The Suffragists Fought to Redefine Femininity. The Debate Isn’t Over.

When Kamala Harris stepped onto the stage in a high school gym in Delaware earlier this month, after Joseph R. Biden Jr. announced that he had chosen her as his running mate, she sought to define herself as many things — a senator, a Black woman, an Indian woman, a prosecutor.

But her most important role, the “one that means the most,” she said, is “momala” — stepmother to her husband’s two children, Cole and Ella.

In choosing to wear the mother badge, at the highest point in her career, Ms. Harris was inserting herself into a persistent mold that powerful women have long been expected to fit: the warm, maternal, likable figure who, as Joan Williams, professor of law and director of the Center for WorkLife Law, wrote in a The New York Times op-ed, is “focused on her family and community, rather than working in her own self-interest.”

There was an idea that these women, by advocating for their political rights, were “rejecting family life and their homes, the things that American women are — quote unquote — supposed to be focusing on,” she added.

Almost as soon as the demand for the vote was raised, opponents of women’s suffrage began arguing against it, often with visual media. They used prints that would be sold as décor to present their ideals of “motherhood” and “femininity” as diametrically opposed to the dirty world of politics and the aggressive pursuit of success in public life.

Imagery like this illustration created in 1869 by one of the era’s most prominent printmakers, Currier & Ives, often painted the women who were seeking the vote as “ugly, shameless monsters,” who threatened to upend the status quo, said Ms. Lange. They were often dressed in attire deemed scandalous — skirts that exposed ankles, short pantaloons or bloomers — and indulging in what would have been widely considered immoral behavior, like smoking, drinking or ignoring a crying baby.

“They were trying to attack women’s femininity, their sense of decorum and their respectability,” said Kate Clarke Lemay, a historian and curator at the National Portrait Gallery. “They were always being called things like ‘man eaters.’”

Some images, like this print below published slightly earlier in 1851 in the satirical publication “Humbug’s American Museum Series,” which showed a white and a Black woman demanding relief from domestic responsibilities, alluded to another concern raised by those who opposed expanding women’s rights — that it would disrupt social and racial hierarchies in the United States.

In the 1910s, as the movement shifted its focus toward a federal suffrage amendment and leveraged the national press to garner support for this campaign, the suffragists leaned into imagery of women as pure, heroic figures, Dr. Lemay said. Many illustrations from this period — like this image from 1915, published in a special edition of the humor magazine Puck, guest-edited by suffragists — were rich with ancient Roman symbols of equality and unity, or women modeled after Joan of Arc or Lady Liberty.

Suffragists such as Alice Paul — a member of the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) and founder of the National Woman’s Party — realized that by staging public spectacles like picketing the White House or leading a parade, and inviting photographers to document them, they could attract more attention to their cause in national daily papers (and eventually newsreels) that reached wide audiences.

“City housekeeping has failed partly because women, the traditional housekeepers, have not been consulted,” she said, and governments “demand the help of minds accustomed to detail and variety of work, to a sense of obligation for the health and welfare of young children and to a responsibility for the cleanliness and comfort of other people.”

This idealized vision of the suffragists as smart, beautiful, caring and motherly gave rise, Ms. Lange added, to the notion that a woman’s involvement in politics wouldn’t destroy domestic life. That the two things aren’t — and shouldn’t be — mutually exclusive, and that one feeds the other.

In the century that followed the ratification of the 19th Amendment — which banned discrimination at the ballot box on the basis of sex — these debates over femininity and motherhood have persisted. And the question of how women in the public eye navigate them has crept up again and again, compelling the growing number of women running for office “to negotiate their public images in terms of their statuses as mothers, wives, daughters and potential mothers,” Ms. Lange writes in her book.

We saw it this year at that Delaware high school gym, when Ms. Harris alluded to her Sunday night family dinners, which — she clarified — she cooked.

We saw it 2008, when Sarah Palin, the former governor of Alaska who ran for vice president alongside Sen. John McCain, consistently cast herself as a “hockey mom.”

And we saw it in 1984, when Geraldine Ferraro, who had just made history as the first woman to join a major party’s presidential ticket, was asked on a campaign stop in Mississippi by the state’s Commissioner of Agriculture whether she could bake blueberry muffins.

“I sure can,” Ms. Ferraro responded. “Can you?”

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