Gender Anxieties and the Reoccurring Dichotomy of Women’s Suffrage and Anti-Suffrage

The Sensible Woman. “You Help Our Cause? Why, You’re Its Worst Enemy!”[1]

  The women’s movement has been remembered throughout history as a militant campaign with the primary focus being on the actions of the Suffragettes. Harold Smith has defined Suffragette militancy as ‘a rebellion against Edwardian gender roles and their restrictions of women’s personal freedom’.[2] Suffragettes to this day embody an image of a single and unruly woman with no regard for society or male authority. During the early twentieth century, this image became a reoccurring theme throughout the media and as a result the public began associating the women’s movement with militant attitudes rather than the early organisations who expressed their view through protesting peacefully.[3] Thus, a dichotomy of the rebellious Suffragette and the traditional anti-suffragist began to recur in political cartoons. Women trying to increase their personal rights threatened Edwardian patriarchal society and created both male and female anxieties regarding women, gender and citizenship. A visual representation of the responses to women’s suffrage throughout the women’s movement can be found in Punch magazine’s political cartoons. Meghana Lawate argues political cartoons make a greater impact than editorials because images speak louder than words.[4] In response to Lawate’s argument, this blog will analyse a series of Punch political cartoons throughout different stages of the women’s movement, to explore the gender anxieties reflected within the reoccurring dichotomy of women’s suffragists and anti-suffragists regarding the changing attitudes towards women, gender and citizenship.

The purpose of a political cartoon is to engage with an audience and persuade them to think in a certain way. It is the communication of these overarching themes within the illustrations which emphasise the issues and anxieties reflective of the time. Jonathon Burack argues ‘political cartoons are valid primary sources that offer intriguing and entertaining insights into public mood, the underlying cultural assumptions of an age, and attitudes towards key events and trends of the time.’[5] It is important to consider the purpose of Punch political cartoons as being satirical and ironic, to truly exemplify the contemporary politics and topical issues of the time in which they were created. Burack additionally argues that political cartoonists were ‘catching the spirit of the age and were leaving their own imprint.’[6] The cartoonists Bernard Partridge and Raven Hill, featured in this blog, had a political agenda within their illustrations. Their works show that their stances altered from being neutral on the topic of women’s suffrage to becoming a pro-suffrage supporter in 1918.


The Shrieking Sister vs The Sensible Woman:

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Image: Bernard Partridge, The Shrieking Sister, 1906. C. Punch Limited


Militancy was first used by the Suffragettes as a tactic to draw immediate attention to the women’s movement. Harold Smith has categorised the stages of Suffragette militancy in his research, and he notes that causing public disturbances, originally devised by Christabel Pankhurst, was the first stage.[7] The illustration The Shrieking Sister was published in 1906 in response to the militant movement introducing the tactic of boycotting Liberal Party meetings in order to gain public momentum. The focal point of the illustration lies in the representation of the two women, as attention is drawn to the ‘female suffrage’ flag held high by the clenched fists of the angry Shrieking Sister, who is being physically held back by the Sensible Woman. The difference in the dress and decorum of the two women enforces societies values of class, presenting the Sensible Woman as a middle-class woman of virtue as opposed to the poorly dressed working-class Shrieking Sister. The quote below the illustration reads: The Sensible Woman. “You Help Our Cause? Why, You’re Its Worst Enemy!”[8] Within this image the traditional and virtuous woman is disregarding the militant actions of the Shrieking Sister by expressing the female anxiety that militancy would ruin the current progress of the Women’s Movement. Previous to the January 1906 general election, pressure was put on Liberal Party by militant supporters as they questioned the Party’s willingness to enfranchise women. The questions asked were not answered and many of the disturbances led to brief imprisonments of the women, which created publicity for their emancipation.[9]

