Whimsical, queer exploration of all things gender.

Posts tagged ‘John Stuart Mill’

Smearing of feminism – a history through illustrations

Cartoons have been sources of entertainment, political point-making, and propaganda for centuries. When I think of the subjugation of women in this medium, it is often through sexualisation. Betty Boop, Jessica Rabbit, Wonder Woman, the list goes on.

This little comparison has been doing the rounds on the internet lately, and it illustrates the point nicely.

The poster for the film ‘The Avengers’, as is.

Pose styles reversed. Iron Man – buns of steel, anyone?

Feminists however, for longer than the word has been in common parlance, have been the targets of predictable, oppositional lampooning. What is a little more interesting is how the styles and commentary used in the pictures have changed very little. I’ll be organising cartoons chronologically, or making the best guesses I can where I don’t know dates. To my knowledge, all images originate from the UK or the US.

A little background history first, though. Feminism is often said to have its early beginnings in the second half of the 19th century, when a fair amount of social and political reform was going on. Important earlier writers and politicians have been retrospectively labelled the forebears of the feminist movement (though to call feminism a single movement was even then, let alone now, rather inaccurate). Mary Wollstonecraft and John Stuart Mill are important examples – for their works A Vindication of the Rights of Women and The Subjection of Women respectively, written in 1792 and 1869. In 1897, the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) was founded (from the merger of pre-existing groups), and its members termed Suffragists. This group was non-militant and utilised pamphlet distribution, talks, and appeals to MPs, without using violence. In 1903, the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) split off in support of more radical action due to the lack of suffragist success. This group is more famous for its founder Emmeline Pankhurst  (and her daughters), and their groups members’ label by the Daily Mail as the Suffragettes.

So, this first picture is from 1906, and was showing ‘women of the past’ contrasted against ‘what women are becoming’. Smoking? Legs apart? Ties? Such an angry, unappealing expression on the face of the woman on the far right of the bottom panel? Obviously a bit tame by standards 106 years later, but the key themes are clearly that traditional women are more attractive, and more productive. All members of the top panel are embroidering or knitting, rather than daydreaming or scowling. The author is hardly ambiguous about what he (it’s got to be a he, really) considers the ‘better type’ of woman.

From 1910. Real anger from the woman in this comic, or at least, misanthropic nagging. The poor man is uncomfortable and forced to do everything by his overbearing, unfair wife. The look on his face harbours resentment. Clearly asking for the right to vote leads to domestic catastrophe, and unhappiness in the home. Whatsmore, this silly woman apparently doesn’t even know what she wants! Oh, when will she learn? Those wacky suffragists.


Millitant Suffragette – “I have smacked policemen, broken windows, assaulted Ministers, broken up meetings, done ‘time’, shouted myself hoarse – to prove myself a fit mate for you! Will you have me?”

J. B. – “No, thank you!”

1912. J.B. Refers to ‘John Bull’ – a personification of Britain, much the equivalent of Uncle Sam for the US. The violence of the image was reflected in the current climate, with Suffragettes smashing shop windows, burning, and even bombing buildings (though avoiding human targets). The feminist militant effort is lampooned as futile, because who would want to listen to angry, unpleasant women? The laundry list of offences likewise stimulates indignation and anger towards the movement.


“Mr. Wilson is lucky he is not a candidate twelve or sixteen years from now”

Also 1912, but from the US this time, during the campaign that would lead to Woodrow Wilson’s first term as President. This cartoon is a little unusual in showing hypothetical women with the vote, but – they’re considering whether to vote for Mr. Wilson off the most irrelevant of traits and topics! One can read women inquiring “I wonder if he is brave?”, “Do you help your wife with the dishes?”, “Do you adore Browning?” (EDIT: which most likely refers to the poet Robert Browning or possibly Elizabeth Barrett Browning – rather than the judge or firearms inventor as first sprung to my mind. Thanks  to Amelia in the comments section for this) and the inane comments “he has large feet” and “I never vote for brunettes”. The supposed frivolity and lack of awareness of politics in women is played off, in a similar way to the UK 1910 cartoon above. The supposed ignorance of women makes them unworthy.


