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Should Women Vote?

From: Journal of Women's History
Volume 20, Number 3, Fall 2008
pp. 144-165 | 10.1353/jowh.0.0022

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

On 13 July 1910, the English humor magazine Punch published a cartoon depicting a woman pushing a rock labeled “Women’s Suffrage” up a steep hillside labeled “Parliament (Figure 1).” A caption under the picture exclaims “Excelsior!” It is followed by this statement: Suffragist: “It’s no good talking to me about Sisyphus; he was only a man!” The well–dressed woman pushes the rock in a pose suggesting strength, while she gazes directly at the viewer with a determined look on her face. The landscape behind her fades into distant mountains and clouds, leaving no means to judge whether she is approaching the summit.1

A brilliant device for teaching about women’s suffrage, this cartoon provides numerous access points for engaging students in discussion and analysis. The cartoon visually illustrates the central issue: could suffrage advocates persuade Parliament to alter voting statutes? This conflict is illustrated by the determination of the suffragists (symbolized by the woman pushing the boulder up the hill) and the resistance created by Parliament (that is, the force required to push this boulder against gravity up a seemingly unconquerable slope). At the same time, the caption, with its ironic statement (“he was only a man”), validates the larger claim of the suffrage movement that women were not just proving their rights as citizens, but also demonstrating their superior moral and ethical standards. The references embedded in the cartoon thus provoke a more in–depth analysis of multiple meanings. Contemporary students are likely to have some familiarity with the myth of Sisyphus, who was punished for his cleverness by spending eternity in Tartarus pushing a rock up a mountain only to have it fall to the bottom, forcing him to begin all over again. Yet the invocation of this myth in a different historical and political context raises the question of whether women’s struggle for equal rights was a Sisyphean sentence of endless frustration or whether, as the caption suggests, a woman might achieve what a mythical man could not.

The title “Excelsior!” represents an even more subtle teaching challenge. Standard dictionary definitions, i.e. “wood shavings used for packing,” [End Page 144] make no sense in this context; it is only by referencing a dictionary with an extensive etymology that the “right” meaning can be found: in Latin, “still higher.” This additional knowledge clarifies the cartoon’s perspective, exhorting women to push still higher to achieve their desired goal. Exposing students to these multiple layers of meaning, from the most obvious images through symbolic references to more obscure textual elements, demonstrates how reading primary sources can yield complex understandings of significant historical processes. Recognizing that these amalgams of text and image are not self–explanatory or simply illustrative requires that students employ the methodologically advanced reading skills acquired through the study of primary sources in a history course.

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Figure 1.

“Excelsior!” Punch, 13 July 1910.

This cartoon offers a useful place to begin this discussion of teaching about the women’s suffrage in Europe in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The suffrage campaign achieved considerable visibility throughout Europe during this period as women mobilized to pressure their governments to expand the rights denied by sex to one–half of the adult population. At the same time, as this cartoon suggests, resistance to suffrage became a significant political force as both governments and organized groups sought to preserve restrictions on women’s rights. To [End Page 145] understand this subject, students need to know about historical context, the contributions of important leaders, the differences between countries, and the chronology of campaigns. Just as important, however, students need the analytical skills to identify point of view, to explain processes of change, and to connect historical examples to contemporary situations. This pedagogical approach teaches students that, in the words of historian Sandra Stanley Holton, the history of women’s suffrage, “like all history, is contested ground, and remains always a provisional and partial form of knowledge.”2

To pursue the objective...