The significant message at the core of The Shrieking Sister is the conflict between militant and peaceful approaches to women’s suffrage, as Partridge places emphasis on the Sensible Woman stating, ‘our cause’. Thus, the Sensible Woman can be interpreted as a Suffragist; a woman in support of women’s suffrage who partook in peaceful protest; this is quite ironic, as the emphasis in the cartoon is on her forcibly preventing the Shrieking Sister’s violent outburst. Meghana Lawate has defined caricatures as an idea of the grotesque;[10] Bernard Partridge in his caricature of the Suffragette presents a grotesque image of a woman associated with outrageous values, which visually represents the dichotomy of the Suffragist and the Suffragette. Here Partridge is representing the common male and female anxieties, as supporters were conflicted between the organisations in how to attain suffrage for women; as a result of this the question of whether enfranchising women should even be considered was asked as media attention focused more so on the women’s hysteria and mental state beyond the cause they fought for. Women against the women’s movement presented many arguments against women’s enfranchisement based on the assumption of sexual difference linked to the ideas of separate spheres. Violet Markham, a strong anti-suffragist supporter, believed women had ‘distinct spiritual qualities’ which would be lost if they entered a political life equal to men. This argument was supported by many anti-suffragists, who stressed that women’s role should be kept within local government in areas such as education.[11] Furthermore, the irony within The Shrieking Sister is that though there are no male figures physically present, while the two women have a conflict of interest, the Liberal Party and the male-dominated government remains in control and continues to abide by its anti-suffrage stance. Thus, once again an anti-suffrage message is enforced by the cartoon.


Anti-Suffragists and Feminine Anxieties:


Image: Bernard Partridge, Persea and Andromedus, 1908. C. Punch Limited


1908 brought about a series of anxieties for both men and women, as the general election of that year promised a possibility for women’s suffrage. In response to pro-suffrage organisations pushing opinions towards the passing of a suffrage Bill, the Women’s National Anti-Suffrage League was established. The leader, Mrs Humphrey Ward, was a strong driving force behind the movement and even took her husband’s name to enforce her belief in the current position of women in society.[12] Smith argues that the League ‘used the women’s rhetoric of gender unity to encourage the belief that masculinity was under attack and to urge men to bond together to resist the subversive movement.’[13]

The conflicting ideals between the women’s suffrage movement and the anti-suffragists can be seen in Bernard Partridge’s illustration Persea and Andromedus. The image is a satire of the Greek myth Perseus and Andromeda, where the Anti-Suffrage League takes on the heroic role of Perseus to defeat the sea monster Cetus. Cetus is reimagined into the form of a ‘Votes For Women’ supporter who appears bare-breasted and is covered in scales. The sexualisation of the figure degrades the feminine virtues of women in favour of women’s suffrage, while the monstrous scales make her appear demonic and evil. This presents the male anxiety that allowing women the vote would give them too much personal freedom and allow for the enfranchisement of non-conforming women, such as spinsters and prostitutes, in an artistic way.[14] Furthermore, from a female perspective, the physical actions of women’s suffrage supporters did not embody the ‘feminine’ qualities expected of women within Edwardian society as these women were seen to rebel against the defined gendered and separated roles of the sexes.[15] The conflict between the belief in patriarchal constructions of gender difference caused anxieties for many female anti-suffragists as they believed that the use of physical force was a part of the male sphere. It was believed that if a woman took part in such masculine actions such as militancy, as well as the broader conflict that was demanding equal rights, they would remove a woman’s ‘spiritual nature’, and this would remove the differences between the sexes.[16]

