Object of the Month – April 2013

The New Voter, (1929) by Ern Shaw

Labour Party 1929 General Election - The New Voter Poor Old DearsWith the passing of the equal franchise act in 1928, women and men could vote on equal terms. It was clear during the election a year later, that this new group of voters had made political parties change the way they spoke to female voters. Before 1928 politicians focused their appeals to women based on their role as mothers. Indeed down to the present day, it is very rare to see an appeal to women not based on their maternal role as this Conservative poster from the 2010 election demonstrates.

In 1929, however, there was an alternative vision. All parties showed women not as mothers or budget keepers but as the epitome of modernity. In the posters they wore fashionable hats and had bobbed hair. But not only did the posters show women to be modern they were also depicted as having the controlling stake in the outcome of the election. In some respects this was a significant development, but the new posters demonstrated that parties still had a rather negative view of why women would be motivated to vote.

This month’s object is such an example. Produced by the cartoonist Ern Shaw for the Labour party, it shows the importance of young female voters to the election of 1929. It was an attempt by Labour to attract female voters by suggesting that their leader, James Ramsay MacDonald, was the man of the moment, even the man of the future. The wording at the top of the poster made this clear the ‘poor old dears’ in the background were Liberal leader David Lloyd George and Conservative Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin. Shaw emphasised the ancientness and out datedness of the two by showing them in top-hat and tails which in 1929 was slipping out of fashion, even for MPs. Lloyd George’s unnerving, even sinister wink was a further nod to the elder statesman’s unsuitability for the modern world. In contrast Ramsay MacDonald, upright, dapper, even dashing wears a fashionable lounge suit and fedora hat.

It was undoubtedly a development that The New Voter and similar posters placed young women at the centre of the political process. But emancipation had not arrived. The entire appeal was based on an assumption that women would vote for a man who wore the best suit, or was better looking, or younger. The viewer was left therefore with the impression that women should vote for the Labour man, not on merit but for shallow reasons. Such supposed superficiality was one reason why Victorian anti-suffrage campaigners claimed women should not vote, which you can read more about here, yet here it was being used in a general election. By 1929 women could vote on the same terms as men, but the assumptions the male political classes made about what motivated the female mind had changed very little.