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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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The Allegory

During the enormous March, 1913 suffrage parade in parade in Washington D.C. the procession came to a halt in front of the U.S. Treasury building for over one hundred women to take part in a massive tableau. Tableaus were wildly popular displays for suffragists, as they silently reenacted famous scenes from history. They played very well into the suffragists’ tendency toward spectacle. In fact, they really represent a general, growing interest in the progressive era toward big spectacles.[1] The suffrage pageant and parade represents a very strong, growing interest in a sort of street theater that emerged not only as a form of protest, but as popular entertainment.

An elaborate demonstration called “The Allegory” commenced. Orchestrated by Hazel McKaye, a
member of the NWP and a renowned theatre expert.[2] The official program of the parade describes the outline:

Columbia, hearing the approach of the Procession, summons to her side, Justice, Charity, Liberty, Peace, and Hope, to review with her this ‘new crusade’ of women. When these are assembled, Columbia takes her place as leader and guardian of them all, and, in a final tableau, they stand together and review the oncoming Procession.[3]

            McKaye’s Allegory used figures from mythology who were traditionally seen as women: Justice, Charity, Liberty, Peace, and Hope. These figures represent the positive virtues of the female sex and lent a certain legitimacy to the claims of suffragists that women were the moral compass for society. Women were represented by all of these positive values, which makes it incredibly important that Columbia, the feminine personification for the United States of America, leads them all. As Columbia guides the virtuous mythological figures, it demonstrated to the audience that the nation could choose to incorporate feminine virtue into the path that America would take in her political future.

The display was intensely popular. The New York Times referred to the Allegory as “a wonderful series of dramatic pictures.”[1] The same article estimated that 500,000 people witnessed the tableau. The parade drew its authority from cultural symbols that everyone already understood. Historian Alice Sheppard contends, “by imposing recognized characters or relationships on a current situation, the viewer identifies motifs of good and evil, heroism and villainy.”[2] If suffragists drew upon an existing cultural dialog, they could inject their message by using universally recognized symbols. 

On the one hand suffragists hoped to achieve the progressive goal of woman’s enfranchisement, but they rooted their argument in older, existing, even ancient, beliefs in woman’s unique goodness. It also befitted suffragists that traditional allegory depicted women as inhumanly beautiful. The use of classic mythology as inspiration for the movement can be seen in print as well as public displays. Allegory was also significant for woman suffragists because it afforded them the opportunity to frame women as heroic and strong without being masculine. A balance that the NWP struck carefully with the development and prolonged use of its version of militancy.

           Women found several examples from mythology, but when they looked to history for inspiration, there was a single figure recognizable for woman suffragists to draw upon: Joan of Arc. She represented all the things that suffragists envisioned for themselves: femininity, strength, heroism, piety, and citizenship. Joan of Arc became emblematic particularly for the NWP, who additionally latched onto the story of her suffering and martyrdom.

[1] Sarah Moore, “Making a Spectacle of Suffrage: The National Woman Suffrage Pageant, 1913,” The Journal of American Culture 20, no. 1 (June, 2004), 89.

Karen Blair, “Pageantry for Woman’s Rights: The Career of Hazel McKaye, 1913-1923,” Theatre Survey 31, no. 1 (May, 1990), 23.

[3] “Official Program Woman Suffrage Procession, March 13, 1913,” 15.

[4]“5,000 Women March, Beset By Crowds,” New York Times (March 4, 1913), 5.

[5] Alice Sheppard, Cartooning for Suffrage (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1994), 161.

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