Recent studies on the impact of the novel coronavirus on American families reveal that women are being stretched very thin. During this pandemic, they are working more than men: caring for older or sick family members, teaching children, maintaining homes and keeping up with full-time jobs. Now parents are returning to work and scrambling to improvise child care, prompting many women to decrease their hours or even leave their jobs.
Although the global pandemic has dramatically exacerbated these problems, the reality is that women have always had to shoulder more than men. They have had to manage the affairs of the home as they juggle a wealth of responsibilities in society at large.
While this work is a necessity for most families today, there was a time when many Americans resisted the idea of women doing anything outside of the confines of home. The women’s voting rights movement radically transformed Americans’ views on this issue, enabling women’s greater participation in society. But, in doing so, suffragists — activists who fought for the vote — entrenched an impossible ideal of “having it all” that persists today.
More than a century ago, suffragists launched one of the first national visual campaigns to challenge the then-widespread idea that White women should only focus on the home. The National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA), founded in 1890, was led by middle- and upper-class White women. During the 1910s, they designed, published and distributed propaganda that portrayed White women as good mothers and voters. They attempted to persuade Americans that these women could have it all: the vote, families, homes and careers.
Suffragists chose this strategy to counter the fears of anti-suffragists, who dominated American life. Since the late 18th century, publishers, artists and editors — almost all men — had designed anti-women’s rights cartoons, depicting many anxieties about the prospect of expanded voting access for women.
Americans feared that the vote threatened traditional gender norms and would transform society as they knew it. Popular pictures demonstrate that many Americans worried that women would refuse to care for their families — or even have families — if they could vote, leaving men to take on domestic chores. When Susan B. Anthony attempted to cast a ballot in the 1872 election, the Daily Graphic magazine mocked her on its cover. In a striking image, she stands, hand on one hip, holding an umbrella the way a military officer might hold a sword. Her skirt — far too short for the period — reveals a pair of boots, complete with spurs. Nearby, a policewoman and women’s political rally illustrate what women will do when they can vote: they have abandoned the men in the scene to care for children and buy food. Americans regularly encountered pictures like this one for over a century.
In response, rather than claiming that women were men’s equals — something that might threaten men’s fragile masculinity — the NAWSA argued that well-off White women wanted the vote so that they could be better mothers. In 1906, NAWSA leader and prominent Progressive Era reformer Jane Addams argued that “city housekeeping has failed partly because women, the traditional housekeepers, have not been consulted as to its multiform activities.” Female voters would clean up politics and improve American life. Addams never had children and had a female partner, but she recognized the power of this gendered rhetoric.
In the 1910s, a new generation of professional female artists conveyed NAWSA’s message. The famous kewpie doll designer, Rose O’Neill, drew several posters. One poster depicts babies marching with a “Votes for Our Mothers” flag, suggesting that it was children who would benefit if women could vote. Indeed, it showed that for women to take proper care of the home and children, they needed political power to shape the policies that affected food, health, homes and schools.
NAWSA countered anti-suffragists’ fears with their message that voting would actually strengthen women’s ability to manage their homes. In doing so, they skillfully played into traditional gender roles. In this framing, women would enlist their supposedly innate motherly sensibilities when they cast their ballots and take care of everything.
Posters like O’Neill’s reached the masses through an emerging national print culture. National Woman Suffrage Publishing distributed them to local NAWSA groups across the country. Activists hung them in shop windows, posted them in meeting spaces and sometimes even strung them across streets. They circulated the images for publication too. Since the 1880s, the satirical magazine Puck had printed numerous cartoons that mocked suffragists. But, in 1915, it published an entire issue of pro-suffrage pictures, including a simplified version of O’Neill’s design showing babies crying to win voting rights for their mothers.
This type of visual campaign seems typical today, though it’s more likely to be carried out on social media instead of in the streets. Suffragists created models for modern public image campaigns. By the early 20th century, they had an infrastructure to run them: publicity professionals, local, state and national press committees, and professional photographers to cover their events for the newspapers.
While some believed in the suffragists’ message, many — especially those who designed it — knew it was strategic. Since women’s rights and civil rights reformer Sojourner Truth first started distributing her portraits in the 1860s to challenge racist and sexist stereotypes, female activists had been working to develop an effective way to win supporters.
Suffragists needed images to persuade the public to buy into a new ideal for American women. As one publicity manager, Charles Heaslip, told NAWSA at a 1916 annual meeting: “I am fanatical about pictures because they are far more important to a publicity campaign than the average person realizes.”
In the end, the suffragists’ visual campaign was successful. When President Woodrow Wilson finally endorsed suffrage, he justified it by emphasizing the idea that women would apply their feminine insights to politics. In 1918, Wilson told the Senate: “We shall need their moral sense to preserve what is right and fine and worthy in our system of life as well as to discover just what it is that ought to be purified and reformed. Without their counsellings we shall be only half wise.”
NAWSA challenged a model for American women that limited their opportunities. However, its own campaign presented a limited vision of women’s rights that continues to shape the ways that our society sees women and makes demands on their labor.
NAWSA never published pictures that featured women of color as good mothers who could have it all. Less privileged women already struggled to manage work and family life. Suffrage organizations dominated by White women clearly sought the vote for White women alone. Black women’s groups, such as the National Association of Colored Women, lacked the resources to run comparable visual campaigns. After the 19th Amendment was ratified in 1920, many White suffragists watched as restrictions such as literacy tests and poll taxes forced poor women and women of color to find their own path to the ballot box.
Yet NAWSA’s visual campaign has had a lasting impact on the ways Americans view women’s roles. A century later, women are still doing it all — and in many circles, this is the expected ideal. Gains in women’s equality have been built on the mythic, stereotyped ideas about women’s responsibilities. Perhaps the crisis of the pandemic can transform our expectations, and we can do away with an ideal that pressures women to “have it all” without real support.