The Art of Suffrage

Article excerpt

Wearing a floor-sweeping dress and a wrought-iron chain around her waist, a woman yokes herself to Britain's Houses of Parliament. The black-and-white image, captured by a photojournalist in 1908, has come to represent the campaign of British suffragists for the right to vote. But a thoughtful new exhibit at the London's Women's Library, entitled "Art for Votes' Sake" (through Dec. 20), commemorates the centennial of Britain's suffrage movement by looking at the subtler, more complex images of the struggle for enfranchisement, ultimately won in 1928. After all, says curator Bethan Stevens, the iconic photograph of the chained protester was "surely staged" for the press.

In fact, Britain's suffragists were not confrontational but walked a cautious line between tradition and revolution, femininity and strength. The movement's poster women were depicted as powerful and independent; one Suffragette journal cover shows a resolute hunger- striker fighting off a forced feeding. But the suffragists also went to great lengths to show themselves as devoted churchgoers and nurturing homemakers. One poster features a lithe female figure declaring we want the vote... to save the children. Some journals went so far as to tell their readers how to dress to create a positive and respectable image for the cause.

Many of the middle-class activists were members of church sewing circles, and used religious iconography to lend a traditional veneer to their banners. A 1909 Women's Freedom League banner on display shows a sacred heart crowned with the defiant message dare to be free. Indeed, the movement idolized such figures as Joan of Arc, Saint Cecilia and Saint Catherine because of their inspirational mix of religiosity and power.

Likewise, the suffragists used artistic media that bridged the old and new, the trusted and the groundbreaking. While taking full advantage of their stitching and applique expertise, they were also quick to employ new techniques: experimental posters like Jessica Lloyd Walters's "Asquith and Suffragette Prisoners," which depicts floating female faces, used newly fashionable "primitive" wood-blocking and stenciling. Suffragists also took advantage of celluloid, taking pioneering steps in photojournalism by vividly capturing a 1907 national protest march.

Perhaps more than anything, the show demonstrates how much the Women's Social and Political Union--better known by the tabloid-coined moniker "The Suffragettes"--owes to savvy marketing. …