How suffragette poster art helped women get the vote

By james read, guest blog author on 16 Jul 2015
'The Vote Girl', Suffrage Atelier poster

‘The Vote Girl’, Suffrage Atelier

The fight for female voting rights was a long and difficult one – even once a national campaign began in the 1870s (after a woman was allowed to vote by mistake), it would take another 60 years for all adult women to be allowed to vote. Political posters were used heavily to enlist support at rallies and counteract the negative caricatures of suffragists being used in the press.

Pro-suffrage poster designed by Emily Ford and published by the Artists' Suffrage League

Pro-suffrage poster designed by Emily Ford and published by the Artists’ Suffrage League

The Artists’ Suffrage League was the first artists’ suffrage group to be formed in 1907, gathering together professional artists and illustrators to provide banners and postcards in support the wider movement. This poster was created by one of its members, Emily Ford, and refers to unrepresented women who were employed in factories as ‘sweated labour’.

Pro suffrage  poster designed by Catherine Courtauld and printed by Suffrage Atelier

Pro suffrage poster designed by Catherine Courtauld and printed by Suffrage Atelier

The Suffrage Atelier organisation, by contrast, was more guerilla and encouraged non-professionals to contribute artwork to the cause. Though the colours of the suffrage movement are now largely remembered to be white, green and purple (which signified the Women’s Social and Political Union), at the time various groups identified with a whole range of hues. Suffrage Atelier, for example, chose blue, orange and black, as used in this poster to highlight the importance of a ‘living wage’ for women (something which is only now being introduced in the UK, over a century later, and still only for over-25s).

Women underpaid - men out of work suffrage atelier

Women underpaid – men out of work, by Suffrage Atelier

Many right-thinking men supported the cause, and two of the co-founders of Suffrage Atelier were male. This poster highlights how representation of working women would be beneficial to their spouses. Keir Hardie, one of the founders of the Labour party, was a keen supporter, and was arrested himself at a women’s suffrage meeting in London (though quickly released).

Anti-suffrage propaganda, left, and, right, a riposte from artist Louise Jacobs for the Suffrage Atelier

Anti-suffrage propaganda, left, and, right, a riposte from artist Louise Jacobs for the Suffrage Atelier

There were many men (and bizarrely women) who were against equal voting rights though. The poster on the left was produced by Harold Bird to announce a meeting of the National League for Opposing Woman Suffrage, painting a ‘wholesome women’ against the vote, with a ‘screaming suffragette’ behind her. Ironically it’s the anti-suffrage posters that look hysterical and ridiculous now. A response by Louise Jacobs on the right calmly illustrates some of the social reforms the suffrage movement sought to fight for by representation.

'An Advokate for Women's Rights' anti-suffrage poster

‘An Advokate for Women’s Rights’ anti-suffrage poster

This anti-suffrage poster suggests that giving votes to women will open the door to feline emancipation. 100 years later, and cats are still waiting.

WPSU poster criticising the Prisoner's Temporary Discharge (for Ill Health) Act

WPSU poster criticising the Prisoner’s Temporary Discharge (for Ill Health) Act

As the battle continued, many suffragettes were imprisoned for public order offences. The women lobbied to be considered political prisoners, and when they were refused they went on hunger strike. Fearful that if a suffragette starved to death she would be martyred, the government instituted an act to allow suffragettes to be temporarily released from prison if she was sick, and then re-arrested once she had recovered – meaning that women wouldn’t die in prisons. This was referred to as the ‘Cat and Mouse Act‘, as grim satire of a cat’s habit of playing with mice before killing them.

To see loads more artefacts from hunger strike badges to original banners from the Women’s Suffrage movement at the People’s City gallery at the Museum of London.

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