Manly Women: Depicitons of Women Suffraggettes in the Media

Women in Canada made tireless efforts over a span of decades before being granted franchise.  Media coverage of this struggle existed from the inception and continued through the duration of the plight.  It is telling to examine the role media played in the suppression of dissent prior to the Wartime Elections Act in comparison to how the media represented the very same dissent in the year when the political agenda shifted and granting the franchise  to women was seen as a strategic move necessary to safeguard the majority vote.

Due to the duration of the women’s suffrage movement the media analysis was conducted through the examination of the Toronto Star over a period of several years, 1909  to 1917 exclusively.  Articles written in the years prior to the granting of the franchise to women were examined and then articles written a few months before and after the franchise was granted were examined.  This methodology was used in order to observe media depiction of the women’s suffrage movement before and then again after Premier Sir Robert Borden’s endorsement of the franchise to women.

Media coverage of the women’s movement and suffragettes in the years prior to Borden’s endorsement seemed to favour one of the central themes that Boykoff identified in his writings Beyond Bullets.  The freak frame (Boykoff 2007) was the popular representation that was used in the articles that were examined.  The articles focused on the non-traditional beliefs and opinions of the suffragettes and attacked their womanly attributes.  Common ideologies of women were often exploited and implications that women who desired the right to vote were in direct contradiction with these ideologies.  Terms such as, “unwomanly”, “disgusting”, “undesirable”, “manly” and insinuations of being unable to fulfill expected womanly tasks were more often than not utilized to create a very specific image of a woman who sought the right to vote.  In one article located in the Toronto Star on June 7, 1912 it was written:

It is always easy to ‘spot’ the woman who favours the Suffragette movement by her usual obesity brought on from lack of proper exercise doing her housework and with her poor mind hunting for something else to fill it, and her lofty eyes which fail to see her poor little housekeeping neighbor in the next seat, so busy is she keeping her shoulders straight and her chin at the right angle (pp. 7).

The depiction of woman who favoured the Suffragette movement in the media is clear in the above quote.  The quote implies that woman who are wanting the vote are ugly and undesirable with “lofty eyes” and “obesity” coupled with implying that they are unwomanly by means that they cannot keep house up to standards, which is her responsibility due to her involvement and interest in the movement.  These suggest Suffragettes appear less attractive and desirable by the opposite sex.

These character assassinations were not unique to this one particular article.  These comments, beliefs, values and opinions were a common theme and frame that was present in media throughout many years of the Suffragette movement.  Another strategy observed in the media analysis was the art of disregard.  Media disregard can be used as a suppressive tactic that often serves the perceived interest of the government Boykoff 2007).   This tactic was observed frequently throughout the different articles prior to Borden’s endorsement.  Articles that were written in favour of the Suffragette movement or in support of the franchise granted to women were regularly placed deep within the issue of the paper.  These articles about accomplishments, strategies or support of the suffragette movement were place in the later pages of the edition often in the high teens.  This is a subtle yet very effective tactic that enabled the efforts of the Suffragettes to go unnoticed and appear unimportant and irrelevant.

Media disregard and the freak frame (Boykoff 2007) was no longer present in the media depictions once Women’s Suffrage became a tool in potentially winning an election for Borden.  Articles written around this particular time period (1916-1918) no longer defamed suffragettes but rather spoke of them in neutral terms.  There was no usage of character assassination of the women wanting the vote; in fact in one article published in December 1917 supported the women of Ontario to be able to vote in federal elections not just on the provincial level.  Further to the now nonexistent use of the freak frame (Boykoff 2007) these articles were located in the first few pages of an issue, some even front page.

Mass media plays a critical role in what information is shared or not shared with the public.  It can inform public opinion and the views expressed are often widely accepted.  The construction of issues and events that are depicted in the media are influential and often not neutral in the information that is transmitted (Boykoff 2007).  This idea is clearly visible in the examination of the media coverage over decades of the Suffrage movement.  Suffragettes were viewed as unwomanly and abnormal, and this was blatantly expressed in print in popular newspapers, that is until government concocted a strategic plan to assist in his re-election.  Once Premier Sir Robert Borden determined that granting franchise to women in Ontario could potentially increase his chances of re-election, the media depiction of the women’s suffrage movement changed drastically, not surprisingly, to support the particular interest of the government at that time.


“Blames Women.”  1909.  Toronto Star, December 7, pp.  7.

Boykoff, Jules. 2007. “Mass Media Deprecation.” Pp. 216-47 in Beyond Bullets: The Suppression of Dissent in the United States. Oakland: AK Press.

Boykoff, Jules. 2007. “Mass Media Underestimation, False Balance, and Disregard.” Pp. 248-60 in Beyond Bullets: The Suppression of Dissent in the United States. Oakland: AK Press.

“Govt. at Last Decides to Give Votes to Women.”  1917.  Toronto Star, February 20, pp.  1.  (Retrieved from Toronto Star Pages of the Past on November 30, 2012)

“Men Don’t Know How to Legislate for Women.”  1912.  Toronto Star, October 18, pp.  12.  (Retrieved from Toronto Star Pages of the Past on November 21, 2012)

“Mere Man Can Join This Suffragette Association.”  1912.  Toronto Star, January 10, pp.  15.  (Retrieved from Toronto Star Pages of the Past on November 21, 2012)

“The Raggettes.”  1912.  Toronto Star, June 7, pp.  7.  (Retrieved from Toronto Star Pages of the Past on November 19, 2012)

“The Women’s Vote.”  1917.  Toronto Star, December 5, pp. 1.  (Retrieved from Toronto Star Pages of the Past on November 21, 2012)

“Woman’s Suffrafe Dropped at Ottawa.”  1916.  Toronto Star, February 29, pp.  5.  (Retrieved from Toronto Star Pages of the Past on November 20, 2012)

“Women Will Grow Bald.”  1914.  Toronto Star, Sept 17, pp.  5.  (Retrieved from Toronto Star Pages of the Past on November 23, 2012)



  1. […] to a great article by blogger criminalizingdissent on depictions of women suffragettes in the […]


  2. Hi Tiskiski!

    I really enjoyed reading your media analysis of the women’s suffrage movement. It is interesting to take this historical example and compare it to contemporary media reports on recent feminist or women’s rights movements. After reading your piece, I am able to draw many parallels to my own analyses of the SlutWalk Toronto movement. Most specifically, the use of the ‘freak frame’ as a media strategy was quite evident in the articles, photographs, and videos that I researched for my own analysis. Many of the women who have participated in the SlutWalk movement are also viewed as ‘un-lady like’ because they are demonized as ‘subversives’ who contest normative gender expectations of female passivity and submission.

    The quote that you have included on the “easy to spot” women of the Suffragette movement is almost humorous! The highly gendered statements in this quote definitely reinforce how these women were viewed as subversives, who threatened the nuclear family structure and Victorian ideals of women’s work/responsibilities being inside the home. I also find it interesting that in even in contemporary popular culture women and/or feminist activists are always depicted as unattractive and undesirable individuals. While the quote you have included was written in the 1920s, the negative images of women and/or feminist protesters are still deeply entrenched in society today. I am not suggesting that women have been unsuccessful in their protests and political activism – because they have made significant progress and change! I just think it is a shame that things, such as the ‘freak frame’, continue to characterize women’s political movements, as is evident in my own media analysis of the SlutWalk Toronto movement.

    What are your thoughts on this?



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