I put these two together due to being so similar. We’ve seen these themes before. Harangued husbands, demeaned and debased in being made responsible for all domestic chores, causing strife in the home. I also can’t decide whether the wife in the image on the left looks more like an ogress or the terrifying girl from the film The Ring. But it’s comic, you see! Ugly, domineering women demanding they get their way about all things. Not equality, but selfishness. This may sound eerily familiar, if you’ve ever been exposed to contemporary criticisms of feminism, usually by men. See Rush Limbaugh’s comments, for instance. His term ‘Feminazi’ has even inspired right-wing T-shirts. 

This one’s quite famous. Maybe you’ve seen it in a school history lesson? Not much to it. Ugly women don’t get love from men, so they get angry and lash out at society about it. Of course.

It never seems to matter much in these smear campaigns that many of the arguments rest on painting the demonized with directly oppositional stereotypes. Suffragettes are simultaneously unmarried and unloved and angry, as well as bringing disaster to their husbands and children through their selfish refusal to do home chores. I actually have no idea if there was an official suffragette line when it came to household labour, though it wouldn’t surprise me if the ‘women who want the vote = women who won’t do anything at home’ idea was entirely fabricated for leverage.

Ah. But now a rapid leap, to 1995. This cartoon was published by the Utah County Journal in response to Voice, the Feminist group of Brigham Young University, staging an event highlighting violence perpetrated against women. The range of labels in the picture (Eng dept activism, R movies, anti-honour code, and Sunstone magazine) represent a range of organisations considered damaging by the conservative journal, and how together they’re causing trouble. Notice the disgusting mockery of violence/rape survival in the form of the armband on the muscular, unattractive Viking representation. In 100 years nothing more sophisticated than ‘women are ugly and don’t make sense’ has really been levied.

2012. You have have seen some of the news earlier this year, where after a young lady named Sandra Fluke gave a speech in support of mandating insurance coverage for contraceptives (citing a friend with a health condition that would be controlled by the contraceptive pill). Rush Limbaugh (yeah, him again) went on to say:

What does it say about the college co-ed Susan Fluke [sic], who goes before a congressional committee and essentially says that she must be paid to have sex, what does that make her? It makes her a slut, right? It makes her a prostitute. She wants to be paid to have sex. She’s having so much sex she can’t afford the contraception. She wants you and me and the taxpayers to pay her to have sex.

So this cartoon makes a (left wing) Feminist unattractive, stupid, angry, irrational, and morally dubious through slut-shaming. The shitty satire of Feminism hasn’t moved on for several reasons. Firstly, sadly, it’s effective. A blend of reductio ad absurdum combined with an audience ignorant of the issue being twisted and/or fabricated, and with some basic aesthetic demonisation is a recipe for most propaganda. Secondly, with a definition as simple as “a belief in equal rights for women”, feminism has become increasingly legitimised amongst anyone with half a brain cell of reason – even if different individuals and schools of feminism would enact this in very different ways. The fact that many more people find the label ‘Feminist’ problematic than actually consider its core principle unreasonable in parts reflects the success and ubiquity of this smearing.

Oh, and some of this stuff isn’t even to try and attack a political movement particularly. Some is a pathetically vomitous attempt at humour, such as the UK magazine ‘Viz’. It was seeing the character ‘Millie Tant‘ on the front cover of this cow pat of a publication whilst doing my shopping that made me think to write about this post. Here’s a picture of Millie.

Need I say more?

Well…actually, yes. When I was searching for an interesting spread of images, I found one that I felt was deserving of being saved until last. Much of Feminism (particularly second-wave Feminism of the ’70s-’90s) has been criticised for exclusively serving the needs of white, upper middle class women, reducing the experience of ‘woman’ down to a narrow narrative not experienced by many individuals, particularly economically disadvantaged women of colour. That said, the criticism of some part of woman’s suffrage in the image below seems quite ahead of its time, in commenting on the hypocrasy seen in white feminists exercising their power over black feminists through racism. Food for thought.


top: JUST LIKE THE MEN! bottom: Votes for WHITE women.

Can a man be a feminist?

I myself have never been able to find out precisely what feminism is: I only know that people call me a feminist whenever I express sentiments that differentiate me from a door mat or a prostitute” – Rebecca West

I have never really been able to find out precisely what feminism is either. I’m inclined to think this is because it isn’t ‘one thing’, any more than being a woman is. Personally, I like to think of feminism in its most simple terms – that people defining as women should experience the same rights as people defining as men. Thus I can sometimes find it difficult to understand why anyone would not define as a feminist. Yet, it would be at the very least inflammatory for many to suggest that the antonym of ‘feminism’ is ‘sexism’. Of course it’s pretty obvious why the majority of feminists are women, but it’s interesting to consider why many men do not identify as feminists (other than simple lack of awareness, or sad, persistent misogyny) and indeed, whether they can.

