Physical Representations of Women in Politics: From the Suffragettes to the Modern Day

Nineteenth-century Britain saw the rise of a movement that sought to empower women in a predominantly masculine society. Led by the Suffragettes and Suffragists, this movement faced a battle that now many of us take for granted.

In Victorian Britain, women had no political voice: they had minimal rights and men made decisions for the whole nation - even though they accounted for less than one-half of the population. In modern politics, the situation has improved, with women taking up leadership roles all across the world. More recently, Kamala Harris has made history as the first female Vice President. She is part of Joe Biden’s very diverse administration, comprising six female senior staff. Let’s not forget New Zealand’s Jacinda Arden and our very own Theresa May who served as Prime Minister from 2016-2019.

But if it were not for the Suffragettes, women's participation within politics may look very different. The image above is just one of many postcards that were distributed in an attempt to oppose the suffrage movement. This image, as well as others, portrayed the Suffragettes in a negative light, deeming them masculine, ugly and as women who had abandoned their domestic roles. The postcard was titled ‘We Want the Vote’ and was sent to one of the founders of the Suffragette movement, Christabel Pankhurst, in 1909 with a comment, undermining the purpose of the suffrage movement, underneath saying ‘don’t you think you had better sew a button on my shirt?’’

When further looking into this postcard, I fell across an interesting discussion that was documented in The newspaper Votes for Women when they called a meeting in Lewisham later that year, where a man commented that if suffragettes were “better looking” they would have a better chance of winning the right to vote. I think this comment makes it clear that the focus on physical appearance over lack of capability, petty comments and distorted images were the crux of the anti-suffrage movement, and, arguably, it has not changed too much now, over a 100 years later.

Women now take a more central seat in our world of politics but the derogatory nature of our society still enables many forms of discrimination, similarly to those experienced by the Suffragettes. Female politicians of the 21st century undergo much of the same scrutiny. Academics have argued that there is substantial evidence to show that female politicians' appearances being the centre of attention, rather than their voice. A more recent example being Tracey Brabin’s dress, which is something I myself explored in my postgraduate thesis.

While the Suffragettes were deemed masculine, female politicians of this decade are often sexualised as a means of undermining their power. There is also a focus on their domestic lives, with many female politicians being scrutinised for their lack of children. The Australian prime minister, Julia Gillard, was accused of being ‘deliberately barren’ which suggested that her ability to lead was put into question. (Baxter, 2015). In an editorial, the Sydney Morning Herald wrote, ‘’Her media persona does not fit the expectations of some voters: a single women, childless, whose life is dedicated to her career.’’

But, at the same time, female leaders are often penalised for not being present when giving birth, which so clearly happened with Jo Swinson and the pairing pact. She was unable to attend an important vote, but relied on a system that ultimately failed her. Of course, it’s not to say that men in politics don’t come under scrutiny, but are they faced with the same hardships as their female counterparts?

Whilst the involvement of women in politics has improved, it is clear to see that just like the Suffragettes faced objectification and backlash, female politicians of our day also undergo similar treatment. I think the bigger question here is why? Edwardian gender ideals emphasised gentility and passiveness - the very opposite of the Suffragette’s fight. Separate spheres and prescribed gender ideals meant that women were not seen to be capable. The continued discrimination faced by female politicians suggests that our society is still underpinned by these gender stereotypes.

So, let’s celebrate every achievement for women in politics, thank the Suffragettes for the hard work they put in to enable women the right to vote and recognise that there is still a way to go in making our society more equal.

Written by Ellie Cossar

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