By the end of the Victorian Era, society was changing so fast that some people had a hard time keeping up, much less accepting it. From a cultural standpoint, the first two decades saw advances for women that were more rapid than the Western world had ever before seen. The status quo held on tight and while more and more women began to look at their world and their lives in a new way, the traditionally dominant forces in society felt increasingly threatened. The 20th century also brought with it technological advances in photography and printing, and these mediums were put to use to shame and humiliate women in an effort to keep them in their “proper station.” 

The Suffrage movement was a common scapegoat for such attacks, with women’s ability to vote seen as going hand in hand with the other freedoms that women were beginning to enjoy. With a woman’s place being seen as the home, domestic life was associated with femininity, and critics of the modern woman quickly exploited the correlation. If being feminine meant tending to the home, they reasoned, time spent outside the home would cause them to lose their feminine virtue. A loss of femininity wouldn’t cause the house and children to disappear, however, and that meant the men of society would be forced to pick up the slack.

The best proof that we have of such attitudes towards independent women are the many print satirical depictions of females in mass media of the time. I have identified three primary themes in these depictions that sought to prevent women from exploring the new options available to them. These are: the danger of role reversal in the home, the ridiculousness of an unladylike woman, and the horror of a woman who is so independent that she repulses men and remains single. I have started to collect images around each theme and thought it may make for some fun viewing this week. 

If you have any additional images to share, please contact me via the comments section and I will be in touch! 

Theme #1: the danger of role reversal in the home

As the modern woman continued to evolve, it was somehow determined that if given options outside of the home, a woman would abandon her family. And not only that, somehow the argument was made that men would naturally step in and take over all of the responsibilities typically left to a wife, mother, and homemaker. In my opinion, this takes away just as much credit from women of the time as it bestows upon the men! 

Here are a few of my favorite depictions of the dangers of domestic role reversal: 

Don’t tell me a man is doing the laundry! What will happen to us?
Men being forced to wash the laundry and women smoking are two common depictions when referring to the danger of the New Woman.

Theme #2: the ridiculousness of an unladylike woman

The standards of respectability were strictly adhered to until the 1900s, as seen in the efforts some women unsuccessfully took to alter restrictive clothing. The thought of a woman doing anything deemed “unladylike” was seen as completely absurd and would have been the topic of late-night talk show comedy today. 

Here are a few of my favorite satirical depictions of unladylike women in the early 1900s: 

Photo courtesy of
More depictions of women smoking. It was a popular habit for men at the time, so it amuses me that it was seen as so repulsive for women.
These women don’t even care about being seen in their swimwear! They’ve left their bathing machines on the beach!
She is smoking and heading out in pants! The horror!

Theme #3: the horror of ending up a single woman

As a very happily unmarried woman, I particularly love this theme. In an attempt to scare women out of pursuing careers, voting, and doing anything untraditional, the “establishment” attempted to perpetuate the idea that an independent woman who never marry, and that being unmarried is the worst fate imaginable. 

Unfortunately for the powers that be, many men were also evolving with the times, and independent women have never gone out of style. Add to that the emphasis on sexual liberation and an understanding of romantic options, and it wasn’t a theme that stayed popular for very long. 

Below are a few of my favorite depictions of the horror of the independent woman ending up as an old maid. Please note the use of the term “Suffragette” is used to be disparaging by the artist in the first cartoon and that the bottom two are from British newspapers, where the term was used.

She started out so pure! Look at her now!
If you fight for the vote, you will never be kissed, and this is how you will turn out!

You may also enjoy:

Victorian Dress Reform: Who, What, When, and Why

Women’s Suffrage: The Edwardian Experience

The 1920s: The Decade That Changes Everything!