From the Archives: The Radcliffe Suffragette

In this blog series, we’ll be digging through Harvard’s extensive archives–including the incredible collections on women and gender at Schlesinger Library–to share with you funny, fierce, and sometimes frightening tidbits from the  history of feminism at Harvard and beyond. This week, Manifesta writer Cassandra Euphrat Weston brings you the downfall of American society: suffragist style.

DSCN1430Feminists, while themselves humorless, have always provided target practice for the wittiest minds of their age. The Schlesinger Library’s archives offer conclusive proof that misogynist attempts at humor have been certifiably clichéd for over a century, in the form of a 1908 spoof newsletter titled The Radcliffe Suffragette. Preserved in a Radcliffe alumna’s scrapbook, the newsletter piles on sexist platitudes to mock student activists at Radcliffe in all-too-familiar terms.

The yellow leaflet gets off to an unpromising start with portrait of a newly declared “ardent suffragette.” The drawing of (presumably fictional) Bedelia Frelexun Helbend depicts a woman with a scowl, spectacles (god forbid!), and a chin-smothering ruff. In short: feminists are ugly and sour. Hahaha, what a hilarious punchline!

In another oddly familiar attack, the newsletter suggests that women are irredeemably stupid and therefore incapable of understanding the serious intellectual concerns of men. An article titled “What is Going On in Real Life” overflows with phrases such as “awfully pretty” and “poor dears,” then burbles into an aside about a new hand-sewn red dress qualifying the author for membership in Congress. Just imagine, women getting involved in politics– they’d be totally distracted by fashion!

Sexist cliché the third: shifting gender roles will topple society into chaos. Give women the vote, and soon “self-cooker” appliances will crank out artificial family dinners, hospitals will raise babies without maternal warmth, and consequently “the woman would have another lot of spare time on her hands. This time […] would give the woman time to vote every day. By voting every day the women would soon learn more about voting than the men ever knew. And besides, wouldn’t it be fun?” Women: capable of destroying the essential fabric of society, while simultaneously total airheads.

Finally, no anti-feminist scorn would be complete without the gratuitous sexualization of women involved in activism. The newsletter advertises a fictional campaign in which men who accept suffrage badges will be rewarded with “a nice sweet kiss,” while those who refuse will be called “a nasty mean thing.” In other words, women’s anger is comical. Their power lies only in sexual appeal to men, which they employ shamelessly for political ends. Of course, such dynamics bear absolutely no resemblance to any present-day situation.

So what threatening and joyless suffrage activism were Radcliffe women of the time actually up to?

To begin with, they called themselves suffragists, not the diminutive and feminized suffragette. Marion Hathway, Radcliffe ‘16, records in her scrapbook that she “carried the banner of one of the states now having equal suffrage” at a parade in 1915. Next to this note are a pin and a ribbon reading “Votes for Women,” both the same iconic mustard yellow that the newsletter was mimicking. Newspaper clippings from the parade suggest it was fierce as all hell. Photos of participants show Radcliffe women marching together, Helen Keller (Radcliffe ’04!), and Julia Smith, a dedicated suffragist at the age of ninety-four.

Of course, when the 19th Amendment was ratified five years later, women’s suffrage neither upended gender roles nor devastated society. Then again, Radcliffe alumnae couldn’t do quite everything. We’re still working towards that goal, though perhaps not towards the binary inversion anti-suffragists feared so vehemently.

These days, we strident feminists prefer our chaos gender-flexible, and we’re alert against sexist mockery. But we’re not up in arms just because misogynistic attempts at satire are incorrect or unfunny. More than anything, these century-old jokes are seriously unoriginal.

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