Political cartoons are a common way for many artists to make a social commentary without sparking a national debate. In the past they have been used to represent issues of the time within the social context, and were published in journals and newspapers. These newspapers circulated all over the country, with different variations per province, and were used for mass media production of ideas and messages. An important message circulating through the press in Canada in the early twentieth century was the suffragist movement, during which women fought for their right to vote and be recognized as equal citizens in Canada. The collection of political cartoons about women’s equality from 1910 to 1941 represent varying viewpoints in regards to the suffragette movement, feminism, and the women’s rights movement in general. While some showcase the popular opinion of male Canadians, who did not exactly support the movement and were opposed to the idea of giving up their control, others showcase the hard working efforts of women and their success in achieving more power and equality for their gender. These cartoons showcase the divisions between men and women in Canada and the struggle for power that women faced during these times.
These cartoons were published during a time when women were fighting for their rights to be recognized as full citizens of Canada, to vote, and to sit on judiciaries or on government councils. The traditional view of women had divided men and women into separate spheres, with men in the public, working sphere while women remained in the private, domestic sphere. They were responsible for the household chores, such as cooking and cleaning, and were not supposed to be seen in public positions or speaking out. This led to the suffragist movement, as women became tired and frustrated with their inferior position in society and demanded that they had every right to be in the public sphere. The suffragist movement in Canada was the reason that women gained the right to vote and is the main theme portrayed in all of the political cartoons collected for women’s equality. During this time, female activists, known as suffragettes, began to campaign and protest for their recognition as equal citizens to men. This was done through demonstrations, rallies, and protests by suffragists and their supporters. Many people at the time, predominantly male citizens, did not agree with the cause and often many suffragettes were jailed or arrested for their actions. Eventually, this fighting paid off. People began to recognize the efforts of the suffragists, especially the notable ones such as Nellie McClung, who was a Manitoban woman who ended up becoming involved in politics at a high level. In 1917, Canada began to give women the right to vote, but there were certain restrictions mainly due to provincial divisions. These divisions simply meant that some provinces gave women the right to vote in provincial elections before the country as a whole gave women the right to vote in federal elections. In 1919, women were given the right to vote in all of Canada, provincially and federally, excluding Native American and Inuit women. In 1920, Canada began to grant women the right to “stand for election,” with certain restrictions and rules applied. After this time, women began to work in the public sphere, which had been previously dominated by men. While many industries were still dominated by male workers, women began to infiltrate the public work sphere, including the army and factories. While women today still face many inequalities, the efforts of the original female suffragists made a significant advancement toward equality and recognition for women in general.
Some of the cartoons represent the perspective of the male population who did not support women’s rights or take them seriously. These men maintained the traditional view of women as domestic servants or housewives who were responsible for all of the household chores while the men went out to work and support the family financially. In the 1912 cartoon, a man whose wife has been imprisoned for fighting in the suffragist movement looks defeated as he is now responsible for all of the household chores. He is clearly annoyed at his wife for joining this movement and does not take it seriously, like many husbands of the time. These men were pictured as having to clean up the slack that was left by their wife’s absence in the home, and they were clearly not experienced in many of these chores. This is shown through the chaos in the scene of the 1912 cartoon. The pots on the sink are overflowing and have clearly been left boiling too long while one of them is clearly burnt as there is a thick cloud of smoke coming from the frying pan. The house is also dirty, as there are items on the floor and an animal is licking scraps off of a dirty cup on the floor. Behind the husband, dishes are piled on a shelf and have not been washed. All of this chaos is happening because he does not know how to keep a house as that has been his wife’s job throughout their marriage. This was a common experience of the time for many husbands, causing them to lack support for the movement, as they only saw the disadvantages for their own position. The message these male-focused cartoons portray is that men of the time were worried that giving women the vote would lead to them overrunning all other aspects of society, making important decisions that only benefited them. The lack of taking women seriously by men is portrayed in the 1910 cartoon, which shows a courtroom with various reactions to the idea of women one day sitting in positions in parliament. The men of the room are outraged and do not believe that this could ever happen, while the women are the room are seemingly distracted or not paying any attention. One woman is wondering whether her hat is on straight, while another would like to have a cup of tea. This cartoon represents the male view of the time that women do not care about politics and are not bothered by these types of decisions. They were clearly wrong, as the suffragist movement proved. The 1917 cartoon also shows a different male perspective: that of a politician who has realized he can take advantage of women to secure his position in power. He was aware that by appealing to women and allowing them to vote, he would gain their votes, which constituted a large portion of the total amount of votes. Therefore, he was manipulating the female population by making them feel important by voting, yet secretly pushing his agenda over the other politicians. As a whole, these cartoons show that men were not supportive of the suffragist movement and felt that the whole movement posed a threat to their way of life, jobs, and family structure. This would also force them to give up their superiority and give more recognition to women, which many opposed for obvious reasons.
