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The War on Suffrage

October 29, 2010
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“Nine little Suffergets,
Finding boys to hate,
One kisses Willie Jones,
And then there are Eight.”



Ten Little Suffergets tells the sad tale of ten little girls who lose their pro-suffrage leanings when they spy shiny objects like toys, men, and the Sandman. The 1915 picture book ends with the final baby suffragette cracking her baby doll’s head open. “And then there were none!” ends the book on a gleeful note.


The suffrage movement, both in America and England, involved angry debates about the ideals of womanhood, the power and purpose of government, and how much beer everyone should be drinking. The debate continued until the passing of the 1918 Representation of the People Act in Britain, and in the U.S. with the 19th Amendment in 1920. While often overlooked today, the anti-suffrage movement attacked the power-hungry, unnatural women (as they saw the suffragettes) with word and policy and pen and ink. Below are some of their biggest complaints about the suffragettes, and how they articulated their point of view.

Suffrage Isn’t Sexy

The suffrage movement was part of the larger debate known as “The Woman Question” in Victorian and Edwardian times, when people were discussing what a real woman looked like. Lisa Tickner, in The Spectacle of Women, explained how the sexual ideals of the time period in Britain affected the political policy.

“Anti-suffragists drew heavily on the Victorian ideology of ‘separate spheres’… Their use of it led to the claim that female enfranchisement would sexualize politics and unsex women, confusing the proper boundaries of masculine and feminine, public and private, domestic and political, by which the natural complementarity of a harmonious social order was maintained.”

In other words, letting women get a chance at the polls would destroy the society.

This attitude was reflected in the suffragette caricatures drawn in newspapers and magazines. According to Tickner, depictions of spinster suffragettes were normally slender in a time when curves were celebrated; their faces likewise were severe and gaunt, “the lines of disappointment etched deep by the illustrator’s pen.” The spinster suffragette’s clothes and physical appearance emphasize that she is a failed woman and wannabe man. The lady wants to vote because she couldn’t get a date.

I Am Woman Voter, Hear Me Roar!

Political participation didn't just make women unattractive, anti-suffragettes argued. It wasn’t natural behavior for women to get their hands dirty in politics. “The nature of most women is not attracted by the contentious spirit in which political warfare is conducted,” declared Dr. Ernest Bernbaum of Harvard in 1916.

Another Massachusetts woman, writing in 1916, expressed concerns on the effect of the suffrage movement on women’s character. Suffragism appeared overtly aggressive to many critics. “It is surely not making them any more lovely, or pleasant in their lives. They grow bitter, aggressive, and antagonistic, liking the excitement of campaigning and finding their natural, proper duties ‘flat, stale, and unprofitable.’"

Suffragism made women mean-spirited, many opponents believed, and the cartoons and caricatures they produced reflected this.

Babes and Booze

Beer divided and united the anti-suffragettes in the United States. In her book A Dangerous Class, Betty Stevens tells the story of beer-sellers who feared that women would vote for the prohibition of alcohol. They went and warned the husbands of suffragettes to get their wives off the campaign trail before the husbands lost their jobs.

Other anti-suffragettes, who were pro-temperance, published materials trying to prove that states with women voters sold more mugs of beer. “The only two states in the Union that adopted woman suffrage last year are known as the ‘wettest’ states in the country, Montana and Nevada,” stated one 1915 pamphlet from the Women’s Anti-Suffrage Association. “These two states have more saloons to their population than any other state in the forty-eight.”

The government officially prohibited the sale of alcohol with the 18th amendment in January 1920. American women received the right to vote with the 19th amendment in August of the same year.

Women of the World, Don’t Unite

Still other anti-suffragettes believed woman’s suffrage didn’t make political sense, both for women and the nation as a whole. Grace Duffield Goodwin wrote Anti-Suffrage: Ten Good Reasons in 1912. She points out that women are exempted from political and legal responsibilities like serving in the army or sitting on juries. Many heavy responsibilities, like “providing for family,” paying debts and going to jail for minor crimes are spared the female sex. If a wife “engages in illegal business the law holds [the husband] responsible, and not her.” Why would women want to give up that kind of legal protection for equal voting rights?

Moreover, politically it didn’t make sense for women to vote when they wouldn’t be able to fulfill the voting requirements. Molly Seawell, writing in her 1913 treatise The Ladies’ Battle, said, “No electorate has ever existed, or ever can exist, which cannot execute its own laws.” Women were physically incapable of fighting their way to the polls, and could not serve in law enforcement. Seawell believed that if half the electorate was unable to enforce the laws, the government would become unstable in an unprecedented fashion.

A small minority believed that woman’s suffrage wouldn’t make government unstable enough. Emma Goldman, a famous anarchist in the early 20th century, thought that the established political systems were so oppressive that women should focus their energies on finding true liberation from the oppression of government, Church and societal expectations. “Are we to assume that the poison already inherent in politics will be decreased, if women were to enter the political arena?”

The Singing Defense

While the suffrage movement certainly inspired protest songs (left), the suffragettes were not mute in defending themselves and their beliefs. Charlotte Perkins Gilman, known for her short story “The Yellow Wall-Paper,” wrote many songs for the suffrage movement. In “Females,” she compared the females of other animal species and finds that they were all equal to the male members. That is, except for one particular: homo sapiens.


“One female in the world we find
Telling a different tale.
It is the female of our race,
Who holds a parasitic place
Dependent on the male.”


Comic poetry was another outlet for suffragette retaliation. In Are Women People?: A Book of Rhymes for Suffrage Times, Alice Duer Miller listed 12 common reasons for anti-suffragette belief. On the next page, she writes, “Reasons Women Should Not Have Pockets.” These reasons include:

1. Because pockets are not a natural right.
2. Because the great majority of women do not want pockets. If they did, they would have them.
3. Because whenever women have had pockets they have not used them.
4. Because women are required to carry a great number of things without pockets as it is.