Bill Bailey

Photograph credit: Fawcett society

It has been argued that being a feminist is more than an intellectual agreement with a set of principles that then influence a person’s behaviour. It has been argued that having not lived a woman’s experiences, and/or the fact that men possess an inescapable degree of social privilege makes it impossible for men to truly identify with female struggles. Some also consider that for a man to take the label of feminist allows for the co-opting of a feminist identity, potentially resulting in less power for women themselves and the silencing of female voices. This has led to some men taking on the moniker of ‘profeminist’- agreement with feminist goals and politics, without claiming inclusion within the group of ‘feminist’ themselves.

Problems with this arise in several ways. Firstly, this understanding rests entirely on a binary model of gender with no obvious way to resolve the inclusion or exclusion of those who exist outside of this framework, or have moved transitioned from one group to another. Trans men have often lacked male privilege and have experienced a ‘female’ narrative based on how they have been treated before transition, yet do not identify as female. Likewise trans women will be experiencing a female narrative after transition, but have also arguably been privy to male privilege at some point in their lives. This reduces acceptability into the group of ‘feminist’ based on both bodies and on how gender is expressed (that is, whether one appears adequately ‘male’ or ‘female’ to ‘pass’) which is clearly problematic as infertile women, ‘masculine’ women, and indeed any other variation one cares to mention does not in any way invalidate their membership of the identity category.

One can call into question whether this argument of needing to have direct experience of ‘a woman’s narrative’ is indeed valid, as what is a woman’s narrative? As the feminist writer bell hooks (deliberately not capitalised) points out that “the insistence on a “women only” feminist movement and a virulent anti-male stance reflected the race and class background of participants”, that whilst bourgeoisie white women experience sexism, they still retain more social privilege and particularly in historical contexts would be less likely to be exploited than poor, uneducated non-white men. To attempt to simplify narratives such that the intersectionality of race, class, and sexuality aren’t considered to shape the idiosyncrasies of identity experience may only serve to alienate various (poor, non-white, etc.) women from such a feminist movement. A blanket-exclusion of men also implies that experience of male privilege by men is a homogeneous thing, as is enforcement of patriarchal systems, both of which are (hopefully) patently untrue. Men (and sometimes, women) can repress and marginalise men, too. Power is sourced in more than sex.

An interesting historical perspective can be considered when examining the quest for women’s rights and recognition before feminism was established as a term or identity. The philosopher John Stuart Mill co-published the paper ‘The Subjection of Women’ with his wife in 1869. His empathy, intentions, and actions were not invalidated by his gendered position. Likewise the acts of the male abolitionists William Lloyd Garrison, Charles Lenox Remond, Nathanial P. Rogers, and Henry Stanton to sit silently with the women (who were forbidden to speak) at the World Anti-Slavery Convention in 1849 was a clear refusal to accept this element of male privilege, challenging the patriarchy in a way that is not dependent on gendered identities or bodies of the social actors.

Parker Pillsbury, 1809-1898. Pillsbury was another important early male feminist, who co-edited the women’s rights newsletter ‘The Revolution’, founded in 1868 with Elizabeth Cady Stanton.

There also exists the problem that the exclusion of men from the group ‘feminist’ places the tasks of this movement as an exclusively feminine task, arguably a hypocritically sexist circumstance. This argument clearly cannot be extended to the occupation of women-only spaces by men, as marginalised and oppressed groups have a requirement of, and a right to safe spaces. However, men certainly have at least as much responsibility in battling sexism and patriarchal structures as women, and to attempt to do this in a political environment with an extremely dubious (as race relations have taught us) ‘separate but equal’ policy, does not best serve either group.

The distinction then, between profeminism (or pro-feminism) and feminism is a construct that arguably echoes an inflexibility regarding the nebulous nature of gendered identities, as well as the interplay that exists between different facets of an individual’s personal, social identity. The complexities that exist in then grappling with the differences in stance that various interpretations of feminism can hold are another question entirely. However, I am proud to call myself a feminist, and accept with the use of that label the social reactions and judgements that follow.

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