Partridge can be seen to highlight the topic of gender difference with his inclusion of the newly-elected Prime Minister, Herbert Henry Asquith. Asquith was a determined anti-suffragist and he confirmed that, while he supported manhood suffrage, he did not expect women’s suffrage to emerge in the near future, which heightened the tensions between the government and women’s suffrage supporters.[17] Artists at Punch ensured the likeness of high-profile political figures such as Asquith was used in their works so there was no mistaken identities of those in power.[18] The irony of the accurate representation of Asquith within Persea and Andromedus is found in Partridge, who intentionally switches the suffixes of the original Perseus and Andromeda in order to significantly change the gender of the characters. In doing this, Asquith becomes the victim of the women’s movement, as he takes in the role of Andromedus. The illustration depicts Asquith as a victim to the women’s suffrage supporters, leaving only the anti-suffragist to save him. The anxieties reflected within this images presents a fear of the women’s suffrage organisations gaining momentum in their efforts, thus leaving the government powerless. Furthermore, Aquith’s loss of masculinity satirically ridicules the anti-suffragists’ claim that the struggle for women’s suffrage was a sex-war, with which masculinity was a forceful opposition.[19]


Woman vs Government vs Progress:

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Image: Raven Hill, The Ladies Pageant, 1910. C. Punch Limited


Image: Raven Hill, Excelsior, 1910. C. Punch Limited


L. Delap has argued that anti-feminists and anti-suffragists have been neglected in debates in regard to gender in the early twentieth century. Delap continues to state that feminism in Edwardian Britain was a much broader movement than ‘equality feminism’ and pursuing political rights.[20] The women’s movement posed a threat to this and caused a struggle for conservative women who wished to defend their temperament.’[21] Ironically, in Raven Hill’s The Ladies Pageant, published in 1910, there is no ‘acceptable’ behaviour displayed on the account of anti-suffragist and Suffragist dichotomy, which like Partridge’s Persea and Andromedus represents the conflict between women’s Suffragists and anti-suffragists while Asquith remains helpless in the middle. Asquith is a central figure, as the text below the illustration reads “This is no place for me.”[22] Asquith being depicted running out of the arena while the two woman charge at each other on horses with lances emasculates him as he is left once again victim to the female conflict. The satire of Asquith appearing weak can be associated with anti-suffragists impugning the masculinity of male supports for women’s suffrage which created specific social problems for these men, who were denounced as ‘traitors to the masculine cause’.[23] Within the illustration, Asquith may be viewed as ‘standing for the masculine cause’; however, he has limited authority as Prime Minister because he has no power to prevent further female protests despite his insistence that he is a believer in anti-suffrage ideologies.

Conversely, Raven Hill’s illustration Excelsior, published in the same year as The Ladies Pageant, presents the most favourable attitude towards women’s suffrage out of the previously explored illustrations. The illustration was produced in response to the militant truce, which saw the suspension of militancy between November 1910 until 21st November 1911. Instead of presenting the dichotomy of conflicted woman, the illustration sees a simply dressed woman pushing a large bolder up a hill towards ‘Parliament’, which is written in the dirt. With the general election of January 1910 brought renewed optimism for the prospect of franchise reform, and Hill is enforcing the message that while women were closer to achieving the right of citizenship they were still not within reach of parliamentary reform as there is still much to be done to change the attitudes and thus forming the political majority.[24] From 1900 suffragists were still seeking MPs willing to represent merits of issue like women’s enfranchisement and by 1910 the majority of MPs had been converted to the cause. In 1910, the suffragists formed a relationship with the Liberal Party; they would help to keep them in power in return for the Party’s support.[25]



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Image: Bernard Partridge, The Majesty of the Law, 1913. C. Punch Limited

“We are not destroying Orchid House, breaking windows, cutting telegraph wires, injuring golf greens, in order to win the approval of the people who were attacked. If the general public were pleased with what we are doing, that would be proof that our welfare is ineffective. We don’t intend that you shall be pleased.” – Emmeline Pankhurst [26]

