ask just what could happen if their wife, family member, or friend is a suffragette. The illustration suggests an answer: gender destabilization. Readers interested in the wider collection images analysed in the journal article can view a small sample here.

Eustace Watkins,  Is your Wife a Suffragette?  (1918/1907). Source: LSE Library collections, TWL.2004.1011.18.

Eustace Watkins, Is your Wife a Suffragette? (1918/1907). Source: LSE Library collections, TWL.2004.1011.18.

There is no denying that deeds helped the suffrage cause, however they were not the only mechanism through which Suffragettes demonstrated their politics and resisted the British government’s attempts to silence them and keep women outside of politics. Using posters, the Suffragettes focused on publicising the punitive measures used by the government against them. Alongside these images, which showcased women’s experiences as women and as Suffragettes,the Suffragettes carried out certain practices like window-smashing and hunger-striking in prison when they were arrested. This was all in a bid to increase attention for their cause. The posters were a way of bringing certain actions (especially hunger striking) to the public’s attention because they often took place in spaces inaccessible to public scrutiny – in prisons, for example. Without posters, many of the Suffragettes’ actions would otherwise have gone unseen. 

Images and what they show also allow us to think about the unsaid, the unsayable, the things that if said, even though implicitly knowable, might cause us harm. 

Drawn representations in particular provide space for illustrators to accentuate and call attention to certain ideas, events and experiences that have perhaps been silenced/made invisible.So, how might we learn from the Suffragettes’ use of posters? Drawing their experiences as disenfranchised women and distributing the product publicly was a means of showing their daily experiences of law and gender bias in a fast, easily understandable way. These two characteristics of their images, the speed and simplicity with which they conveyed core messages, was important in leveraging the power of images to affect the masses. In today’s image-saturated, hyper-visual media environment, simplicity may be the key to showing different world experiences. Posters help in this regard by combining text and visual material to lessen the chance of misinterpretation that occurs as can be the case with purely visual material as it circulates further and wider. 

One cannot ignore an image in the same ways one can ignore text and speech. Images are important parts of political movements that go hand-in-hand with texts, speeches and practices, like protests, as ways of furthering their cause and drawing attention to the political issues they wish to get (higher) on the agenda. In the case of the Suffragettes, a combination of texts, visuals and practices was used to show and tell stories. Increasingly, we are seeing similar combinations of texts, images, and practices as women and people marginalized because of their non-normative sexuality, gender identity, race, class and/or ability protest their political and social subjugation. If we are to fully convey the threats real people face we must turn attention to the ways that images show things that may otherwise go unsaid; the Suffragettes are wonderful teachers in this regard. We must think through the ways that images can speak, or at least capture succinctly, some of the key messages feminists wish to enter public discourse and try to harness that quality going forward. 

Read the full article here: Seeing (In)security, gender and silencing: posters in and about the British women’s suffrage movement

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Dean Cooper-Cunningham is a Ph.D. Fellow at the University of Copenhagen working at the intersections of visual politics, security studies, and feminist and Queer theory. His current research examines how Queer sexual orientations and gender identities are visually constituted as security threats in/by Russia.