Reclaiming the Mocked Suffragette

Ducking stool for suffragettes. Image courtesy of

We have all heard of the girl who asked what was the difference between a Suffragist and a Suffragette, as she pronounced it, and the answer made [by] her [was] that the ‘Suffragist jist wants the vote, while the Suffragette means to get it.’

From 1914 journal Suffragette of the British Women’s Social & Political Union (WSPU). Quoted in

When the women’s suffrage movement grew large and loud at the start of the 20th century, a British journalist mocked the suffragists by changing the ending of their label to the diminutive “ette.” The Brits, under the radicalized Women’s Social & Political Union (WPSU) founded by Emmeline Pankhurst, grabbed the insult and took it for their own. In one WPSU journal, Pankhurst changed the soft “g” to a hard one, emphasizing that they aimed to GET the vote.

Across the pond, American suffragists hated the change and, to this day, there’s some annoyance from historians that the distinction isn’t understood. Depending on which reference site you access, the term is either derogatory or explanatory. For example, the U.S. National Park Service says that the term is viewed as “offensive” and not used, while a British Library service explains that suffragists were “peaceful” while suffragettes were “militant.”

As we celebrate the 100th anniversary of women winning the right to vote in the United States and revel in triumphant pictures of the sashed marchers, I found it interesting to look at how they’ve been insulted over that same period. The surprising part was how mockery can sometimes be transformed to admiration, using some of the same words or pictures.

We’re Here! We’re Suffragettes! Get Used to It

First of all, I apologize to my [hmmm can’t say fellow] American feminist historians if “suffragette” is offensive. I do understand there is a difference and that anti-suffrage forces used the word to be offensive. But a century later I think we have to follow the lead of Ms. Pankhurst and own “suffragettes.” Some of this distinction seems a little bit like the difference between “Trekkie” and “Trekker.” People get very upset being called the wrong thing, but maybe we just need to embrace being all part of the same movement.

The LGBT community did this quite well with the embracing of the insult “Queer.” Want to call us strange? Fine, we’ll just add it to our alphabet and now be LGBTQ (or LGBTQIA). I still have fond memories of being in a pride protest march in Washington on one of those long escalators up from the subway. The power stopped, and we all had to climb in an orderly non-stampeding fashion up those five? six? flights of stairs, so we chanted, “We’re Here ! We’re Queer! We’re Marching Up the Escalator!” We can take a mean word and make it better.

It’s Just a Cartoon

It’s a little harder to change the insulting images, and in the 19th and early 20th century, many were as harsh and divisive as what you see in political mockery today. For example, that ducking stool shown in the “joke cartoon” at the top was developed in England for women designated as “Scolds,” i.e. women who criticized things. The stool was also used–or a variation of the punishment without the stool–to identify witches. Throw the woman into the water; if she floats, she’s a witch, and, if she drowns, then she’s not a witch.

The ducking stool is described as a method of “law enforcement,” although that’s like saying waterboarding could be described as a method of “questioning a person of interest.” Suggesting that the ducking stool be applied to women advocating for social change draws that clear line back to the days of the inquisition. Ah, those good old days, when women who exhibited knowledge and acted independently of men were simply accused of witchcraft and some 60,000 were put to death. Har-de-har-har!

That level of hostility wasn’t confined to insulting pictures. In 1913, Alice Paul and the National American Women’s Suffrage Association organized a march of 5,000 to parade through Washington D.C. the day before Woodrow Wilson’s inauguration. The march was met by thousands of spectators and garnered huge attention and interest sparked for the cause. The women were at first jeered at but then attacked by the crowd, jostled, assaulted, and hit with thrown objects. More than a hundred were hospitalized. The hostility was real, but the women finished the march and inspired others for more marches and protests. Eventually enough pressure was put on Congress to act and the Nineteenth Amendment was ratified August 18, 1920.

Crowd hostile to the 1913 suffragist march (since they’re in the U.S., I’ll bow to the American historians). Photo from

Telescopic Philanthropy

The mocking of the suffragettes also reminded me of a Dickens character. In the 1850s and 1860s, the heyday of Dickens’ novels, women had become more vocal in advocating for varieties of social change. Suffrage was a focus, both for women and for others still denied the vote, but also poverty, temperance, and labor reforms. Mrs. Jellyby in the novel Bleak House practices what Dickens labels “telescopic philanthropy.” She has several children, but they are neglected while she spends all her time raising money, writing letters, and going to meetings to help starving children in Africa.

Dickens paints horrific scenes where the children are falling out of windows and starting fires, while Mrs. Jellyby prattles on about Borrioboola-Gha. It’s a searing indictment of a type of person that does exist, the protester that is so busy going to demonstrations or helping others that they neglect their own family. The eldest daughter, Caddy, who acts as secretary for her mother’s letter campaigns, has come to detest the word “cause,” and the reader cannot help but be sympathetic.

