Saturday, June 13, 2020

Allison K. Lange's "Picturing Political Power"

Allison K. Lange is an associate professor of history at the Wentworth Institute of Technology.

Her new book, Picturing Political Power: Images in the Women’s Suffrage Movement, traces the ways that women’s rights reformers and their opponents used images to define gender and power in the United States.

Lange applied the “Page 99 Test” to Picturing Political Power and reported the following:
Picturing Political Power: Images in the Women’s Suffrage Movement examines the ways that women’s rights activists—and their opponents—used images to advance their cause and change gender ideals. The book features 105 historical images, and page
Figure 6
99 features two: portraits of 19th-century American women’s rights activist Clarina Howard Nichols. The captions [see below] are the only texts on the page.

In a way, this test is a great representation of the book. These portraits appeared in the first volume of The History of Woman Suffrage, a series published by Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and others starting in 1881. Americans encountered many portraits of men, but few women distributed their portrait because they were supposed to aspire to a domestic, private life.

Suffragists wanted the public to meet their leaders. They featured a portrait of Nichols, a Midwesterner who was one of the founders of their movement.

The first volume of the History of Woman Suffrage was published in 1881, and a second edition was printed in 1887. Anthony was in charge of the portraits, and she spent precious funds on a new engraving that featured an idealized, younger representation of Nichols. Nichols’s curls
Figure 7
have more bounce and her face is rounder. None of the others were updated. Anthony likely thought the new portrait presented a more appealing representation of the movement to the public.

The two portraits only make sense when we understand that most pictures that Americans encountered mocked female reformers and that suffragists were trying to win over the public with these portraits. Suffragists developed one of the first modern visual campaigns—with everything from posters and postcards to photographs—to create an appealing image of female activists. Most pictures highlighted well-off white women, overlooking male suffragists and reformers of color. Picturing Political Power puts portraits like Nichols’s in conversation with the mocking pictures that Anthony was trying to challenge. Even a century later, the themes in pro- and anti-suffrage pictures remain part of modern visual debates about women’s rights.

Figure 6: J. C. Buttre, Clarina I. Howard Nichols, 1881, engraving, published in the History of Woman Suffrage (1881), Vol. 1, facing page 193, Reproduction from Wellesley College, Library and Technology Services, Ella Smith Elbert Collection.

Figure 7: J. C. Buttre, Clarina I. Howard Nichols, 1887, engraving, published in the History of Woman Suffrage (1887), Vol. 1, reprint, facing page 193, Courtesy of University of Toronto Libraries.
Visit Allison K. Lange's website.

--Marshal Zeringue