The unknown history of Seneca Falls: David Claypoole Johnston

A cartoon by David Claypoole Johnston from an old newspaper depicting a woman as a circus ring leader and a "man tamer"
Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, which extended the right of suffrage to women, but practically speaking, millions of women of color were still barred from the polls.

To reflect on this anniversary, we’re exploring stories from the women’s suffrage movement that aren’t widely known, and that can shed light on the continued fight for gender equality today.

L ike many Americans, David Claypoole Johnston read newspaper articles about the Seneca Falls Convention and chatted about it with friends. He was not a reformer. At age 50, Johnston was one of the nation’s most popular artists, especially known for his cartoons. He sold inexpensive pictures, and Americans purchased them, hung them up, and laughed at them with friends.

In his Boston workshop, Johnston designed pictures to mock female reformers. A year after the convention, he published five anti-women’s rights cartoons in his magazine Scraps. These images were part of the tradition of mocking women in politics as masculine. Most Americans opposed women’s rights, and he wanted to profit off of the movement. So, he sold prints that he knew Americans would find entertaining.

His top right picture, “Women’s Tonsorial Rights,” features a woman about to be shaved in a men’s barbershop. Another woman stands with her hands in her coat pockets and a cane. Another unladylike customer reads the Woman’s Rights Advocate newspaper with her feet up on a chair. Even the picture on the wall features female boxers. Johnston’s other four images suggest that these scandalous reformers might feel empowered to propose marriage or even smoke in public.

Calls for women’s rights prompted a backlash from people like Johnston. Artists, editors, and publishers—mostly men at that time—produced numerous cartoons and articles to mock female reformers. They wanted women to remain virtuous housewives and mothers, not participate in politics.

In 1869, Currier & Ives, one of the most popular printers, published “The Age of Brass. Or the Triumphs of Woman’s Rights.” In the picture, a group of wealthy white women cast their ballots. Some wear large bows and strange hairstyles. Others wear masculine clothes like top hats, bloomers, jackets to prompt laughter from viewers at their cross-dressing antics. On the right, an angry woman wearing glasses scolds her stunned husband, the only man in sight. Instead of caring for her family, she leaves her baby to vote. A sandwich board advises women to cast their ballots for “Susan Sharp Tongue” the “celebrated man tamer.”

Throughout the rest of his life, Johnston designed many more cartoons on a range of topics. His anti-women’s rights pictures were part of a long tradition of representing women in politics as masculine, unladylike figures.