Yet, the last time I read the book, I wondered about Mr. Jellyby, just as I wonder about the bedraggled husbands in all the anti-suffragette cartoons. Mr. Jellyby seems so worn out by his wife’s energy in her philanthropic pursuits that all he can do is sit with his head against the wall. He doesn’t lift a finger himself to keep his children from playing with the knives or upending the paint. It reminded me of the anti-suffrage cartoon depictions, such as the husband with the crying babies on his lap. If crying babies are so horrific, then why should his wife be saddled with them instead? We’re supposed to be unhappy that she’s leaving to do something else useful, but perhaps both of them need to hire some additional help.

Anti-suffragette cartoon, image from

Which brings me to Sister Suffragette.

Cast Off the Shackles of Yesterday!

Of all the strangely insulting/inspiring characters in popular media, the creation of Mrs. Banks as a suffragette in Mary Poppins is an interesting one. She comes on to the scene in the beloved movie by declaring proudly, “Mrs Whitbourne-Allen chained herself to the wheel of the Prime Minister’s carriage! Oh, you should have been there!” Since her domestic staff is either overwhelmed or abandoning the disorganized household, as evidenced by cook dropping pans and the children being noisy, Mrs. Banks is characterized as a bad mother and neglectful wife. Shades of Mrs. Jellyby… and yet…

For many people, including myself, Mrs. Banks’ “Sister Suffragette” was the first suffragette, almost the first feminist character, we ever encountered. She’s meant to be lampooned, yet that tune is awfully catchy, and the lyrics rather inspiring: “No more the meek and mild subservients we! We’re fighting for our rights, militantly!” As an eight-year-old girl in the Sixties listening to the album, it sounded pretty good to me.

The story of Mrs. Banks and the song is itself fairly convoluted. Her character in the Poppins books is not a suffragette. She has four children instead of two, with the youngest being twins; everyone knows parents of twins need extra help. Plus, if her house had a maid and cook, it would likely have had a nanny or governess as well. At least one analysis points out that the book was set in the 1930s, so perhaps the socialist servants were rebellious labor organizers, which is why Mrs. Banks felt the need for a Mary Poppins.

Fifty years later, Disney and his writers seemed to prefer a different statement. The mid-sixties was the heyday of what Betty Friedan labeled the “Feminine Mystique,” where post-WWII women were pressured to return home from their factory jobs so that the returning soldiers would have employment. Women were depicted in the media as happy housewives and those who wanted to do otherwise were depicted as neurotic and/or neglectful of their family.

Hence, the Disney version of the movie turns the overwhelmed Mrs. Banks into the dotty, derelict suffragette, recreating all those nasty cartoon images while simultaneously ridiculing the protest movement that had successfully achieved its aims. If you watched the movie, you didn’t care for Mrs. Banks very much. But the song!

The song is pretty inspiring, with nothing that really insults the singer. Calling Mrs. Banks a “soldier in petticoat” or a “crusader” doesn’t seem so bad by today’s standards. In the movie, she marches through the house rather ridiculously with the staff in tow, then marches out the door while they’re left to cope with dinner. But that subtle nod to privilege would have been lost to the 1964 crowd. Plus, those of us who just listened to the record seven hundred times only remember the fun of the lyrics.

Disney still shot from Mary Poppins, used for publicity and on the cast album.

Interestingly enough, the lyrics were written in a huge haste. Walt Disney met Glynis Johns shortly after casting her, but, in an awkward morning meeting, realized that Johns thought she was going to play Mary Poppins rather than Mrs. Banks. To assuage her disappointment, Disney claimed that they had a terrific opening number for her, and songwriters Richard and Robert Sherman would play it for her after lunch. The only problem was that they hadn’t written it, yet. They repurposed a tune from an extra song for the Mary and added new lyrics, and the result is still hummable today. Also interesting is that the above publicity shot for the song describes the “admiration” of the household staff despite the fact that Katie Nanna on the right is about to quit.

While Disney meant Mrs. Banks as suffragette to be an insult, perhaps some in the studio felt otherwise, whether captioning the photo or writing the lyrics. Perhaps even back then, they knew that insults about protesting for women’s rights could be reclaimed and turned into absolutely soaring inspirational voices:

Our daughters’ daughters will adore us (and we do, Mrs. Banks!)
And they’ll sing in grateful chorus
“Well done! Well done!
Well done Sister Suffragette!”

Lyrics from “Sister Suffragette by Richard and Robert Sherman.

I couldn’t agree more.

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