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

The Reorientation of Suffrage Media in the Twentieth Century

Emily Scarbrough, Author

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Chapter One "An American Girl"

She’s had a Vassar education,

And points with pride to her degrees;

She’s studied household decoration;

She knows a dado from a frieze,

And tells Corots from Boldonis;

A Jacquemart etching, or a Haden,

A Whistler, too, perchance might please

A free and frank young Yankee maiden

“An American Girl” by Brander Matthews[1]

In the twentieth century American woman suffragists recognized that the movement, which began a half century prior, was largely unsuccessful. Instead of opening the movement up to broader support, nineteenth century suffragists had alienated themselves through secluded meetings and private conventions. They further proposed a radical agenda that called for social, political, civil, economic equality between the sexes, and even issues like the dissolution of property rights, higher education for women, and access to divorce.[2]

In the media they appeared as man-hating spinsters or child-abandoning mothers – outliers in the typical family structure. As a result, suffrage was either ridiculed or ignored for a majority of the nineteenth century. Twentieth century suffragists sought to revise their image in the public’s mind. To do so, they created an identity that played into existing, popular opinions on class, race, and beauty to become mainstream rather than marginal. The success of the suffrage model was largely dependent on how well suffragists understood and utilized the wider culture of the Progressive Era. Many Americans resisted changes to gender roles; the suffrage movement found itself on the front lines in a battle between progressive and traditional. In order to win both the support of women who embraced the newness of the twentieth century and those who held onto old Victorian visions of motherhood and womanliness, the suffrage cause compromised its radical vision of the future, and instead drew heavily on the past for much of its campaign in the media. Instead of framing suffrage as liberating for women, suffrage became a way to protect gender distinctions by promoting domesticity, morality, and femininity.

[1]  Our Girls: Poems in Praise of the American Girl (New York: Moffat, Yard and Company, 1907), 3.

[2]  Bonnie Dow, “The Revolution, 1868-1872: Expanding the Woman Suffrage Agenda,” as printed in Martha Solomon, ed. A Voice of Their Own: The Woman Suffrage Press, 1840-1910 (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1991), 78.

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