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Women’s Suffrage Handkerchief #2013-0093

Fabric handkerchief with black printing.


Although the strongest and most militant phase of the push for votes for women in the United Kingdom did not take place until the early 20th century, women’s suffrage groups had been in existence since the 1860s. They campaigned consistently for parliamentary franchise throughout the rest of the decade, doing such things as lobbying members of parliament and presenting petitions to parliament or to deputations of ministers. Small concessions to women voters were made in this period, such as allowing women ratepayers in England and Wales the borough franchise, which allowed women to vote in local government elections. Women ratepayers were empowered to vote for county councils in England and Wales in 1888 and in Scotland the following year.

In the 1880s, the period in which this handkerchief was made, there took place a much wider discussion of women’s exclusion on the grounds of their sex. Liberalism was criticised for its inability to deal with women’s sexual oppression and its refusal to incorporate women into the political realm. Feminists’ emphasis on the need to incorporate women in many aspects of public life is directly reflected in this handkerchief, which envisages women as lawyers, sailors, scientists and politicians, while men languished in the home doing domestic tasks.

The push for women to obtain the vote in Australia occurred at the same time as these discussions were taking place in the United Kingdom, with women collating vast petitions of signatures to present to members of state parliaments.

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Statement of values

This handkerchief, dated c. 1881, pokes fun at how the world might be one hundred years hence if women were granted the vote. It is important as a statement of the universal fears held by many men that they might be left ‘holding the baby’ if women were granted the sort of rights that they were demanding. The chief fears held by men were that women would abandon the home in order to take over jobs traditionally held by men, leaving them either with nothing to do or doing the domestic work themselves. Although the handkerchief was made and circulated in Britain, the ideas it conveys applied to many countries wrestling with the issue of women’s rights in the late 19th century.

  • Women’s Suffrage HandkerchiefWomen’s Suffrage Handkerchief —
  • Women’s Suffrage Handkerchief Detail 1Women’s Suffrage Handkerchief Detail 1 —
  • Women’s Suffrage Handkerchief Detail 2Women’s Suffrage Handkerchief Detail 2 —
  • Women’s Suffrage Handkerchief Detail 3Women’s Suffrage Handkerchief Detail 3 —


Width 615mm
Height 570mm
Medium Cotton; ink
Creator’s name Unknown
Date created 1850