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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 Vanguard

Suffragists also became, in their own media, an agent of municipal housekeepers, and therefore, a vanguard against vice and a protector of children. Though a number of reformers rejected woman’s suffrage as a means to reform society, many suffragists came from a municipal reform background and viewed the vote as the best means to elicit change. Suffragists drew heavily upon the idea of women as protectors, an idea which was very closely linked with the idea of suffragists as mothers. The social housekeeper appeared in a number of cartoons including
“Child Saving is Woman’s Work.” This Nina Allender sketch appeared in The Suffragist on July 25, 1914. It stands apart from many of Allender’s works because it plays more on sympathy than humor. The women figures do not necessarily emulate the look of a Gibson Girl, but rather the appearance of a Madonna. The cartoon shows suffragists hugging and caring for a large group of desolate looking children appearing before a cold, dirty city landscape. A long stream of skinny, dirty children pour out of the city and into the arms of feminine, motherly suffragists. The illustration seeks to expand woman’s work, which had traditionally been involved with domestic duties of mothers and wives, to include looking out for the welfare of all children. Noticably, the children in the sketch are not distinctly white. Instead they are certainly poor, and likely ethnic. The cartoon plays with the view of eugenics that foreign born Americans are inferior. Because immigrant children are particularly vulnerable
to exploitation, they need particular protection. The phrase “votes for women” appears above the women and children, conveying to viewers that the enfranchisement of women would help better the lives of all children.
NAWSA adhered itself to this idea of women as moral vanguards for society. This cover for The
Woman Citizen was published June 7, 1917. It features a classic, allegorical woman labeled suffrage holding a sword
of labor laws to protect three small children – the children, unlike Allender’s cartoon, appear distinctly white and middle-class based on their features and grooming. The suffrage figure holds back the greedy hands of exploiters of
children, all represented by men in suits. These men are poised as enemies to suffrage, politicians and factory owners who are willing to sacrifice children for profit. Another so-called enemy of the cause were people in the alcohol industry who feared that the passage of suffrage would allow for national temperance as well. Suffragists framed these characters as malicious, and themselves as brave. This cartoon certainly presents the suffrage figure as courageous by shielding the children, wielding a sword, and facing the attacks of these exploiters. Labeled, “They shall not pass,” the cartoon suggests that suffrage would stand as a constant protector of children, staving off threats to the welfare of children.

            Film was another popular form of media for suffragists to sell this message of women as reformers and protectors. NAWSA produced three films between 1912 and 1914, the most successful of which appears to have been Your Girl and Mine (1914). The film paints a beautiful, young suffragist as incredibly sympathetic. The woman marries a man at the beginning of the film. Throughout the film the husband accrues a huge amount of debt that the suffragist is responsible for paying off. He also engages in debauchery that drives the suffragist and her children from the home until the law “orders them ‘returned to the roof of their father.’”[1] The film suggested that all the problems that plagued the suffragist, but also society, could be solved if women were allowed to vote. Child labor, inadequate tenement fire escapes, eight-hour workdays, and divorce are all social problems that the film addressed. It then suggests that women, if given the vote, could alleviate the problems. The social problem film pushed
the suffrage agenda that the cause could be a stepping stone to all of these other avenues for reform. If suffrage could gain support, then women could assume a larger responsibility for the welfare of society as a whole.

The film was very well-received. Kitty Kelly of the Chicago Tribune wrote “Slavery had its ‘Uncle Tom,’ temperance its barroom beacon, and now suffrage has its classic, done up in the mode of the moment – the movies.”[2] The melodrama portrayed a beautiful young suffragist as the heroine, a real life Allender Girl. The film appealed to working-class women through the charming actress by engaging what Nan Estad has called a movie-struck fantasy, the desire of working-class women to escape the drudgery of factory work to become movie heroines, and it appealed to men by painting suffragists as attractive, feminine, essentially nonthreatening.[3] The film set suffragists apart from the spinster, aggressive suffragists of older films, which had ridiculed woman suffragists.

 NAWSA presented a vision of suffragists as heroic, hyper-feminine characters who deserved sympathy rather than disdain. They were vanguards of public health and safety. The vote could empower women to escape drunken husbands, to protect their children, create safe living conditions, and more. Your Girl and Mine used the Allender Girl vision to suggest that municipal housekeeping could be implemented more effectively if women carried the same political weight as men.

In The Moving Picture World, one of the early film trade magazines, James McQuade reviewed the film. He wrote “The near future, I firmly believe, will reveal to those who advocate equal suffrage that moving pictures, as shown in ‘Your Girl and Mine,’ will accomplish more for the cause than all that eloquent tongues have done since the movement started.”[4] This sort of thinking was precisely the same view that inspired NAWSA to pursue film. Suffrage discourse had mostly occurred only among suffragists who already supported the cause. To gain more support, suffragists needed to appeal to more people. By portraying suffragists as young and beautiful instead of as old spinsters, NAWSA helped make the movement more approachable for working-class audiences.

Your Girl and Mine was shown in seven key states where suffrage legislation was coming up for a vote. In the same way that automobile tours and lecture circuits had been used to push suffrage through state legislatures, so too could the suffrage propaganda films. These new, modern ways to communicate with a broad audience helped suffragists present themselves as progressive. Though they had curbed the radical element of their message, suffragists still needed to encourage and engage the public in the most visible ways possible. Since film was a particularly popular leisure pastime in the early twentieth century, NAWSA’s films engaged more people than suffrage had ever before.

Suffragists tried to prioritize attention over message. As long as suffrage was a major point of discussion, the nuances of the movement could be left unspoken. Your Girl and Mine “pictures unjust social conditions made possible by and due to women’s unequal voice in the management of affairs in which she has no vote, and shown in a concrete dramatic story that ends happily with her winning the vote.”[5] The film “taking Harriet Beecher Stowe’s famous work as a guide,” is carefully crafted “to avoid anything that might look like ‘just preaching.’”[6] The plot of Your Girl and Mine is certainly a melodrama, a piece of entertainment. As a result, the specific discussion over how women would use the vote to achieve these reforms is lost. 

[1] James McQuade, “Your Girl and Mine,” The Moving Picture World vol. 22, September 3, 1914, 675.

[2]  Kitty Kelly, “Suffrage Movie Proves a Success,” Chicago Tribune, October 15, 1914.

[3] Nan Estad, Ladies of Labor, Girls of Adventure (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999), 183.

[4]  James McQuade, “Your Girl and Mine,” The Moving Picture World vol. 22, September 3, 1914, 674.

[5]  “Suffrage Play on Road,” New York Times, December 21, 1914.

[6]  McQuade, “Your Girl and Mine,” 674.

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