History@Portsmouth

University of Portsmouth's History Blog

Using Visual Sources: Photographs as historical documents

Hannah Moase, a second year History student at the University of Portsmouth, has written the following blog entry on a photograph of the National Association Opposed to Woman Suffrage headquarters for the Introduction to Historical Research module. Hannah uses the photograph to discuss the benefits – and limitations – of these visual historical documents in helping us understand past societies. The module is co-ordinated by Dr Maria Cannon, Lecturer in Early Modern History at Portsmouth.

The National Association Opposed to Woman Suffrage (hereafter NAOWS) was founded in 1911 and was a key organisation in America that fought against the women’s suffrage campaign. [1] With so much history focused on the women’s suffrage movement, it is important for historians to look at the other side of the argument and to look at those who were trying to stop women from being granted the right to vote. This blog will focus on a picture taken in 1911 of the outside of the NAOWS headquarters in New York and will argue how, when put into context, photographs such as this one can add to historians’ understanding of a topic. [2] This blog will also look at how this photograph adds to historians’ knowledge of the anti-suffrage movement as well as how it conveys ideas of masculinity and femininity during the early twentieth century.

NAOWS headquarters, 1911. Courtesy of Routledge Historical Resources

One of the ways that this photograph can be considered useful to historians is that it displays, through clothing, ideas of masculinity and femininity during this period. In the photograph, all the men are dressed very similarly. [3] They all appear to be wearing suit trousers under their long coats and are wearing similar styles of hat and shoes. [4] Interestingly, the coats that the men are wearing can be contrasted with the coat that the woman on the periphery of the photograph is wearing. [5] Leora Auslander argues that during this period clothing was designed to “obscure male sexual attributes” and to “highlight the feminine” attributes on a woman. [6] This can be seen in the photograph through the woman’s coat fitting closely around her waist – her feminine body shape can still be made out from under her coat. [7] In comparison, the coats that the men are wearing are baggier, straighter, and hide the male physique. [8] This shows how the photograph is useful to historians as it displays a direct contrast between how ideas of masculinity and femininity were displayed through clothing during this period.

Another interesting aspect of this photograph is that all the people looking directly into the window of the building are all male. [9] Although the NAOWS was an all-female organisation, this photograph shows that the organisation still attracted male interest and support. Susan E. Marshall explains how many all-female anti-suffrage campaigns received male support, but that many men preferred to assist these campaigns from “behind the scenes through donations” rather than being actively involved. [10] The men appear to be reading information that had been placed in the window for passers-by to read and learn more about the anti-suffrage campaign. [11] Kirsty Maddux explains how the NAOWS used many ways to advertise the anti-suffrage campaign, even publishing their own official paper called Woman’s Protest. [12] This photograph can be used as evidence to show how the NAOWS’s use of advertising in the headquarters’ window was successful in attracting attention and potential support from passers-by. [13] It can be argued that this image is a good example of how photographs can give historians a different representation of a topic that they may not get from another type of source. Being able to see the men crowded around the headquarters’ window, all trying to read the information on display, allows historians to see for themselves an exact moment in the past where NAOWS’s use of advertising was successful. As Derek Sayer argues, this level of understanding, and being able to see an exact moment in the past, is something that is unique to photographic sources. [14]

However, without context, what a photograph is representing can be misleading – as seen with this source. This photograph could be used to argue that there was a high level of interest and support for anti-suffrage among men. [15] However, when looking at the historiography of anti-suffrage campaigns in America it becomes clear that the anti-suffrage movement was highly supported by women and men. Many anti-suffrage campaigns, including the NAOWS, were run entirely by women. [16] Susan Goodier explains the NAOWS was set up to bring together other pre-existing female anti-suffrage campaigns from all over America. [17] Joe C. Miller argues that a common misconception about the suffrage movement is that it was a “fight of women against men”. [18] This was far from the truth. Many women were involved in the anti-suffrage movement, and at its peak in 1919 the NAOWS had 500,000 all-female members. [19] This shows that although the photograph suggests to the viewer that the anti-suffrage campaign was heavily supported by men, the historiography shows that many women also supported the movement. This photograph, then, could be potentially misleading as to who were the types of people supporting the campaign. Sayer highlights how historians need to be careful when using photographs as primary sources because without them being put into the correct context, they can be misinterpreted. [20]

