Women’s Suffrage Memorabilia: an Illustrated Historical Study
By Kenneth Florey
Reviewed by Karl Wolff
The book, Women’s Suffrage Memorabilia: an Illustrated Historical Guide, by Kenneth Florey, examines the stories behind the objects that were instrumental to the suffrage movement. The focus is primarily on the women’s suffrage movement in the United States and the United Kingdom. The study sees the women’s suffrage movement through the lens of political culture, pop culture, and material culture. (Material culture being the actual physical products of the suffrage and anti-suffrage movements.) As with other political movements, the suffrage movement coincided and exploited advances in technology. Florey’s study attempts to bridge the gaps in the historical research, because, he asserts,
“Another problem is that most scholars do not have ready knowledge of the general nature and history of the type of objects (postcards, badges, advertising cards, valentines, etc.) that suffragists both ordered and sold to advance the cause.”
This is one of the challenges facing academic historians. As a former museum curator, I can speak from experience, since I worked at a historical society that was a long commute from any university with a sizable history department. This made research and exhibit design challenging, being unarmed against the forces of nostalgia and corporate dominance.
Unlike a work of popular history, Women’s Suffrage Memorabilia is not a chronologically linear history. Florey arranges the book in alphabetical order, covering a range of seventy different categories. As such, the book is best suited for specialists, academics, and museum professionals. That isn’t to say it is without popular uses. Those interested in the women’s suffrage movement and those interested in steampunk will get an education.
Although the women’s suffrage movement was anything but a straightforward progressive path from political impotence to winning the right to vote. To borrow the cliche, it was closer to “two steps forward, one step back.” Women’s suffrage was about women having the right to vote. Prior to 1920, several states granted the women the right to vote in state elections. These states included “Wyoming in 1869 … followed by Utah in 1870, Washington in 1883, and Colorado in 1893. Utah and Washington women, however, temporarily lost their right to vote through actions of Congress and the Supreme Court, not obtaining it until 1896 and 1910, respectively.” It should be noted that Utah had polygamy, a practice of the Mormons, until it abandoned the practice in exchange for statehood in 1896. It should also be noted that Utah, as an epicenter for the Mormons, continues to be against marriage equality.
Florey notes earlier that “Unlike those of other states, however, the Constitution of New Jersey, adopted in 1796, did not specifically prohibit women from voting, and they did so sporadically throughout the state, until they lost all suffrage rights in 1807 through the actions of the legislature.” There is an important lesson in that sentence and it embodies much of the legal practices of the United States. Just look at Japanese-American internment during the Second World War. Japanese-Americans, many being American citizens born on American soil, had their citizenship revoked via an Presidential Executive Order. (An Executive Order affirmed in an 8-1 vote by the Supreme Court.) And one need only to scan the headlines to see the forces of the Christian Right, operating in full Gay Panic mode, desperately flailing away in state legislatures, attempting to pass anti-gay legislation.
While history has been kind to the suffrage movement, Florey also examines its demographic nature and how that influenced the products it exploited for its political ends. The movement was overwhelmingly white and bourgeois. (I’m using that term, since the term “middle-class” can best be understood as a post-Second World War socioeconomic phenomenon associated with increased college attendance and easier social mobility. Both of which didn’t exist during the period Florey investigates.) The suffrage movement also had major overlap with the temperance movement, thus causing the inevitable anti-suffrage backlash. Brewers and distillers feared that women getting the vote would mean Prohibition. (They weren’t entirely wrong.) In several pieces of suffrage propaganda*, this argument is made through visuals: If a drunken Irishman, a black man, and a lunatic can vote, why can’t a woman? In terms of suffrage movement members, the First Wave Feminists had very little in-roads with either working class groups or civil rights groups. The opposite case would occur in the Sixties and Seventies with the rise of the Women’s Lib, itself riding on the momentum of the Civil Rights movement.
Anti-suffrage propaganda is also profiled. The long lens of history allows one to see these pieces as woefully wrongheaded and pigheadedly sexist. But at the time this was a common attitude. It doesn’t justify the behavior, but it helps to understand it. The suffrage movement exploited the fact that the anti-suffrage movement chose blue and black as its colors. Not the best choice when the opposition is making the anti-suffragist out to be apologists for domestic violence. (Although this seems quaint compared to the noxious rhetoric of bottom-feeding political opportunists parroting lines about “rape being a gift from God.” Looks like the Taliban aren’t the only ones espousing such traditionalist ideas about gender roles.)
Despite its narrow focus and alphabetic arrangement, Women’s Suffrage Memorabilia is a useful volume for those interested in the women’s suffrage movement. Even those wanting to be more involved in politics may find this volume useful for how opposing sides framed and visualized their arguments.
*I am using the term propaganda in its original intent. Propaganda means to propagate information for a specific cause. Over the years it has come to take on a negative connotation. The existence of the Ministry of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda in the Third Reich also does the word no favors.
Out of 10/8.0