Evelyn Rumsey Cary "Woman Suffrage" Poster,
Woman suffrage headquarters in Cleveland, 1912.
(Image: Library of Congress.)
Suffragist Inez Milholland Boissevain at the National American Woman Suffrage Association parade, Washington, D.C., March 3, 1913.
(Image: Library of Congress.)
Visual images such as this 1905 poster played a crucial role in the decades-long struggle for woman suffrage. This movement culminated in 1920, when the 19th Amendment to the Constitution was ratified and American women won the right to vote.
The creator of this iconic image — which appeared not only as a poster but also on magazine covers and in pamphlets — was Evelyn Rumsey Cary (1855-1924), a painter from Buffalo, New York. The poster features an idealized woman, dressed in a flowing white gown, whose body is transforming into a tree. Her legs merge into the roots of the tree, while her arms become an extension of the tree's fruit-laden branches. This depiction of women as an indispensable part of nature is supported by the quotation at the bottom of the image. Drawn from Proverbs 31:31 of the Old Testament, the quotation refers to "the fruit of [women's] hands" and implicitly urges viewers to recognize the essential role that women play as productive members of society. The placement of the woman in front of a building that resembles the White House reinforces the argument that women deserve to be full members of society who have a voice in elections.
The image is an example of the Art Nouveau style, which flourished between 1890 and 1910. The poster displays some of the defining characteristics of the Art Nouveau style, including graceful, curving lines and abundant nature imagery.
As the ANTIQUES ROADSHOW appraiserAn expert who assesses the value, quality, and authenticity of works of art or other objects. notes, posters and other visual materials promoting suffrage were relatively rare in the U.S. movement for women's voting rights (in contrast to a richer graphic tradition within Britain's movement for woman suffrage). This rarity — combined with the beauty of Cary's image and its importance as a widely viewed protest document — explains the appraiser's auction estimate of between $10,000 and $15,000.
A Closer Look
- Using context clues provided in the ANTIQUES ROADSHOW video, define "suffrage." Check your definition against a dictionary. What is the origin, or etymology, of this word? Is it related to "suffering"? ("Suffrage" is the right to vote. Its origin is the Latin word "suffragium," which means "voting tablet" or "vote." Though "suffrage" sounds similar to "suffering," the two words come from different roots and are not related.)
- When and why was this poster created? How is the woman portrayed? In what ways is she idealized? Pay particular attention to her feet and hands. Why do you think Evelyn Rumsey Cary chose to represent the woman in this way and in this setting? How does this portrayal support the artist's goal? (The poster was created in 1905 to support the movement for woman suffrage. The figure is portrayed as a part of nature: her body is depicted as a tree, with legs that merge into the roots of the tree and arms that become the tree's fruit-producing branches. But while they are grounded and beautiful, the woman and tree are placed not in an orchard but directly in front of a building that resembles the White House, suggesting that women are not removed from the political sphere. Through this portrayal, Cary was arguing that women are essential, productive members of society and as such are entitled to the right to vote.)
- Imagine that the woman in the poster came to life. How, in her own words, might she relay the argument presented in the biblical quotation at the bottom of the poster? (The woman might say: "Reward me for the work I do and for the many contributions that I—and other wives, mothers, and daughters—make as productive members of society. Give women the right to vote and to participate in elections in exchange for everything we do to make America a better place.")
- Who do you think the target audience was for this poster? How much time passed between publication of this poster and passage of the 19th Amendment, which gave women the right to vote? (The target audience was the general public, including male lawmakers who were being lobbied to support legislation allowing women to vote. The poster reminded these viewers of the vital role that women played in America and made the argument that women deserved to be treated as full members of society. The demands set forth in the poster were met 15 years after its creation: In 1920, the 19th Amendment was ratified, giving women the right to vote.)
- What is the poster's appraised value and what factors contribute to this estimate? What flaws does the appraiser point to in the poster? To what extent do these defects affect the value of the poster? (The appraiser estimates the poster's value at between $10,000 and $15,000. He points to some flaws, including water damage and repaired tears, but adds that these defects do not significantly reduce the poster's value because of its rarity, importance and beauty.) The owner comments, "To me, it's priceless, just because of the subject matter." Why do you think she considers it priceless?