Peter Burke argues that another issue with using photographs as primary sources, one that can also be seen with this photograph, is that the identity of the photographer “is so often unknown”. [21] It is unclear who took this photograph and that leads to the question of why this photograph was taken and its intended purpose. [22] Both Burke and Penny Tinkler argue that photographers select what aspects of the world they want to portray. [23] Although it may appear that photographs are showing a true reflection of the past, this is not always the case, because photographs can easily be staged. These ideas can be applied to this photograph, and it must be considered why the photographer chose to capture the outside of the NAOWS headquarters. It is also interesting why the photographer chose to take the photograph when five men were looking into the window of the building. [24] The photographer could have potentially been trying to gain more support for the NAOWS by showing it was already receiving a high level of interest. 

In conclusion, many different aspects that can be argued to be useful to historians can be drawn from this photograph. The image shows, through clothing, a direct contrast in how ideas of masculinity and femininity were displayed during this period. It also gives an insight into how the NAOWS successfully used advertising to promote the anti-suffrage campaign in its headquarters’ window. Finally, the photograph shows how, by drawing in an audience, an all-female anti-suffrage organisation like the NAOWS could succeed in gaining male support.  However, this photograph is also a good example to show that historians need to be careful when using photographs as primary sources. Without context, what a photograph is displaying and what that represents can be misleading and misinterpreted.

NOTES

[1] Susan Goodier, No Votes for Women: The York State Anti- Suffrage Movement (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2013), 64.

[2] Routledge Historical Resources: History of Feminism “Men looking into the National Anti-Suffrage Association headquarters 1911,”   https://www.routledgehistoricalresources.com/feminism/gallery/men-looking-in-the-window-of-the-national-anti-suffrage-association-headquarters-national-association-opposed-to-woman-suffrage-was-active-at-the-state-and-national, last accessed 11 February 2019.

[3] Photograph of men looking into the National Anti-Suffrage Association headquarters 1911.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Leora Auslander, “Deploying material culture to write the history of gender and sexuality: the example of clothing and textiles,” Clio. Women, Gender, History 40 (2014): 168.

[7] Photograph of men looking into the National Anti-Suffrage Association headquarters 1911.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Susan E. Marshall, Splintered Sisterhood: Gender and Class in the Campaign against Woman Suffrage (Wisconsin: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1997), 72.

[11] Photograph of men looking into the National Anti-Suffrage Association headquarters 1911.

[12] Kirsty Maddux, “When Patriots Protest: The Anti- Suffrage Discursive Transformation of 1917,” Rhetoric and Public Affairs 7, no. 3 (2004): 284.

[13] Photograph of men looking into the National Anti-Suffrage Association headquarters 1911.

[14] Derek Sayer, “The Photograph: the still image”, in History Beyond the Text: A Student’s Guide to Approaching Alternative Sources ed. Sarah Barber and Corinna M. Peniston-Bird (Oxfordshire: Routledge, 2009), 55.

[15] Photograph of men looking into the National Anti-Suffrage Association headquarters 1911.

[16] Goodier, No Votes, 40.

[17] Ibid., 64.

[18] Joe C. Miller, “Never A Fight of Woman Against Man: What Textbooks Don’t Say about Women‘s Suffrage,” The History Teacher 48, no. 3 (2015): 437.

[19] Ibid., 440.

[20] Sayer, “The Photograph,” 59.

[21] Peter Burke, Eyewitnessing: The Uses of Images as Historical Evidence (London: Reaktion Books, 2001), 22.

[22] Photograph of men looking into the National Anti-Suffrage Association headquarters 1911.

[23] Burke, Eyewitnessing, 23; Penny Tinkler, Using Photographs in Social and Historical Research (London: Sage, 2014), 12.

[24] Photograph of men looking into the National Anti-Suffrage Association headquarters 1911.

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