Picture Perfect: The Postcard Battle Over Women’s Suffrage

Picture Perfect: The Postcard Battle Over Women’s Suffrage

Picture Perfect: The Postcard Battle Over Women’s Suffrage 1920 1203 Jim Ross

Chicago, June 14, 1914

“We had a terrific discussion tonight about women’s suffrage,” Ysabel, age 20, wrote in her journal.  “I had my robe on and was lying at the foot of Alice’s bed.  When Alice finally burst into tears, distressed to see George and me so angry with one another, I picked up a large box of candy from the bed and crashed it over George’s head.  Candy flew in all directions and sparks flew from George’s eyes. I left him, still furious, to comfort Alice as well as he could.”

Ysabel was mother of one-year-old Barbara, my wife’s mother.  Alice was big sister, a writer who published the first of seven books nearly a decade later.  George was Alice’s betrothed.  Ysabel and George had gotten into it over whether or not women should be given the vote.  Ysabel doesn’t hint at Alice’s position, but we know Ysabel felt that George dismissed, even mocked, the whole notion of suffrage.

In the coming years, Ysabel moved with Barbara whenever her Coast Guard husband, Jimmy, was reassigned.  Often, she and Barbara lived alone in a new town for a month or more while Jimmy was at sea.  During much of World War I and for a year after it ended, Ysabel  often lived with Jimmy’s parents and sisters in New York for long stretches.  She journaled about her sisters-in-law marching and parading in support of suffrage, noting that they always wore white pants and white shirts. She wasn’t the sort to languish at home, but Ysabel didn’t march or parade either.  She preferred sitting around the kitchen table to be briefed by her sisters-in-law about what they experienced and what drove them.  She journaled, “I told them they were very brave, and they were. I wonder, though, is there a man brave enough to marry a woman so brave?”


Such conversations were taking place in bedrooms and kitchens, in bars and work places, in backyards and on school grounds across the United States and much of the world. New Zealand was ahead of the pack by giving women the vote in 1893.  Australia came through in 1902; Finland in 1906.  A slew of countries gave women the vote in the nineteen teens: most of Canada, the Netherlands, Russia, Germany, and Poland, among others.

The Chautauqua movement took its name from a county located in Western New York, which also happened to be a hotbed of the struggle for political equality.  Initially, Chautauquas occupied fixed locations. Over time, circuit Chautauquas developed, much like Broadway plays that hit the road.  At core, the notion was to provide literary, artistic and political education for people in small to medium sized towns across the country, where secondary education was often limited.  There were often special programs specifically targeting women.

This postcard shows “Ellen May Butler and her Ladies Brass Band.”  This band provided artistic exposure to hundreds of towns via the Chautauqua circuit.  Ellen May Butler was called “the female Sousa,” and her band was pitted against Sousa’s national fairs.  At one point, the band performed every day for 13 months.   This was Teddy Roosevelt’s favorite band and they performed at the White House.  Watching a band involving no male presence in the context of a Chautauqua must have inspired many to take political equality seriously.

The Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), founded in 1874, initially focused on combatting the effects of alcohol abuse on women and children.  As the mission expanded, securing women’s right to vote became a high priority.  However, WCTU couldn’t be brought into the suffrage movement’s national leadership: (1) The WCTU sought the right to vote for women as protectors of the home, rather than based on political equality; and (2) the suffrage movement’s national leadership feared that, if people equated suffrage with temperance, many would have a knee-jerk reaction against suffrage.  So, the WCTU went its own route, setting up hundreds of schools across the country to educate women as protectors of the home.

This postcard shows a school in Hindman, Kentucky, which the WCTU founded in 1902 and operated until 1915 for “industrial, intellectual and moral training.”  The card, postmarked in Hindman and addressed to a Colorado woman, opens with, “Thought you would like to see a picture of the school house.”

During the first two decades of the twentieth century, many of the foremost postcard artists of the day joined the fray and designed postcards to promote the conversation around women’s suffrage.  One of the most noteworthy was Ellen Clapsaddle.

The Valentine’s Day card above takes an anti-suffrage stance in a subtle way.  It simply states, “Woman’s sphere is in the home.”  Such a message would’ve been compatible with the WCTU’s view of suffrage, but in terms of the political equality of women the message is clear: women don’t belong in the political sphere.  It’s such a beautiful card that no doubt even people who supported suffrage were taken in.

Lest she be accused of taking sides—after all, her goal was to please customers and sell cards—Ellen Clapsaddle also created this pro-suffrage card, also a Valentine.  The message, “Love me, love my vote,” uses the platform of Valentine’s Day to urge anyone who loves a woman, especially the sender of the card, to support suffrage out of love.  The subject on this card is standing and looking outward to get the observer’s attention, rather than sitting contentedly and looking inward, as in Clapsaddle’s anti-suffrage card.  What’s fascinating is that the ribbon the subject is wearing across her body says, “Votes for W.”  Indeed, there isn’t even a whole letter “W,” much less the word “women.”  It’s as if the card had been censored because spelling out “women” was thought by certain people to go too far.

An enormous number of postcards from 1898 through ratification are considered “suffrage interest” because they comment on gender role reversals: a man helpless while tending to screaming children, a woman aggressively conveying her position to a man, or—my favorite—a woman getting home at the break of dawn, right after the milkman brings the day’s delivery, as a man in an upper window uses a stopwatch to record her arrival time.  In my view, none of these cards should be regarded as having any direct bearing on attitudes toward suffrage.  To the contrary, they represent early evidence of an ongoing conversation about gender-specific roles and personality attributes.  Those cards promoted a larger conversation and helped nudge the needle.

