Ana Stevenson is a postdoctoral research fellow in the international studies group at the University of the Free State, South Africa.
In spring 1919, Congress adopted the 19th Amendment. Ratification came more than a year later on Aug. 18, 1920, just in time for that year’s presidential election. From that point on, voting rights would no longer be “denied or abridged … on account of sex.”
Few things seem less controversial today than the right of women to vote. Yet at the time, the campaign for women’s voting rights was a pitched battle over public opinion, one in which both sides sought to find the right message to win politicians and the people over to their side — and the right means of conveying it. Both sides took advantage of a postcard craze sweeping the United States and the world, with hundreds of millions of postcards then in circulation.
And many of the same visual strategies used during the suffrage debate persist today in depictions of female politicians and activists. The mode of communication may have changed dramatically over the past century. But remnants of the anti-suffrage formula continue to be wielded — often far more successfully — against feminists and female politicians today.
The communications revolution of the early 20th century was, in many ways, a phenomenon comparable to the digital revolution today. The “craze” for postcards prefigured the ephemeral, image-based world of memes, Facebook albums and Twitter. While both sides of the suffrage battle embraced this new cultural form, anti-suffrage postcards gained far greater exposure than their pro-suffrage counterparts, because they tapped into the key qualities of the commercial postcard culture: vibrant imagery and irreverent, misogynistic humor.
The result was a potent piece of political weaponry: postcards that were both visually appealing and entertaining. Anti-suffrage postcards routinely portrayed suffragists as aggressive, pants-wearing nags — unmarried, unmotherly or overly flirtatious and sexualized. Anti-suffragists successfully tapped into a sense that, in the words of scholar Kenneth Florey, suffragists were “nothing more than scolds and battle-axes.” These postcards proved highly popular.
Crucially, they reached beyond activists themselves. By contrast, pro-suffrage postcards were popular among suffragists, but they lacked broader appeal, in large part because they were far less vibrant and compelling.
Pro-suffrage postcards aimed to illustrate the positive contribution that suffragists believed women’s enfranchisement would have on political culture. Many embraced patriotic themes and celebrated the efforts of foremothers such as Susan B. Anthony and Frances Willard. Others responded directly to the arguments of anti-suffragists. These postcards conveyed an earnest, moralizing message, with a bland coloration that tended toward grayscale.
Pro-suffrage postcards also suffered from the prejudices held by many of the white women who led the suffrage movement, women who envisioned a future electorate comprising only privileged white women and men. That meant few postcards depicted working-class people or African Americans. This narrowed the appeal of pro-suffrage postcards even further.
The 19th Amendment was the product of a 70-odd year movement toward women’s enfranchisement. By 1919, it had time on its side. But the circulation of anti-suffrage postcards, laden with sexist and dehumanizing images of women and feminists, helped to create a visual language that persisted long after a consensus on women’s right to vote was forged.
Flash forward a century: A strikingly similar version of this visual culture war broke out around the first woman to become a major-party presidential nominee. This time, however, the outcome was different. Dating to her days as first lady, Hillary Clinton had been subjected to constant sexist stereotypes. Political cartoonists routinely depicted her as a usurper of male power, an emasculating radical feminist, a sexualized career woman, the root of all the Clinton administration’s problems and a wife one would wish to divorce.
During her 2016 presidential campaign, this sort of humor animated anti-Clinton memes. They gained immense popularity by relying on pithy, memorable catchphrases with an ever more visceral and misogynistic edge. Indeed, memes and hashtags such as “Zombie Hillary” contributed to the sexism and ageism aimed at Clinton. Many made her appear untrustworthy, depicting an aged, shrill nag or a crazed and disdainful usurper of power. The amateurish appearance of these memes hardly mattered, given their hearty embrace of the familiar, overworked stereotypes evident in so much political cartooning about women.
By contrast, the digital presence of Clinton’s own campaign inadvertently fell back on some of the less-than-successful tactics employed by the suffrage movement a century earlier. The campaign often embraced either a cliche red, white and blue color scheme, or grayscale. In terms of its message, the official campaign’s memes were often innocuous and perhaps even inspirational — for its supporters. Some cultivated the sense that Clinton was predestined to transform women’s history and become the first female president. To unconverted or unconvinced voters, however, these messages were uninspiring, visually and rhetorically.
If the campaign for women’s suffrage had time on its side, Clinton did not. Her presidential campaign struggled to overcome various setbacks that her opponents wielded with devastating effect. Susan B. Anthony’s refrain — “failure is impossible” — was far better suited to a campaign for democratic rights sustained over decades than a two-year presidential campaign. The misogynistic tropes about women’s supposed unfitness for politics that are deeply embedded in our visual culture proved far more pivotal during the sprint of a presidential campaign.
It should give us pause that such tropes continue to make for such potent visual messaging in contemporary politics. But it is also time for female candidates to embrace the best tactics of their opponents: bright colors, bold slogans and edgy humor. All of these strategies can contribute to a visually striking campaign, which can capture attention in a cluttered landscape. This is critical to success in a digital age, when the luxury of decades to build support for a political campaign does not exist.