MUST READ: The Weird Familiarity of 100-Year-Old Feminism Memes


A century ago, widely circulated images and cartoons helped drive the debate about whether women should have the right to vote.


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(Catherine H. Palczewski Postcard Archive / University of Northern Iowa - CLICK TO VIEW)
(Catherine H. Palczewski Postcard Archive / University of Northern Iowa – CLICK TO VIEW)
It seems almost farcical that the 2016 presidential campaign has become a referendum on misogyny at a moment when the United States is poised to elect its first woman president.

Not that this is surprising, exactly.

There’s a long tradition of politics clashing spectacularly with perceived gender norms around election time, and the stakes often seem highest when women are about to make history.

Today’s political dialogue—which often merely consists of opposing sides shouting over one another—echoes another contentious era in American politics, when women fought for the right to vote. Then and now, a mix of political tension and new-fangled publishing technology produced an environment ripe for creating and distributing political imagery. The meme-ification of women’s roles in society—in civic life and at home—has been central to an advocacy tradition that far precedes slogans like, “Life’s a bitch, don’t elect one,” or  “A woman’s place is in the White House.”

Today’s memes can be found on T-shirts and bumper stickers, yes, but they’re mostly online—published and shared on platforms like Tumblr and Imgur and Twitter. A century ago, political memes were distributed primarily on postcards, via pamphlets, and in newspapers—with suffragettes as a favorite subject of either mockery or admiration, depending on the illustrator’s beliefs.

“What you are really looking at is something as traditional as Greek tragedy.”

Much of the imagery that circulated in the early 20th century made fun of suffragists, even in illustrations that weren’t explicitly anti-suffrage. Mainstream humor at the time relied heavily on gender-based tropes and stereotypes, and political humor was no exception.“It made no difference that the bulk of this material was not intentionally anti-suffrage,” wrote Lisa Tickner in her 1988 book, The Spectacle of Women: Imagery of the Suffrage Campaign 1907-14, “It represented an enormous mass of material, and some very deep-seated prejudice.”