  1913 saw the third stage of militancy described by Harold Smith, as the Suffragettes relied on arson attacks on private property as a means to force the government into taking positive action towards women’s enfranchisement. In response to the increase in militancy, Bernard Partridge’s political cartoon The Majesty of the Law features the iconic personification of justice in the form of Lady Justice. Lady Justice stands with the Scales of Justice held high in her right hand and a sword by her side, wrapped in a hunger strike flag. Petitions lay in a pile on the floor, while a building burns in the background, polluting the sky. Traditionally, Lady Justice’s sword represents the power and strength of justice; however, Partridge has ironically wrapped the sword in a hunger strike flag to highlight the controversial issue of forcibly feeding imprisoned Suffragettes. Forcible feeding had been enforced in 1908 as imprisoned women began hunger striking to continue their dedication to the cause whilst incarcerated. During this process, the starving woman was forcibly restrained and a feeding tube would be inserted via an orifice in order to reach the stomach.[27] A year after the process had begun, hunger striking had become the normal practice for imprisoned Suffragettes, as they saw it as a greater form martyrdom than imprisonment alone. Hunger striking and the imprisonment of women had become another problem for the government, as people were beginning to question the treatment of women in prisons. In response to this, in 1913 the government passed a Bill that allowed the temporary discharge of prisoners who had damaged their health through starving themselves. Prisoners would be released in order to recover before continuing their prison sentence. The measure became popularly known as the ‘Cat and Mouse Act’.[28]

  Additionally, on the right-hand side of the illustration The Majesty of the Law, Lady Justice is holding the balanced Scales of Justice high, while Prime Minister Asquith’s home burns behind them in the background.[29] The bombing of Lloyd George’s house on 18th February 1913 was an extreme form of militancy to make a statement which did not fail to evoke reactions.[30] The male anxieties arising as a result of this newfound violence can be seen to be expressed by Austin Harrison in the English Review: ‘Women have really frightened men with their revolutionary aspirations and programmes, which demand not only full political and economic equality but freedom of both mind and body’.[31] This anxiety of female revolution can be seen in Lady Justice seemingly appearing to have taken a pro-women’s suffrage stance, as she is depicted wearing a ‘Votes for Women’ flag. In this illustration, Partridge is presenting the irony that Britain is no longer in balance as both the government and the militant women’s movement were undertaking immoral actions. Lady Justice is not blinded to determine justice; she has been blinded by corruption. Thus, The Majesty of the Law is a powerful representation of the turbulent events which occurred throughout 1913 as militancy took its most violent turn, resulting in both male and female anxieties of Britain deteriorating into a turmoil which appeared to have no resolution as the women’s movement continued to push against a resilient government.


At Last:

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Image: Bernard Partridge, At Last, 1918. C. Punch Limited


The start of the First Word War had brought the militant aspect of the Women’s Movement to an conclusion; however, the women’s movement would continue throughout 1914 to 1918 as women united the war effort on the Home Front.[32] There have been many historiographical debates concerning why women received the vote; however, for the purpose of this blog, the importance lies in how the Representation of the People Act of 1918 was represented in Punch. Bernard Partridge’s At Last presents a barren landscape where light is shining down on a female women’s suffrage supporter holding a ‘women’s suffrage’ flag high with pride. Her stance is triumphant, as her battle for women’s suffrage has finally been won. The woman, bares a likeness to the historic figure of Joan of Arc, who was martyred by the English in the 15th Century. Unlike the previously explored images, the flag in Partridge’s illustration proclaims a positive image of women’s suffrage as he presents a pro-suffrage stance after the passing of the Representation of the People Act, which enfranchised married women over the age of 30. This illustration was appreciated by women’s suffrage organisations and was later used by the Women’s Freedom League in their magazine The Vote as an image of achievements.[34]


To conclude, Punch magazine political cartoons represent the gender anxieties that arose as a result of the women’s movement, enforcing a dichotomy of women which embodies the satire and irony of the politics contemporary to the time. As the women’s movement progressed, tensions and anxieties rose; however, it is interesting to see the progression towards a pro-suffrage stance by the satirists and the contrasting ideals that occurred throughout the period. Through analysis of the illustrations, we can learn that anxieties and attitudes towards women, gender and citizenship meant that they would always be a controversial issue and created opposing and difficult ideas throughout the women’s movement.


