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The vicious postcard war behind the fight for women’s suffrage

a anti suffragette postcard featuring a crying baby and the words mummy's a suffragette

Courtesy Glasgow Women’s Library.

Glasgow Women’s Library mines its vast collection of Suffragette-era postcards to explore how the fight for women’s voting rights led to an outpouring of often violent imagery

Glasgow Women’s Library, based in Bridgeton in Glasgow’s East End, holds a treasure trove of historical and contemporary artefacts and archive materials that celebrate the lives, histories and achievements of women. The only Accredited Museum in the UK dedicated to women’s history, and a designated Recognised Collection of National Significance, both the museum and archive collections contain a fascinating assemblage of material relating to the Suffragette Movement.

2018 marks the centenary of The Representation of the People Act 1918, which introduced the franchise to women over the age of 30 who met a minimum property qualification. While not constituting the franchise on an equal basis with men, the Act of 1918 is widely accepted as having been a significant precursor to the eventual Representation of the People (Equal Franchise) Act of 1928.

The GWL collections feature a wide variety of books and objects relating to the Suffrage movement but our range of postcards is arguably the most visually arresting. Both for and against women’s suffrage, they have pictures and slogans that are often shocking and grotesque. What makes these objects even more fascinating is that they were used for their intended purpose and many feature messages of greeting on the reverse. Several of the images that follow depict violence against women.

An anti-suffragette postcard with an image of two crying babies and the words we want our vote!

We want our vote! Courtesy Glasgow Women’s Library.

Babies and children appear often on the anti-suffrage postcards and are used to infantilise Suffragettes or remind the public of women’s traditional role of mother and caregiver. Other such postcards show husbands having to care for the children and even having to take responsibility around the house.

Of course, these images are always accompanied by captions that show how a woman who is a Suffragette will only bring ‘suffering’ on her family.

an ant suffragette postcard showing a woman holding a mans ear as he does the housework

My wife joined the suffrage movement… Courtesy Glasgow Women’s Library.

an anti suffragette postcard with a cartoon of a woman with her tongue held by a vice

Peace at last. Courtesy Glasgow Women’s Library.

an anto suffragette postcard showing a woman with a latch across her mouth

Dear Ruby… Courtesy Glasgow Women’s Library

Physically holding or harming a woman’s tongue or forcibly keeping her mouth shut is a common theme in the anti-suffrage postcards we have in the Glasgow Women’s Library collection. Some aren’t obviously related to the Suffrage movement – though there are small nods to it, like the purple of the woman’s dress in the postcard above, which is reminiscent of the Suffragettes’ purple, white and green colours – but appeal more to the desire to keep women in their place and keep them quiet.

These very visceral depictions of silencing women are sometimes at odds with their cheery messages of greeting, as shown below on the reverse of the ‘Dear Ruby’ postcard.

the reverse of an anti suffragette postcard

Courtesy Glasgow Women’s Library.

The text on the reverse of this postcard reads: ‘That I should be glad to see you home to our entertainment on March 7th as I am in it. May’

a anti suffragette caricature postcard of a woman with a vice contraption on her head

Courtesy Glasgow Womens Library

an anti suffragette postcard depicting a bound woman with her tongue nailed to a post

Courtesy Glasgow Women’s Library.

In the early 20th century, postcards were a quick, cheap and easily accessible form of communication. At the time many of these postcards were delivered, there might be up to four deliveries of mail a day in the countryside and as many as eight in the cities, so postcards and letters were a much used means of communication and faster than we might think of today.

The women are frequently depicted as ‘ugly harridans’ on these postcards – the implication being that they are only Suffragettes because they can’t get a man, and, therefore, fulfil the traditional role of ‘The Angel in the House’; the creators of these postcards would hope to communicate that their ugliness and their ideology are interrelated. This would have been to discourage women from joining the cause and to encourage mockery of those who were already Suffragettes.

a caricature anti Suffragette postcard showing a woman's tongue being dragged through a mangle as a dog grabs it and a man laughs in the background

Courtesy Glasgow Women’s Library.