Responding to the claim that women would be placed in danger while visiting the polls, the author mimics an equal-opportunity anti-suffragist.

“You must not go to the polls, Willie,
Never go to the polls,
They’re dark and dreadful places
Where people lose their souls.”
* * * * *
"Well now, thank goodness that is over...," wrote Mary Ward, a member of the British anti-suffrage coalition writing after the movement failed in 1918. "Now the question is what the women will do with the vote."

Today there are 143 women elected to House of Commons, the greatest number in the history of the institution, and 90 women currently serving in the U.S. Congress. Some might argue those numbers are too low, but it turns out women weren't distracted by the puckered lips of Willie Jones after all.

Image Credits: CORBIS, Bryn Mawr College Library, Michael Nicholson/Corbis, CORBIS, Rykoff Collection/CORBIS, CORBIS, David J. & Janice L. Frent Collection/Corbis

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This Week's Best Amazon Deals You Can Still Get
April 30, 2017
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As a recurring feature, we share some amazing Amazon deals we’ve turned up. These items were the ones that were the most popular with our readers this week, and they’re still available.

Mental Floss has affiliate relationships with certain retailers (including Amazon) and may receive a small percentage of any sale. But we only get commission on items you buy and don’t return, so we’re only happy if you’re happy. Good luck deal hunting!

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When the FBI Went After Mad Magazine
April 29, 2017
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Warner Bros., IStock

In a memo dated November 30, 1957, an agent with the Federal Bureau of Investigation identified as “A. Jones” raised an issue of critical importance: "Several complaints to the Bureau have been made concerning the 'Mad' comic book [sic], which at one time presented the horror of war to readers."

Attached to the document were pages taken from a recent issue of Mad that featured a tongue-in-cheek game about draft dodging. Players who earned such status were advised to write to FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover and request a membership card certifying themselves as a “full-fledged draft dodger.” At least three readers, the agent reported, did exactly that.

Mad, of course, was the wildly popular satirical magazine that was reaching upwards of a million readers every other month. Published by William Gaines, who had already gotten into some trouble with Congress when he was called to testify about his gruesome horror comics in 1954, Mad lampooned everyone and everything. But in name-checking the notoriously humorless Hoover, Gaines had invited the wrong kind of attention.

The memo got several facts incorrect: Mad had switched from a comic book to a magazine format in 1955, and it was Gaines’ E.C. Comics that had “presented the horror of war” in other titles. Despite getting these crucial pieces of information wrong, Jones didn’t hesitate to editorialize: "It is also of interest to note that…it is rather unfunny.”

The agent recommended the Bureau’s New York offices “make contact” with Mad’s headquarters to “advise them of our displeasure” and to make sure “that there be no repetition of such misuse of the Director’s name.”

Less than a week later, the Feds entered the hallowed hallways patrolled by Alfred E. Neuman. Their New York office would later report to Hoover directly that they had met with John Putnam, the magazine’s art director. (Conveniently, Gaines was not in that day.) Putnam told the agents he regretted the magazine using Hoover’s name and that nothing malicious was intended:

Putnam said that the use of the membership card and the name and address of the Director at the end of the game was referred to in their business as a 'gag' or 'kicker' in the same way that a comedian like Bob Hope or Milton Berle might use it.

Putnam swore that Mad would never again take Hoover’s name in vain; Gaines sent off a letter of sincere apology to the Director.

The Smoking Gun

Just two years later, in January 1960, Agent A. Jones was forced to file a second notice about the shenanigans at Mad. A recent issue had made not one, but two derogatory mentions of Hoover, including one in which he is blatantly and disrespectfully portrayed as being associated with a vacuum cleaner, “The Honorable J. Edgar Electrolux”:  

Obviously, Gaines was insincere in this promise…and has again placed the Director in a position of ridicule…it is felt we should contact Gaines…and firmly and severely admonish them concerning our displeasure…

It was by now clear Mad was not only polluting young minds, but that Gaines had absolutely no regard for the honorable Hoover’s position.

In June 1961, the FBI’s worst fears had been realized. Detailing an investigation into a Seattle-area extortion attempt led to the following:

Investigation … resulted in gaining admissions from the victim’s 12-year-old son and an 11-year-old companion that they had gotten the idea of preparing an extortion letter after reading the June issue of 'Mad' magazine.   

Working in concert with the Buffalo field office, the FBI determined another letter had been sent by a young boy demanding money in the style of a recent issue’s extortion advice. And there was a third under review that was sent to the agent of some professional wrestlers.

Mad was quickly becoming the scourge of the federal government. The FBI suggested the magazine be brought to the attention of the Attorney General for “instructing [readers] to deliberately violate the Federal Law.” They tried reaching out to Gaines, who was on vacation. (Time and again, Gaines simply not being in the office when called upon seemed to confound the FBI.)

Agent A. Jones, having exhausted all attempts to reason with these irresponsible anarchists, filed one last memo:

Despite assurances, they have continued to publish slurring remarks about the Bureau. In view of this situation, it was deemed useless to protest all such irresponsible remarks to a magazine of this poor judgment and capriciousness … we will have to wait and see if our action will result in increased discretion by this publication.

Poor A. Jones was unable to put an end to Mad’s reign of terror. But the magazine redeemed itself somewhat. In the 1970s, when the Bureau was trying to suppress the influence of the Ku Klux Klan, an agent suggested they copy and distribute a sticker from the magazine that read, “Support Mental Illness—Join the Klan!”

Hoover said no.

Additional Sources:
The Smoking Gun.

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