What a Woman may be, and yet not have the Vote - What a Man may have been, amp; yet not lose the Vote;The Big Picture

27th March 1998 at 00:00
Seventy years ago this spring the vote was finally won for all British women over the age of 21. With a fervour hard to imagine in these days of an apathetic electorate, women had even committed suicide to get political representation.

The Equal Franchise Act of 1928 was the culmination of decades of campaigning. Women such as Emmeline Pankhurst devoted their lives to fighting inequality. Mrs Pankhurst founded the Women's Suffrage and Political Union (WSPU) in 1903; her daughters Sylvia and Christabel played a dramatic part in the struggle. At its height, with the Pankhursts involved in frequent arrests and hunger-strikes, the WSPU was spurned by other feminist campaigners such as Millicent Fawcett, who preferred argument to action. The suffragettes (a name bestowed by male journalists and rejected by the women, who called themselves suffragists) called a truce on the outbreak of the First World War and were rewarded with the 1918 Representation of the People Act which granted universal male suffrage and the vote to married women over 30.

The Suffrage Atelier society was formed in 1909 to "encourage artists to forward the Women's Movement, and particularly the enfranchisement of women, by means of pictorial publications". Its hand-coloured woodcuts were inexpensive and quick to produce. "What a Woman may be, and yet not have the Vote"(left) was published in 1913 and acclaimed by George Bernard Shaw, who wrote: "If we have come to think that the nursery and the kitchen are the natural sphere of a woman, we have done so exactly as English children have come to think that a cage is a natural sphere of a parrot: because they are never seen anywhere else."

In singling out men who are criminal or incapable and contrasting them with women who are responsible, the poster echoes the "respectable" suffragette line endorsed by Fawcett: women deserved the vote. They would have been bemused by the current notion that women are entitled to behave just as badly as men.

This print appears in "The Power of the Poster", an exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum spanning 120 years of social history (April 2 to July 26. Admission pound;5, students and school groups free. Tel: 0171 938 8441). An accompanying book is available from Vamp;A Publications, pound;30.

Victoria Neumark

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