[1] Bernard Partridge, The Shrieking Sister, 1906. C. Punch Limited

[2] H. L Smith , The British Women’s Suffrage Campaign 1866-1928, Longman (London, 1998) p20

[3] Ibid p30

[4] M. M. Lawate, The Importance of Political Cartoons to Newspapers, Department of Media Studies, Christ University (2012) p3

[5] Ibid p2

[6] Ibid

[7] H. L Smith , The British Women’s Suffrage Campaign. p30-31

[8] Bernard Partridge, The Shrieking Sister, 1906. C. Punch Limited

[9] A. Rosen, Rise Up Women, Routledge (London, 1974) p49

[10] M. M. Lawate, The Importance of Political Cartoons to Newspapers. p3

[11] H. L Smith , The British Women’s Suffrage Campaign. p23

[12] Ibid p110

[13] Ibid p21

[14] A. Rosen, Rise Up Women. p135

[15] L. Delap, ‘Feminist and Anti-Feminist Encounters in Edwardian Britain’, Historical Research, Volume 78, Issue 201 (2005) p379

[16] H. L Smith , The British Women’s Suffrage Campaign. p24

[17] Ibid p22

[18] A. A. Larson, The Last Laugh: Selected Edwardian Punch Cartoons by Edward Linley Sambourne, Masters of History, University of North Texas, (2001)  

[19] H. L Smith , The British Women’s Suffrage Campaign. p21

[20] L. Delap, ‘Feminist and Anti-Feminist Encounters in Edwardian Britain’. p377

[21] M. J. Howe, ‘Feminism’, The New Review, August 1914 p441 quoted in L. Delap, ‘Feminist and Anti-Feminist Encounters in Edwardian Britain’, Historical Research, Volume 78:201 (2005) p380

[22] Raven Hill, The Ladies Pageant, 1910. C. Punch Limited

[23] H. L Smith , The British Women’s Suffrage Campaign. p21

[24] Ibid p26

[25] Ibid p27

[26] Speech by E. Pankhurst at the Pavilion Theatre, 10th February 1913 quoted in A. Rosen, Rise Up Women, Routledge (London, 1974) p189

[27] A. A. Larson, The Last Laugh: Selected Edwardian Punch Cartoons by Edward Linley Sambourne. p32

[28] A. Rosen, Rise Up Women. p121-193

[29] H. L Smith , The British Women’s Suffrage Campaign. p30-31

[30] A. Rosen, Rise Up Women. p190

[31] A. Harrison, ‘The New Sesames and Lilies, English Review, February 1912 p 487 quoted in L. Delap, ‘Feminist and Anti-Feminist Encounters in Edwardian Britain’, Historical Research, 78:201 (2005) p378

[32] H. L Smith , The British Women’s Suffrage Campaign. p30-31

[33] Ibid p30-31



Primary Sources:

A. Harrison, ‘The New Sesames and Lilies, English Review, (1912)

Bernard Partridge, At Last, 1918. C. Punch Limited

Bernard Partridge, The Majesty of the Law, 1913. C. Punch Limited

Bernard Partridge, Persea and Andromedus, 1908. C. Punch Limited

Bernard Partridge, The Shrieking Sister, 1906. C. Punch Limited

M. J. Howe, ‘Feminism’, The New Review, (1914)

Raven Hill, The Ladies Pageant, 1910. C. Punch Limited

Raven Hill, Excelsior, 1910. C. Punch Limited

Secondary Sources:

Delap. L, ‘Feminist and Anti-Feminist Encounters in Edwardian Britain’, Historical Research, Volume 78, Issue 201 (2005)

Larson. A. A, The Last Laugh: Selected Edwardian Punch Cartoons by Edward Linley Sambourne, Masters of History, University of North Texas, (2001)

Lawate. M. M, The Importance of Political Cartoons to Newspapers, Department of Media Studies, Christ University (2012) p3

Rosen. A, Rise Up Women, Routledge (London, 1974)
Smith. H. L, The British Women’s Suffrage Campaign 1866-1928, Longman (London, 1998)



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