Activities and Investigations
- Using resources on the web or at your library, find out more about one of the following topics: the life of Evelyn Rumsey Cary and other posters she created advocating for women's causes; the Art Nouveau movement in art and in Cary's work; posters that played a role in advancing the cause of woman suffrage in the United States. Share your findings with classmates.
- Select a protest poster from another era and analyze its content and style. What social issue does this poster address, and how does the artist attempt to persuade viewers to take action or to support a cause? Point to specific details in the poster you are analyzing to support your answer. One source to consult is "Great Political Posters that Changed U.S. History" at thinksmartdesigns.blogspot.com/2010/06/great-political-posters-that-changed-us.html
Test your knowledge of the woman suffrage movement by taking the quiz at teacher.scholastic.com/activities/suffrage/quiz/index.asp . After checking your answers, dig deeper—working individually or in a small group—by investigating one of the following topics:
- Choose at least three other countries and find out whether they enfranchised (that is, gave voting rights to) women before or after the U.S. did;
- Identify major strategies that suffragists (that is, female and male advocates of woman suffrage) adopted in their efforts to secure the vote, and note key contrasts among these strategies;
- Research connections between the movement to abolish slavery in the U.S. and the movement to enfranchise women;
- Select one prominent suffragette (that is, a female advocate of woman suffrage, such as Susan B. Anthony or Alice Paul) and find out more about her life and work;
- Locate at least three primary-source documents (such as editorials or political cartoons) that offer arguments against woman suffrage.
- Watch the ANTIQUES ROADSHOW segment on World War II posters at www.pbs.org/wgbh/roadshow/archive/200601A46.html . Then compare the portrayal of the woman in Cary's poster with Rosie the Riveter, a figure who appeared frequently in posters created and distributed by the U.S. government during the 1940s. What characteristics does each artist highlight? What was the audience for each poster, and what messages and values was each seeking to promote? The video describes the World War II posters as "propaganda." What does that mean? Was the Cary poster also a form of propaganda?
- The year 2020 will mark 100 years of suffrage for women in the United States. Design your own poster to commemorate this milestone.
For Further Exploration
Votes for Women: A Cyber Exhibit
This online exhibit from the National Women's History Museum includes an image gallery (with posters, buttons, banners and other graphics) along with key documents.
One Hundred Years Toward Suffrage: An Overview
This detailed timeline, prepared by The Library of Congress, chronicles key events in women's struggle for voting rights in the Unite States.
Ideas and Strategies of the Woman Suffrage Movement
This collection of primary-source documents addresses arguments and strategies of suffragists and their opponents during the early 20th century.
Woman Suffrage and the 19th Amendment
This set of primary-source documents focuses on passage of the 19th Amendment.
Evelyn Rumsey Cary
Biographical profile with details on Cary's personal life and notes on her most famous paintings.
Century of Struggle: The Woman's Rights Movement in the United States, Enlarged Edition
By Eleanor Flexner and Ellen Fitzpatrick (Harvard University Press, 1996).
A classic history of woman suffrage, described by feminist icon Betty Friedan as "a book to be read by every student in this country."
Women's Suffrage in America (Eyewitness History)
By Elizabeth Frost-Knappman and Kathryn Cullen-DuPont (Fact on File, 2004).
Excerpts from books, speeches, letters, and news reports, along with images and maps chronicling America's struggle for woman suffrage from 1800 to 1920.
Iron Jawed Angels
This acclaimed feature film, starring Hilary Swank, depicts the battle for woman suffrage and the commitment of movement leaders who engaged in life-threatening hunger strikes and other forms of civil disobedience to secure votes for women.
One Woman, One Vote
This American Experience documentary examines the struggle for woman suffrage.
Segments chronicle key leaders in the movement, including Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Alice Paul, and the U.S. Senate's passage of the 19th Amendment by just one vote.
Teacher's Guide Home | Using This Guide | Objects Overview and NCSS Standards | What Is Material Culture? | Exploring Material Culture in the Classroom | About the Roadshow Archive | Definitions of Key Terms | Contact Us | Credits