Having seen hundreds of such cards, I might be persuaded that the following card is silently about women’s suffrage.

Many anti-suffrage postcards incorporated the images of women foisting childcare on men, out playing poker, or expressing opinions strongly, and added an explicit suffrage element.

In this postcard, the poor man really doesn’t appear objectively to be having such a hard time—after all, he has only one child to take care of—but his eyes are bugging out of his head, he’s wearing  a baby bonnet, and the baby might be turning red.  In his mind’s eye, he sees the woman in his life carrying a “vote for women” sign.   The postcard asks, “Now what would YOU do in a case like this?”  It’s a rhetorical question to which the card only allows one response: as man of the house, I’d put my foot down.  Another alternative is the bottle of colic remedy in the lower right corner.  Perhaps if he took a swig all would be well.

No question, like the Civil War, the question of women’s suffrage divided families, friendships, and marriages.  Ysabel never quite forgave her future brother-in-law, George, for the circumstances that resulting in her shattering that box of candy over his head and the sparks that then flew from his eyes.

This postcard suggests that women could be so scathing and insolent in expressing their differences with other women that many men, declaring their neutrality, run for the hills.  At another level, it’s curious that watching women engage in heated conversation over political equality doesn’t draw men in, but instead repels them because observing—or taking part in—such a conversation confers too much credibility on the question at hand.

If women’s suffrage postcards found home in any one type of existing card, it was the Valentine.  I’m hard pressed to make any sense of that.  The earlier Clapsaddle cards play both ends of the question.  The pro-suffrage card says, “Love me, love my vote.”  In other words, if you love me, give women the vote.   The headline on The Times, dated February 14, says “Women Have the Vote.”  Does this imply the card was published after ratification of the 19th Amendment?  Not necessarily, because apparently women only have the vote on February 14.

This card strays into murkier waters: “If I can vote, why not propose?”  It asks a serious question: why is proposing necessarily a man’s prerogative?  In the end, this postcard represents a muddy suffrage card, but a curious card about gender roles in relationships.

A common theme in women’s suffrage cards, more likely those against but even some pro, was that the easiest way for women to persuade men to support suffrage was to offer men something in return.

This postcard demonstrates “suffragette vote-getting the easiest way.”  The message is unmistakable: even if women have the ability to engage in rational discourse, it’s easier for them to use their femininity to draw the attention and gain the support of men.

Uncle Sam postcards are rare enough.  Cards portraying Uncle Sam as a woman are exceedingly rare, especially in the context of women’s suffrage.

This particular card comes from the same Suffragette Series as the immediately preceding card, which laughs at a women’s ability to win supporters through rational discourse, and alleges the easiest way is to use her femininity by throwing herself at men.  This female Uncle Sam card is far more ambiguous.  Clearly, the female Uncle Sam is wearing a long skirt and a patriotic bonnet.  Her face looks more like a man’s.   Her posture connotes power.  Can we draw a conclusion from card’s title, “Uncle Sam, Suffragee”?  I view this card as pro-suffrage, but it can be argued either way.

Not every postcard related to women’s suffrage emanated conflict.  This sweet postcard shows two small children, a girl on the left and a boy on the right.  The boy may look like a girl, but children were often portrayed androgynously, especially by women artists.  The boy holds a picket sign, “Votes for Women.”  The girl holds out her heart, both literally—after all, it’s secretly Valentine’s Day—and figuratively.  The heart in the upper left, above the little angel, reads, “My Hero.”  In effect, the card takes the position that men should show their support for women’s suffrage by joining the picket lines.  The card was posted in 1916 and carries a message on the back that provides insight into how difficult it was to convey political messages, especially in the hinterlands.  It says, “Our house has just been wired with electric lights.  Used them first time Saturday evening.”

We tend to believe that the United States was late in the game because it didn’t ratify the 19th Amendment until August 1920.  Indeed, twelve states dragged their heels, with the last ratifying the 19th Amendment in 1984.   However, while we “gave women the vote” later than several countries, we did so far ahead of others.

The UK gave women a conditional right to vote in 1918—at age 30 or with a university degree—with rights equivalent to those of men coming ten years later.  Belgium gave women local voting rights in 1918, but didn’t give them the right to vote in national elections until 1948.  South Africa gave European and Asian women the right to vote in 1930; but not until 1994 after the end of apartheid were voting rights granted to all women.  France enfranchised women in 1944.   Switzerland granted women the right to vote in national elections in 1971.

Although the 19th Amendment gave U.S. women the right to vote in national elections in 1920, black women in Southern states were effectively denied voting rights until the Civil Rights Act of 1965, and efforts to disenfranchise non-white and low-income men and women who have the right to vote continue to this day.   Indeed, the battle to ensure that voting rights are equal, without regard to gender, race, country of origin, or social class, continues in the United States and throughout much of the world.

Ysabel’s three sisters-in-law, who engaged in marches and parades to support women’s suffrage, who wore white pants and white shirts when they did, who were very brave, never married and lived together for their entire lives.  One, who went by the name Bill, was the housekeeper.  A second sister, Mary, was a chemist and did pioneering work on food supplements.  A third sister, Dorothea, ran an interior design business in Manhattan with another woman, who may have been more than her business partner.

Ysabel had a couple of Dorothea’s custom lampshades in her home on Cape Cod.  We’ll see another one of Dorothea’s lampshades in a few days when we visit Ysabel’s last-born, Joan, who just turned 90.   Dorothea’s custom lampshades are what my wife and I associate most strongly with the three sisters.  After she cut out designs of a customer’s choosing on a lampshade’s hard casing, and a lamp was turned on in an otherwise dark room, it was as if you were gazing at the stars.

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