Secondary Source

Thesis: “Fine Dignity, Picturesque Beauty, and Serious Purpose”: The Reorientation of Suffrage Media in the Twentieth Century

Emily Scarbrough. "'Fine Dignity, Picturesque Beauty, and Serious Purpose': The Reorientation of Suffrage Media in the Twentieth Century." Masters Thesis. Eastern Illinois University, Paper 2033, 2015.

Era: Post-Suffrage Era | Media: Academic Paper

In this 2015 masters thesis, Emily Scarbrough, then a history graduate student at Eastern Illinois University, delves into suffrage-era media depictions of suffragists. In particular, Scarbrough examines how, early in the 20th century, a new generation of suffragists sought to change how they were treated in the media. They tried to subvert then-commonplace media depictions of suffragists as overbearing, uncouth, masculine agitators (see Charlie Chaplin in “A Busy Day“), hoping instead to “rebrand” themselves as feminine reformers who could bring a much-needed woman’s touch to politics. In so doing, Scarbrough argues, suffragists changed the movement’s broad argument from one based on women’s equal rights and sexual equality to one that—though perhaps more effective—used gender-normative rationales to justify women’s enfranchisement.

The abstract of the thesis:

Throughout the first half century of the woman’s suffrage movement, the women of the movement were depicted as dastardly, masculine women who usurped the family structure with their penchant for politics. In the twentieth century, a new generation of woman’s suffragists took command of their appearance in the media. Instead of controversial figures, woman’s suffragists restructured their campaign to convince the general public that society needed women to clean up politics. In doing so, suffragists sacrificed their goals of sexual equality in favor of their particular femininity. They celebrated their gender as the particular reason that they needed the vote, unlike earlier suffragists who declared that they deserved it. Using film, postcards, illustrations, and public demonstrations, suffragists created a comprehensive campaign that reached millions with the singular message that enfranchisement would be both politically significant and a natural extension of feminine virtues. Though the woman’s suffrage movement in the twentieth century was one of moderns means, the message was fundamentally traditional.


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