Women’s Suffrage: The Difference between Prosecution and Persecution

Women suffragette’s organized themselves and protested against inequality and their lack of rights for a span of decades between the late 19th century and early 20th century.  During this time in Canada, patriarchy was deeply embedded in the social, economic and political fabric of the nation and many women were ready for a change.  The strategies and means in which Canadian women implemented maintained civility and strayed away from anything that was deemed criminal or deviant.  The dissent of the women suffragette’s was creative and innovative but also legal, and this legal factor may be a contributing factor to the extensive length of time the women’s movement endured.

According to Clarke, in his commentary titled, “Social Resistance and the Disturbing of the Peace, there are three criteria that should be met in order to justify disobeying the law to perpetuate social mobilization.  The three things that need to be established to make a case for deviant behavior is establishing that the society you are dissenting against is unequal or unjust, demonstrate that the state and the laws preserve the injustices being proposed and lastly it has to be proven that disregarding the established rule would likely result in success (Clarke 2003 ).  Canadian women in the late 19th and 20th century could meet all the criteria suggested by Clarke (2003) however chose methods that were not disobedient to any set rule of law of the time.  The lack of deviant behaviour from the women suffragettes is significant as this possibly influenced the actions of the state in how they managed the actions of the suffragettes.  In the case of the women’s movement in Canada, there was no criminalization there were no arrests as the women operated persistently however quiet and peaceable.

The state may not have prosecuted any women for their involvement and contributions to the suffragette movement however persecution was fair game.  The power of the Canadian state rested solely in the hands of the men at this time and women were viewed as not persons in society, they should remain seen but unheard.  At this time there was a very defined power dynamic, and in any struggle, to understand a power dynamic, it is essential to give attention to how that power is gendered (Gordon 2006).  Certain people being gendered results in the exclusion from full citizenship rights (Gordon 2006) that are shared by other, more specifically the male counterparts.  It is important to note that the process of gendering is essential and effective to state formation and capital accumulation (Gordon 2006).  When some women exercised their voices and threatened the patriarchal threads of society it is no surprise that these voices were frowned upon and needed to be silenced.  This silencing could not be done through criminalization but that did not stop the men in power from initiating other tactics to discredit, demonize and demoralize the women who were vocal and challenging the inequality that existed in the state. The use of the criminal justice system was not a feasible reaction to the dissent of the women so media was the chosen method to discredit the arguments and challenges of these very determined women.  Popular media was used to tackle and intersect the arguments presented and to make a mockery of what the women suffragettes were demanding. As Boykoff (2007) identified in his writings Beyond Bullets, the freak frame is a popular representation that is often utilized by media today and this was certainly the approach, even over a century ago, that was taken to discredit the women suffragettes and reinforce the patriarchal ideologies that were important to the state.  The strategy was to demonize the women who challenged popular ideologies and focused on the non-traditional beliefs and opinions of the suffragettes and attacked their womanly characteristics.  Mass media played a critical function in enforcing popular ideologies and the construction of unnatural women challenging what the state proposed as natural order and gender positioning.

The women’s suffragette movement is a historical event that is significant and I would suggest rather interesting when examining the role of the state and the criminalization of dissent.  After decades of petitions and other strategic movements executed by the women suffragettes the franchise was granted, however Borden’s political agenda was largely responsible for this shift.  The media was the state’s method of choice to undermine and suppress the women’s challenge to the patriarchal ideologies that were rooted in the nation and was successful as it was decades before the franchise was granted.  The use of the media in de-womanizing the suffragettes and implying that they were less of a woman, rather manly and therefore undesirable was a strategy used that would discredit the suffragette’s plight and maintain the desirable male dominated society that they lived in.  Were the tactics deployed by the state chosen due to the peaceable approach the suffragettes exercised and the state was unable to justify more aggressive maneuvers to use to suppress the suffragettes dissent?  Was the media the only viable option to discredit and attempt to obstruct the actions of the suffragettes and impede any potential progress in their struggle and preserve the ideological patriarchal fibers of the nation?  Had the women suffragettes used a more aggressive style like their counterparts in America and Britain would more force have been utilized by the state and the Criminal Justice System been deployed?  When considering the state’s role in suppression of dissent and referring back to the women’s movement these questions are valid.  Not to take away from all the perseverance and determination these the suffragette’s displayed during their struggle for franchise and the amount of courage and strength they produced to endure the length of the cause, but one can’t help but wonder had more aggressive tactics been used by the suffragettes would this be met by a different means of suppressing the dissent by the state and would this battle struggle have lasted so long.

References

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.

Clarke, John. 2003. “Commentary: Social Resistance and the Disturbing of the Peace.” Osgoode Hall Law Journal   41:491-503.

 Gordon, Todd.  2006.  “Producing Capitalist Order:  Police, Class, race and Gender.”  Pp.  29-51 in Cops, Crime, and Capitalism.  Halifax:  Fernwood Publishing.

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2 comments

  1. It is interesting to read your thoughts and view on the way the women suffragettes were portrayed. It never occurred to me, the irony of making the women manly and attributing manly images to the women (like you said you think that would increase their status since men were the desired and powerful sex). I genuinely enjoyed looking at this through your view. The media played a huge role in the women’s suffragette movement and to answer your question i feel that the only way the women’s suffragette movement would be less lengthy is if the women were more aggressive and here is the irony again “manly”. By this i mean less creative and more in your face and maybe even a little violent to really get attention and someone to hear their voices. I believe the media was a useful tool that allowed it to drag out for so many years and then finally helped in the obtaining of franchise however took far too long to be heard

    played a huge role in the women’s suffragette movement

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  2. I would like to say I truly enjoyed reading your post! I found the factoid of women dissenters being portrayed as “manly” quite ironic. If men are given higher status in society based on various gender constructions, one would assume that giving these particular gender constructions to women would increase their status. Although you provide evidence that this is not the case, in fact it worked against these women, it is interesting that certain attributes can benefit one gender and not the other. As well, this ability to “other” certain women can relate to the concept of “internal dangerous foreigner” because those “manly” women are separated, and demonized, from “proper” women. According to the internal dangerous foreigner argument, the establishment of the other from the rest of society creates a process of re-nationalization, by knowing the other you know the included. One can argue that through the media the males in power were doing a form a “re-genderization”, attempting to secure the “female gender” by criminalizing anything that deviated from this. As mentioned throughout your post the media played an important role in the women’s suffrage movement, do you feel that the women’s movement would have been less lengthly if male’s use of the media was less prevalent?

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