Some of the postcards, such as the one above, were sent to addresses without any messages of greeting. We can’t say for definite why the sender would leave the correspondence section of the postcard blank but the simplest explanation is that they sent the card to draw the recipient’s attention to the image on the front of the card.

Whether that was because they agreed or disagreed with its sentiment, we will never know. Ambiguity is a common theme when looking at these artefacts.

a photo of the reverse of a postcard with a address but no greeting

The blank reverse of the woman’s tongue postcard. Courtesy Glasgow Women’s Library.

an anti suffragette postcard showing a policeman scuffling with a woman outside the Houses of Parliament

This is the house that man built. Courtesy Glasgow Women’s Library.

the reverse of an old postcard with a pencil written message

Courtesy Glasgow Women’s Library.

Some of the postcards directly address the suffrage movement. The greeting on this postcard reads: ‘Don’t you wish to be a Suffragette. Mrs N. would like to see you… We are only staying till tomorrow, Tuesday – it is not nice weather.’ Once again, the meaning of this statement is ambiguous.

Is the writer telling the receiver not to think about becoming a Suffragette? Or is she herself dreaming of becoming one?

A postcard image of a woman on a bike. A man in the background has a caption that says ‘What it will come to’ and below it says ‘Then they will be satisfied’.

Courtesy Glasgow Women’s Library.

the back of an old postcard with writing on it

Courtesy Glasgow Women’s Library.

Sometimes the use of the postcards actually subverts the message intended from its imagery. For instance, this postcard portrays a woman on a bicycle with an anti-suffrage tone but the message on the back recounts one woman’s experience of learning to ride a bike and how useful and enjoyable she’s found it. So these postcards were likely used in all sorts of complex ways.

The text on this postcard reads: ‘I saw one similar to the card few days ago, very comfy I should say, especially in windy weather. I learnt the bike last week & find riding useful & enjoyable.’

a pro-Suffragette postcard showing a man and woman arm in arm outside the Houses of Parliament

Courtesy Glasgow Women’s Library.

Although a large portion of the postcards in the Glasgow Women’s Library collection express anti-suffrage sentiments, we also have postcards that were produced by Suffragettes and pro-suffrage campaigners that counter the violent and grotesque imagery of the anti-suffrage materials.

A lot of the pro-suffrage postcards issued by the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) and the Women’s Freedom League (WFL) were photos of some of the inspirational women in the movement but some also had similar imagery and themes as their anti-suffrage counterparts

The postcard above is a response to the anti-suffrage postcard above that begins with the same line. This card instead outlines the desire for an equal opportunity to participate in politics and shows a man and a woman arm in arm. It ends with the lines, ‘In the Year – well we cannot exactly say when; But the brave Suffragette very shortly must get, Into “The House” that man built.’

a pro suffragette postcard with a young girl wearing glasses standing in front of a newspaper with her hands raised and the caption reads ‘Fellow women, our day dawns at last’.

Courtesy Glasgow Women’s Library

Like their anti-suffrage counterparts, the Suffragettes also used children in their postcards. Whilst anti-suffrage postcards infantilised pro-suffrage campaigners, the Suffragettes chose instead to show young girls as intelligent and hopeful. The young girl depicted in this last postcard is a member of the next generation of women for whom the Suffragettes were fighting for and would have likely grown up to benefit from the Equal Franchise Act of 1928.

These postcards illustrate just how hard both sides fought for and against women’s suffrage and the postcards shown here reflect only a small proportion of the Glasgow Women’s Library collection. Although the fearmongering from the anti-suffrage campaigners ultimately lost out, it’s important to look back at these artefacts and observe how society has attempted to subdue and silence women.

In 2018, as we celebrate the centenary of the 1918 Act, we should also reflect on ways in which modern culture and society continues to perpetuate these ideas.

Explore the collections of Glasgow Women’s Library at womenslibrary.org.uk/explore-the-library-and-archive/

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Glasgow Women's Library

Glasgow, Strathclyde

Glasgow Women's Library is a provider of information by and about women. It is a popular meeting place for women and its creative, supportive environment acts as a catalyst for projects, friendships and laughter.

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