The female perspective is also represented through some of the cartoons. The 1916 cartoon showcases the female perspective of the time that women and men are equal and should be seen as equals under the law. It shows a female representing justice holding up a scale with a man on one side and a woman on the other. Both sides of the scale are of equal weight, showing that women were now considered equal people to men. For women, this meant the celebration of equality and the success of the suffragist movement. While some men did hold this view, it was the female suffragists that conveyed this message to the general public. In the 1915 cartoon, while women are still portrayed as domestic servants, their importance to politics and society is also shown. From a female perspective, the vote of women was important because they would add more structure to the system and help to nominate the more deserving party that would make the country or province better. It was therefore a woman’s job to make sure that all votes were represented and giving the vote to women was one of the only ways to truly clean up the country. Therefore, this cartoon can be considered a symbol of the slow progression it took for women to be recognized. Some women at the time did not care about getting the right to vote, and therefore did not fully support the movement. The conflict between these women and the suffragists can be seen through the 1915 cartoon in that the woman is advancing toward political power yet still responsible for household chores. The female perspective is shown through a somewhat different message in the 1941 cartoon. At this time, women had gained the right to vote and some were out working instead of being housewives. However, females in many industries still faced disadvantages due to their gender. In this cartoon, a judge is nailing a sign on the door to a jury room stating that women are not allowed. This represents the idea that not all men were supportive of equality and women still had to face certain hurdles and struggles in order to gain equality in society. It portrays the message that women had still come a long way, but full equality was still seemingly far away, and therefore shows the ongoing struggle of women in Canada, as well as the rest of the world. In addition, the woman in the 1941 cartoon has a label on her back saying women are the gentler sex, meaning that they are not tough enough to be employed in male-based positions. This is a stereotype that has worked against women since the beginning of early feminism, and still continues to be present in society to this day.
Over time, these perspectives changed, and this is evident by the victories of the women’s rights movement. Clearly people had to change their minds about the views of women in order for women to be taken seriously in powerful roles. When the movement began, men viewed themselves as more powerful and stronger than women, and women were viewed as submissive and dependent on male support. Men were the ones who held positions of power and many of these men did not welcome changes, especially those that included women in the same roles. Men were comfortable with the superiority they had and the patriarchy that regulated their family structures. However, as the suffragists gained popularity and significance, many of these men realized the need for female workers and voters. By the end of the movement, however, women were seen as equal citizens under the law and they were allowed to vote in elections. Additionally, some women had gained seats and positions in congress and other government organizations. As time went on, and progressed toward the 1941 cartoon, women began to hold jobs and seats in various organizations. While there was still sexism that existed, as portrayed in this cartoon, women were still much more advanced in society than they had been at the turn of the century. It is therefore evident that the suffragist movement succeeded in changing the minds of society in general and convincing them that women were as strong, intelligent, and powerful as men were and were capable of being in the public sphere. This is also evident to this day, as in the current day and age women have more power than they ever had. This represents the continuation of these ideals and the progress that began with the early suffragists in the twentieth century.
This group of political cartoons that represent the suffragist movement and the fight for women’s equality showcases the division between dominant groups of males and females in Canada at the time. This era was progressive in nature, as women were beginning to find the strength to change the minds of the political leaders. The cartoons reflect both the male and female perspective in chronological order as the movement progressed toward equality. The older cartoons reflect the original opposition to suffragists and the more recent cartoons reflect the change in opinion. At the beginning, men were concerned about their wives not being around to complete their household responsibilities, but by the end men were aware of the importance to politics that female voters had. The 1910 cartoon showcases men who are fully against the idea of women being involved in Canadian parliament, while the 1941 cartoon shows women in the working world, even though there is still inequality at this point.
Thomsen, Natasha. Global Issues: Women’s Rights. New York: Facts on File Publishing, 2007.