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Encouraging Student Exploration of the Power of Political Symbolism through Suffrage Cartoons

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“Training the Animals” by Nina Allender, 1920

In the November/December 2020 issue of Social Education, the journal of the National Council for the Social Studies, our “Sources and Strategies” article featured political cartoons by the artist and suffrage activist Nina Allender. The article points out that Allender’s cartoons provide opportunities for students to explore not only the ways in which one cartoonist depicted key moments and themes in the struggle for women’s suffrage, but also the persuasive power of the symbolic characters she created.

A formally trained amateur artist, Nina Allender was a longtime suffrage leader who joined the Congressional Union for Woman Suffrage in 1913. The Union’s leader, Alice Paul, convinced her to become the organization’s cartoonist and, beginning in 1914, Allender’s cartoons appeared in the Union’s newspaper, The Suffragist. She quickly became the publication’s cover artist and contributed more than 150 of her cartoons over the next several years. Many examples of Allender’s work are held by the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

“She Grows More Extravagant Every Season!” Nina Allender, 1915

Allender’s cartoons depicted the everyday struggles of the suffrage movement for the newspaper’s audience of activists and provide satirical analysis of the week-by-week progress of the campaign for the vote. Teachers might ask students to select a cartoon and identify the persuasive strategies that Allender used to make her point in the cartoon. A teacher might also recommend that students research the event shown in one of the cartoons and discuss how a cartoonist with a different point of view might depict it.

In addition to documenting current events and lampooning political factions, however, Nina Allender’s work also contributed to a new symbolic representation of American suffragists. The women in her cartoons were active, inquisitive, and modestly stylish, and soon were widely considered to represent a single symbolic figure, the “suffrage girl” or the “Allender girl.” Newspaper and magazine readers were familiar with earlier idealized symbols of American womanhood, such as the Gibson girl, as well as with hostile caricatures of suffragists as harsh, scowling women in suits. The Allender girl was seen as a departure from both of these and as representing a new idea of suffrage activists. Teachers might ask students to analyze Allender’s depictions of activist women and to consider who was included and who was excluded from being an Allender girl. They might also encourage students to search through the historic newspapers in Chronicling America to find other depictions of suffragists and compare them to Allender’s.

The sidebar article to this “Sources and Strategies” article spotlights a new tool from the Library that could help with this research. Newspaper Navigator from Library of Congress Labs allows users to search visual content in American newspapers dating 1789-1963.  Searching “suffragist” for example, results in hundreds of images of the individuals who fought to secure the vote for women. Searching “Allender” results in images of the artist featured in this blog post.

Let us know in the comments what your students discover and the insights that they share.

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