When Alice Paul recruited a cartoonist for her newspaper The Suffragist in 1914, the idea of that activist was already sketched in the public mind — and it was not pretty. Throughout the 19th century and into the 20th, Americans had encountered countless images showing women suffragists as old, mannish and unattractive. In pursuing the vote, women were portrayed as threatening national values, the sanctity of the home and their husbands’ masculinity.
It was impossible to miss such representations. Whether in newspapers, on posters or on buildings around town, “all Americans encountered cartoons,” according to Allison K. Lange, author of “Picturing Political Power: Images in the Women’s Suffrage Movement.”
Suffragist artists fought back on a black-and-white battlefield, developing imagery to subvert negative portrayals. In the 1910s, these cartoons were key to America’s reimagining who a suffragist was and to winning sympathy for the cause.
Paul enlisted Nina Allender, an artist and women’s rights activist, to shape the image of a charming and energetic suffragist for the Congressional Union for Woman Suffrage (a precursor to the National Woman’s Party, or N.W.P.). It was important that the Allender Girl be created in a style that was widely recognizable, according to the historian Rebecca McCarron.
Following in the illustrated tradition of the independent “New Woman” and the era’s iconic Gibson and Brinkley Girls, she was a stylish ideal of educated, youthful femininity and middle-class respectability. That was essential to offsetting the N.W.P.’s more militant strategies, like picketing the White House and holding hunger strikes in jail.
Other images, like those distributed by the National American Woman Suffrage Association, rebutted claims that women’s voting rights endangered the home. Rose O’Neill, creator of the popular cherubic Kewpie babies, sent her characters marching under banners demanding “Votes for Our Mothers.” Cartoons by artists like O’Neill, Blanche Ames Ames and Mary Ellen Sigsbee argued that women needed the vote precisely because they were caring and virtuous mothers, Lange said.
Annie Lucasta Rogers, who adopted the androgynous name Lou Rogers to advance her career, was a member of the radical feminist club Heterodoxy. (Her depiction of a woman tearing off the bonds of disenfranchisement strongly influenced the imagery of Wonder Woman, according to Jill Lepore’s book “The Secret History of Wonder Woman.”) She explained in a 1913 interview that her cartoons were “a chance to help women see their own problems, help bring out the things that are true in the traditions that have bound them; help show up the things that are false.”
Whether the images featured girlish, maternal or symbolic figures, the protagonists, and the artists who drew them, were white. Though there were many women of color who were passionate suffragists, their absence in the cartoons spoke to a larger strategy adopted by many reformers to appease white supremacist politicians and suffragists and obscure the contributions of women who were not white.
The National Association of Colored Women produced portraits of leaders like Mary Church Terrell, but, Lange said, they lacked the same resources and infrastructure to widely shape their public image. One rare example — perhaps the only one — of a cartoon in support of Black women’s suffrage was printed in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s publication The Crisis with the title “Woman to the Rescue!” It shows a Black mother protecting her children against birds of prey representing Jim Crow and segregation.
Soon after the Allender Girl celebrated her hard-won victory in The Suffragist, her creator moved on to Paul’s next pursuit — the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment, in the pages of the N.W.P.’s new magazine, Equal Rights. But 100 years later, American women are still at that drawing board.
Anna Diamond is a production coordinator for narrated articles at The New York Times.