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Seeing Citizens: Picturing American Women's Fight for the Vote

Women’s voting rights advocates mounted a national visual campaign to challenge the popular cartoons that mocked them. This exhibition explores the images that leading activists wanted the public to see—and some that they wanted to hide

Curated by Allison Lange with committee members Amy Benson, Tamar Gonen Brown, Susan Earle, Rachel Guberman, and Meg Rotzel

portrait of Susan B Anthony at her desk, looking at portraits of suffragists

For most of American history, popular pictures have mocked women in politics as aggressive, manly, even monstrous. When reformers launched the women’s rights movement in the mid-19th century, they also launched a visual campaign. Women’s rights advocates distributed pictures that challenged ideas about women’s roles, expanded notions of citizenship, and laid the foundation for modern media politics.

Seeking to counter caricatures of women in public life, female reformers designed a visual vocabulary that featured women as political leaders. Reformers who fought for women’s voting rights—known as suffragists—emphasized that women could be good mothers and still march in Washington, DC. Their campaigns used the latest image technologies, from cheap engravings and photographs to colorful posters.

This exhibition explores the images that leading activists wanted the public to see—and some that they wanted to hide. White suffragists portrayed themselves as civic-minded and moral women. At the same time, they often assured their opponents that female voters would preserve white supremacy and pose no challenge to the laws that prevented people of color and poor Americans from voting.

Lacking funds and support from the white suffragists and the mainstream, white-dominated press, women of color in the suffrage movement employed images on a smaller scale. Yet if their pictures are less familiar, they are no less powerful.

Suffrage pictures are more than illustrations of the past: they were central to the vibrant visual debates about women and the vote in the United States.

Section 1 Setting the Standard

Early pictures popularized the ways that Americans represented gender and power

Section 2 Portraits & Caricatures

Mid-nineteenth century cartoons mocked suffragists as manly. Activists borrowed strategies from antislavery activists and distributed portraits to challenge these caricatures.

Section 3 The Rise of Propaganda, 1890s

In the 1890s, suffragists started producing colorful visual propaganda to win over more Americans to support their cause

Section 4 Making News

In the early 1900s, suffragists staged public protests like parades and pickets. Newspapers across the country printed photographs of their events, which kept their cause in the news and on the minds of voters

Section 5 Suffrage Postcards

Suffragists—and their opponents—sold a variety of postcards that featured colorful illustrations and photographs to support their cause

Section 6 The Legacy of Suffrage

Historical pictures represented ideas about gender, race, politics, and power. They laid the foundations for modern visual debates that persist today