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Lampooning Political Women

For as long as women have battled for equitable political representation in America, those battles have been defined by images—whether illustrations, engravings, photographs, or colorful chromolithograph posters. Some of these pictures have been flattering, many have been condescending, and others downright incendiary. They have drawn upon prevailing cultural ideas of women’s perceived roles and abilities and often have been circulated with pointedly political objectives.

An excerpt from Picturing Political Power: Images in the Women’s Suffrage Movement

In the mid-19th century, female reformers faced an impossible task as they advocated for rights and aimed to maintain a high social standing. Women who had the means to live up to ideal femininity, but chose not to, prompted anxiety. Ultimately, one of the main tasks of the women’s rights movement was to justify their steps outside accepted gender roles and, eventually, change these roles. But without power, money, or organizational strength, activists could not change the way Americans conceived of political women. Cartoons that derided reformers proliferated during the years after the Seneca Falls Convention. Artists continued the tradition of representing political women as ugly, masculine threats to American values, including gender norms, white supremacy, and heteronormativity.

The women’s rights movement grew out of women’s activism on behalf of other people. In the 1830s, women, especially white middle- and upper-class women, participated in and led antislavery and moral reform societies.[i] They signed petitions, raised money, and read the Liberator. Abby Kelley Foster, the Grimké sisters, and Lucy Stone traveled the country to deliver public lectures.[ii] Rather than leading organizations, they hoped to leave behind towns of supporters who organized on their own.[iii] By the end of the decade, their outspokenness angered even their fellow antislavery supporters. In 1840, the World’s Anti-Slavery Convention in London, for example, refused to seat female attendees.[iv] Discussions of women’s rights were part of local conversations years before women brought them to the national stage. In 1844, a group of men in New Jersey petitioned the state constitutional convention to grant women the vote.[v] Two years later, three groups petitioned the New York constitutional convention to enfranchise women.[vi] One, a group of women from Jefferson County, asked for more than the ballot. They wanted “to extend to women equal, civil and political rights with men.”[vii]


Public calls for women’s rights prompted a backlash. Artists, editors, and publishers seized upon fears of political women and produced a powerful new wave of cartoons to caricature them.[xii] They policed gender roles and undercut reformers. In 1849, David Claypoole Johnston, a popular engraver based in Boston, published a page of five scenes in his periodical, Scraps (see figure ).[xiii] His cartoons exemplify the negative press that plagued activists. One picture on the top right, Women’s Tonsorial Rights, depicts a woman about to be shaved in a barbershop. To her right, a woman stands in an unladylike manner with her hands in her coat pockets and a cane propped against her chair. Another female customer reads the Woman’s Rights Advocate newspaper as she sits with her feet up on a chair. On the left, a woman shaves her face. The scene recalls pictures of barbershops filled with men, with their hats and canes set aside, socializing as they are shaved.[xiv] Even the picture hanging on the wall depicts female boxers. Johnston’s other images reveal that these scandalous women might feel empowered to propose marriage and smoke in public. He suggested that women would become like men physically and usurp men’s separate spaces and rites if they gained rights.

Read entire article at Humanities New York