Cats and Women’s Right to Vote

During the decades-long fight for a woman’s right to vote, suffragists, people who believed strongly in a woman’s right to vote, used powerful imagery, symbolism, and even colors to spread women’s messages far and wide. Both suffragettes and anti-suffragettes, or people who did not support a woman’s right to vote, utilized cats in their imagery.

In both American and British cultures, cats and dogs have typically been associated with specific genders. Cats were meant as the pet for women and dogs as the pet for men. More than just being the preferred type of pet for men or women, these animals carried different meanings for men and women.

Dogs were believed to represent men because of their strength and because they were perceived as being the more masculine animal. On the other hand, cats were believed to represent femininity, domesticity, and traditional home values.

Women’s suffrage and cats in the U.K.

During the period of women’s suffrage in the 1900s, cats were most frequently used in British imagery. More often than not, anti-suffrage imagery was used in the beginning. They wanted to make the point that women were delicate and simple and were therefore not capable of voting and should instead remain focused on their domestic duties. They wanted to imply that a cat voting was absurd. And a woman voting? Well, that would be just as crazy!

In anti-suffragette propaganda, the imagery of a sad cat would be used to indicate that a woman wasn’t fulfilling her domestic duties. It was also meant to demean women and make women look infantile and silly. Whereas a man would be shown as being strong and active, alongside dogs who typically are seen as powerful, strong, and active, all qualities a man was believed to need to possess.

Cats would be used in imagery to portray a home that had been ‘abandoned’ by a progressive woman. The cat would sometimes look bored and aloof. It would also accompany imagery of a worn-out and submissive-looking man who was left behind by his wife to run the household and handle his wife’s duties.

 However, later on, the suffragists would begin to adopt the cat as a symbol of empowerment. One such picture used features a fierce-looking black and white kitten sitting in front of the green, white, and purple striped flag that was so often used by the women behind the British Suffrage Movement. 

The kitten was meant to be a response to the popular anti-suffragette postcards of the time, which indicated that a woman was like a cat or that a cat was the proper pet for a woman. Instead of the kitten looking feral, wild, or sick as often depicted, it simply looks frustrated and ready to tussle if need be.

Early 20th century anti-women's vote postcard of an angry looking white cat holding a red sign that says "Vote for shes"
Anti-suffragette postcard. The angry looking cat is holding a sign that says, “Vote for Shes”. William Henry Ellam, Illustrated Postcard Co., New York and Germany. Source: Sheridan Libraries, Johns Hopkins library.

The flag’s colors represented a certain meaning for the women of the suffrage movement as well. Green indicated hope, white represented purity, and purple represented dignity or loyalty.

Unjust treatment 

Eventually, in the U.K., as well as in the U.S., suffragettes began to suffer from police violence and unjust imprisonment. They would fight against this by going on hunger strikes, but prison guards often force-fed them. This resulted in serious harm and even death to the women involved.

The imagery of the cat would go on to become more synonymous with being an enemy of women and more closely representing the male-dominated playing field of politics and government. One poster depicts a gigantic-sized cat with a fierce look in its eyes biting and holding a small woman wearing a sash with the previously mentioned green, white, and purple colors. The sash also has the letters WSPU written on it, which stands for the Women’s Social and Political Union, one of several groups that made up the British suffrage movement.

An early 20th century postcard of an angry black and white cat over green, white, and purple stripes with the text at the bottom, "I want my Vote!"
An angry tuxedo cat over the green, white, and purple colors of the British suffrage movement with the text “I want my Vote!”. Circa 1908. Source: Sheridan Libraries, Johns Hopkins library.

The British government didn’t want the women to become martyrs for the cause of the suffragette, so they enacted the Prisoners Act of 1913. This act let the women go home to recuperate from their hunger strike or continue it and ultimately pass away. Either way, it freed the government from feeling responsible for causing the women harm or facing any repercussions. If the women recovered, they would simply arrest them once again, once they had recovered.

This act soon became known as the Cat and Mouse Act, which changed the imagery of the cat for women in the U.K. In this situation, the women were more like the mouse, being chased and threatened by the cat, the male-dominated government.

When did women get the right to vote in the U.K.? 

In the U.K., women didn’t get the same voting rights as men until 1928. When any woman over the age of twenty-one did finally gain the right to vote, however, over 15 million women became eligible to vote!

Prior to this, only about 8.5 million women in the U.K. could vote since 1918, when the Representation of the People Act was passed. But to vote, women had to be over thirty years old and meet a certain property qualification in order to vote. Additionally, the government also extended or enhanced the voting rights of men. Men used to have to be property owners to be able to vote but no longer was this required. So, while women did have some rights, the disparity between women and men in the U.K. was quite prevalent until 1928. 

Women’s suffrage and cats in the U.S.

