How suffragists—and their foes—used media
A new online archive devoted to media tools and strategies used in the U.S. women’s suffrage movement has debuted ahead of November’s 100th anniversary of women winning the right to vote in New York and as part of the lead-up to 2020’s centennial celebration of the U.S. Constitution’s 19th Amendment guaranteeing the ballot to the nation’s women.
The Women's Suffrage and the Media online site, recently launched by New York University journalism professor Brooke Kroeger and the American Journalism Historians Associationand hosted by NYU, is intended to help users explore how various forms of media messaging and strategies on all sides shaped the suffrage crusade.
Kroeger—author of the forthcoming book The Suffragents: How Women Used Men to Get the Vote, which profiles suffragists’ male allies—said the arguments against the women’s vote were plentiful: Leaving children in a non-mother’s care was bad for children’s development. Not being a full-time wife and mother threatened the stability of the home. Women, indirectly, through their husbands, brothers, and fathers, already had political influence. And extending the vote to women in the South would create a large class of black voters, with their own demands for major change. These arguments were often waged with the use of insulting and demeaning caricatures published in anti-suffrage newspapers and other media outlets.
Against these ideas, suffragists fought back with everything from letter-writing campaigns and speeches to pamphlets, leaflets, spectacles, plays, songs, and more, according to Kroeger.
“That’s how,” she added, “they changed the image of the movement from dowdy to more dazzling.”
Kroeger pointed out that the easy accessibility of the material on the Women’s Suffrage and the Media site will make it available to a wide range of users, from journalists to academics to schoolkids to an array of lifelong learners.
Linda Steiner, a University of Maryland journalism professor who researches gender and media, is one among researchers at about a dozen U.S. colleges who are collaborating with Kroeger on the project. For her doctoral dissertation, she studied 200 suffrage newspapers published between 1850 and1900 and devoted to topics including female employment, childrearing, political concerns, and “what women would do with the ballot once they won it.”
“These are still really important lessons. [The online archive] shows that people really want to create their own news outlet, even if it doesn’t make any money,” said Steiner.
“I was impressed,” she continued, “with how the suffrage newspapers helped women redefine who they were. There were different versions of those ‘new women’ re-creating themselves. Women who did work, who didn’t take their husband’s names, who wore bifurcated trousers instead of dresses.”
It was a kind of defiance and shape-shifting that resonates in the present moment, the collaborating researchers said. “There has been a lot of discussion, even in the last election, about women in politics and concerns about inequitable treatment of women in politics,” said Carolyn Kitch, chair of Temple University’s journalism department and one of the project’s collaborating researchers.
“Unfortunately, 100 years after women’s suffrage was achieved, there are still major issues. And so there are current parallels all around us. This past is important to remember—and not just the actual achievement of suffrage but also the process, the struggle.”
The suffrage movement’s strategies “underscore the value and importance of media in any campaign for social or political advancement,” Kroeger said. “This is especially apparent in [how] receptivity to the movement changed in what was the final decade of a 70-year struggle.”
In that decade, the movement intensified its media efforts, she said. Clearly, in any era, how one uses the array of available media tools and strategies may determine the success or failure of a campaign. Though focused on the female vote, its proponents, detractors, and historical trajectory, Women’s Suffrage and the Media also enables its users to glean what they can about the media’s role in other justice movements and in politics, said Kroeger.
Cumulatively, the site’s growing body of postcards, editorial cartoons, posters, essays, news articles, advertising campaigns, and other materials reflects “the power of media in changing hearts and minds—how people controlled media and what they did with it, what worked and didn’t work,” said Kroeger.
To Kroeger, a featured collection of 250 postcards is particularly striking. The cards, which include those crafted by suffragists and their supporters as well as opponents, in the United States and Great Britain, depict everything from a fictional woman preparing to whack a man with a rolling pin to violence that actually was actually committed against women during the movement. “That collection will knock you out,” said Kroeger.
The site’s founders say they are hoping people will not only access the site but also submit artifacts they have that are related to suffrage history, a story mostly chronicled locally, since suffrage campaigns were largely waged on a state-by-state basis.
For its part, the American Journalism Historians Association in April 2019 will issue a special edition of its journal, devoted to “original historical research on the role of media in and about the suffrage movement, work that illuminates lasting cultural, political, economic, ideological, and social problems.”
“These moments in history need not be forgotten,” said Kroeger. “What people sacrificed and went through and what happened … being reminded of that is exciting if you’re excited about history and its power.”
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