Sign in or register
for additional privileges

“Fine Dignity, Picturesque Beauty, and Serious Purpose”:

The Reorientation of Suffrage Media in the Twentieth Century

Emily Scarbrough, Author

You appear to be using an older verion of Internet Explorer. For the best experience please upgrade your IE version or switch to a another web browser.

Suffrage on the Silver Screen

As film emerged in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, suffragists were commonly used in gender-bending comedies through depictions of them as masculine women who abandoned homes, children, and husbands to degrade from their moral high ground. But the women’s suffrage movement soon realized the power that film could have to generate support. They began creating their own films to redefine the suffrage woman and combat negative stereotypes that dominated cinema. Before we can see how suffragists remade their image, it is important to see the image that already existed.

The Lady Barber (1898) was a short film that featured a highly aggressive suffragist who “with the zeal of a latter-day Delilah, began snipping the hair of bewildered men.” The woman frightened and intimidated the clients of the barber shop with trademark suffragist aggression. The film opened the door for antisuffrage films that played on “popular fears of sexual revolution and urged audience to preserve traditional family values and gender roles.” With The Lady Barber assertive, reform women became commonplace in films. Two examples of early antisuffrage depictions can be seen in films featuring a fictionalized Carrie Nation.
  Antisuffrage propaganda had existed since the beginning of the woman’s suffrage movement, and the new medium of film created another platform for antis to attack their suffragist counterparts. Many noteworthy early silent films depicted suffragists in a highly negative light. Two very early silent films about Carrie Nation, a suffragist and teetotaler living in Nebraska, help demonstrate the very harsh characterizations of suffragists. Carrie Nation was a member of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU). At nearly six feet tall, the temperance woman encouraged and engaged in extreme acts of vandalism. Famously a saloon-smasher, Nation became notorious and sparked extreme outrage. Her actions inspired the young film industry to adapt news stories into feature films. Both of the Carrie Nation films were produced by the Edison Manufacturing Company. The film company was formed in 1893 and owned by Thomas Edison, though he had little direct involvement. Between 1893 and 1918, when the company dissolved, the studio produced 1,200 films. Early Edison films had “been made by men, primarily for men,” according to Charles Musser. Perhaps this mostly male audience can explain some of the uneasiness toward the shifting of traditional gender roles.
Kansas Saloon Smashers (1901) was a one-minute film featuring a hatchet-wielding woman who contemporary audiences knew was Carrie Nation. The film was advertised as Mrs. Carrie Nation and her Hatchet Brigade, but was retitled Kansas Saloon Smashers as several similarly titled films were released at the same time. The one-minute films that dominated early cinema were produced very quickly and often portrayed popular events. The film was shot with a “wet” perspective, or one that opposed temperance, and it depicted Nation as a domineering woman. Dressed all in black and wielding an axe, the Nation character walked into a saloon and smashed every bottle, including a highly caricatured Irishman’s bucket of alcohol. The short film was clearly a comedy, complete with a police officer’s pratfall in a puddle of liquor. But the film was rooted in truth, early in 1901 Carrie Nation and her followers arrived in Wichita, Kansas and “with hatchets concealed under their cloaks the women entered the saloon of James Burn… and did not leave a complete piece of glass or a working slot machine in the place.” This type of suffragist caricature was highly common in various media forms since the mid-nineteenth century, but Kansas Saloon Smashers (1901) provides a glimpse of how the overbearing, mannish suffrage image transferred onto film. This movie predated the Nickelodeon boom and was likely shown after Vaudeville performances or in kinetoscopes.
A second film about Carrie Nation was released later in 1901. It was a two-minute film about Nation’s husband who had recently filed for divorce from his temperance and suffrage supporting wife. The film featured a common theme of anti-reform women, who focused so much on redeeming the American family at large, that they would forget to take care of their own family. Why Mr. Nation Wants a Divorce(1901) features a one-room set where Mr. Nation feeds his infant a bottle under a sign that reads “What is a home without a mother.” Feeding his baby a bottle reminds Mr. Nation of his own thirst, and he reaches for a hidden bottle of liquor, drinking clandestinely until his overbearing wife comes home from prison unannounced. Outraged, Carrie Nation takes her husband over her knee and spanks him like a child. Film scholar Scott Simmons also points out that Mrs. Nation looks to be played by a male. This gender reversal plot is common in early antisuffrage comedies. Antisuffragists had always argued that if women became involved in male activities, men would have to fill in for women’s roles. Like Kansas Saloon Smashers (1901) this film was very short and likely shown in Vaudeville theaters and in kinetoscopes.
Comment on this page

Discussion of "Suffrage on the Silver Screen"

Add your voice to this discussion.

Checking your signed in status ...