In the U.S., cats were first used as an anti-suffrage symbol of sorts. The “ideal” woman was supposed to be like a calm, serene, and beautiful indoor cat. While within anti-suffrage imagery, suffragettes were often characterized and depicted as feral outdoor cats with raggedy, scruffy looks and often depicted as mean-tempered by screaming, growling, or hissing.

Cats of both natures also showed up on postcards that painted men as being abandoned by women and having to take on the supposedly more feminine tasks like laundry, cleaning, and childcare.

A 1902 political cartoon showing an upset husband holding two kids while his wife leaves the kitchen to go vote.
1909 print of a woman leaving the house to vote on election day, leaving her upset husband to take care of the kids and house by himself. The kids are crying, a plate is broken, and even the cat is scared. Votes for Women is in a frame on the wall in the background. Source: E.W. Gustin., 1909, Loc.gov, public domain.

For example, in one anti-suffragette advertisement from 1909, you can see a clearly stressed man wearing an apron while washing clothes on a laundry washboard while watching over the baby while a cat just looks on. The sign on the wall of the room says, “Everybody works but mother: She’s a suffragette.” At the bottom of the advertisement or poster, it says, “I want to vote, but my wife won’t let me.” This message was trying to imply that by asking for the right to vote, women were trying to abandon their homes, their husbands, and their children, or even control their husbands. By making the man wear an apron, the man is emasculated and no longer the husband or man he once was because his wife is a suffragette.

A 1916 newspaper clipping about two suffragettes and their black cat.
News article about the arrival of Suffragettes Nell Richardson and Alice Burke with Saxon the cat. Sunday Oregonian, July 09, 1916, section one, page 15.

In 1916 in the United States, two suffragettes named Nell Richardson and Alice Burke went on a five-month-long cross-country road trip to promote the idea of a women’s right to vote. Early on in their trip, they were gifted an adorable little black kitten.

Knowing the negative symbolism associated with cats and their cause, the women thought they’d have some fun and bring the kitten along with them. 

News traveled fast, and soon that little cat became the star of the show! They named him Saxon after the manufacturer of the Golden Flier care they used. Richardson and Burke used him to help turn around the negative stereotypes surrounding women and cats. He became a huge part of their trip and became their official unofficial mascot.

When did women in the U.S. get the right to vote?

In the United States, women were finally able to vote in the year 1920. However, there would still be much progress to be made. Many women had to wait a long time to be able to actually vote because of unjust state voting laws.

What changed the public’s minds?

 Eventually, public opinion began to shift to become more favorable towards the suffragettes and women who just wanted to be able to have a voice and vote. This was in part because of the way the government and police were treating women.

Like women in the U.K., American women also faced imprisonment from their government. Between 1917 and 1918, many women, commonly known as the Silent Sentinels because they stood with signs in front of the White House trying to get President Woodrow Wilson to hear them out and support their cause. 

Ultimately, one fateful night in November of 1917 became known as the Night of Terror for the suffragists. Many of the women who protested that night were dragged off to prison and suffered under the commands of the prison guards, much like their sisters in the U.K. 

After the Night of Terror in the United States and the Cat and Mouse Act in the United Kingdom, people slowly began to realize that women were being terribly mistreated and deserved to have their right to vote. 

The symbolism of the cat for the right to vote

The suffragettes weren’t swayed by the negative stereotype that got pushed on them. Not even a little. In fact, they fully adopted the cat imagery and embraced it!

One short poem reads as follows:

“I’m a catty Suffragette

I scratch and fight the P’lice,

So long as they withhold the vote

My warfare will not cease.”

Conclusion

The use of cats as a negative stereotype on women in anti-suffragists campaigns ultimately backfired. Women were able to turn the symbol of the cat around and make it into something powerful and fierce. An image with a powerful message; the message that women deserve the right to vote! 

References

1917 suite | Silent sentinels and the night of terror. (n.d.). Blackbird. https://blackbird.vcu.edu/v17n1/gallery/1917-suffrage/intro-page-night-of-terror.shtml

Anti-suffragism in the United States. (2019, April 10). NPS.gov (U.S. National Park Service). https://www.nps.gov/articles/anti-suffragism-in-the-united-states.htm

Blakemore, E. (2021, March 17). Why suffragists wore white, and more feminist symbols decoded. National Geographic. https://www.nationalgeographic.com/history/article/decoding-symbols-womens-suffrage-movement

Women get the vote. (n.d.). UK Parliament. https://www.parliament.uk/about/living-heritage/transformingsociety/electionsvoting/womenvote/overview/thevote/

Women’s suffrage and the cat. (2019, August 20). NPS.gov (U.S. National Park Service). https://www.nps.gov/articles/womens-suffrage-and-the-cat.htm

Wrenn, C. (2013, December 4). Woman-as-Cat in anti-suffrage propaganda – Sociological images. The Society Pages. https://thesocietypages.org/socimages/2013/12/04/the-feminization-of-the-cat-in-anti-suffrage-propaganda/

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