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Preserving the gender order through postcards

In this written interview, Sue John from Glasgow Women’s Library discusses their collection of anti-suffrage postcards.
© University of Glasgow
Anti-suffrage postcards from the collection at Glasgow Women’s Library.

Since the Enlightenment, maintaining two opposite genders has been presented as foundational to a stable society. As Alfred Lord Tennyson proclaimed:

‘Man for the field and woman for the hearth: Man for the sword and for the needle she: Man with the head and woman with the heart: Man to command and woman to obey; All else confusion.’

The idea that gendered attributes were biological and corresponded to a stable sexed body was reiterated so often, by such a diverse range of authorities, that it assumed the status of common sense. Maintaining this ‘natural’ gender order in each cultural setting has taken a huge regulatory effort, involving the state, law, religion, medicine, psychiatry, science and popular culture.

In Edwardian Britain, one way in which this gender order was upheld was through a range of anti-women’s suffrage postcards. Some featured babies and children crying, others used violent and misogynistic images of women being forcibly silenced by their tongues being cut or nailed to posts. Correctly interpreting such images relied on an understanding of certain gendered behaviours – such as motherhood, domestic work and even talking too much – as natural. Challenges these understandings could therefore be depicted as both ridiculous and dangerous to the social order.

In this interview, Sue John from Glasgow Women’s Library discusses their collection of anti-suffrage postcards. She describes what was happening in Britain at the time they were produced, explains the purpose of their misogynistic imagery, and elaborates on why their everyday nature made them a particularly insidious form of propaganda.

Could you tell me a bit about the suffrage postcard collection you have at the library?

We have just over 100 of these postcards. They were produced in the first three decades of the 20th century … They mock people, women, particularly who want the vote. They depict them as all sorts of things, from cats through to babies. They depict the terrible consequences of women getting the vote, like wanting to ride bikes or becoming lady policeman, or that men may be left holding the babies and having to cook tea and do various things in the household. So very satirical, mostly graphically drawn and then we have quite a collection that are really quite disturbingly violent, images of women with their tongues nailed to tables or going through washing mangles or being tied up with gags around their mouths.

What is happening in the women’s rights movement in Britain at this time?

The argument for women getting the vote wasn’t a new one by the start of the 20th century. We’d already seen Millicent Fawcett leading a coming together of regional societies to campaign for the vote for women and setting up the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies. Their stance was very much a suffragist stance, so it was about winning arguments, it was about lobbying, it was about writing to MPs and so on. And by 1903 what we see then is the Pankhursts spearheading a new tactic of saying, you know, we’re not getting anywhere by just asking, so let’s try the deeds, not words stance, so this was about a change of tactics. It was about the setup of the Women’s Social and Political Union to disrupt, to smash windows, to really crank up the direct action. And that’s where it gets really interesting, I think.

Several of the anti-suffrage postcards feature babies and children crying. Why is this such a common theme?

So we have a recurring theme of men left literally holding the babies or having to cook the tea, having to do housework while their women are off doing other things. It’s imagination going wild into what will happen if women get the vote … It plays on people’s fears. If women get the vote they will step away from their domestic duties and the families will fail and heteronormativity will fail and society will end… The satire is quite powerful and they are terrifyingly funny in a way, with a real air of cynicism.

What’s the relationship between these images and the message messages written on the other side of the postcards?

The messages on the back are quite curious sometimes and seem to mostly not relate at all to the image on the front… The person sending this one just says ‘We are having glorious weather. Hope you enjoy it on the tandem. Love Mary’, so a very everyday message. And of course, at the time we’ve got postcards that are sent almost like our text messages. The post is being delivered multiple times a day, these are very quick ways of messaging family, friends and so on. So it’s very curious messages and mostly they don’t acknowledge the really graphically violent disturbing images on the front.

Finally, Sue, why do you think it’s important to learn about the history of items such as this?

Well, it’s always important to learn from history, isn’t it? And I think it’s always important to learn from marginalized histories because it’s a continuum, it’s a continuous, never ending journey for us. Feminism is fertile ground for change, and nobody has a monopoly on feminism … we have to reimagine, and rediscuss, and reinterpret all the time, I think it’s just part of that.

© University of Glasgow
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