An Ode to the Allender Girl
October 19, 2011, is celebrated by many women as “Love Your Body Day,” a day when women are reminded to love themselves as they are and to ignore the unattainable female persona so prominent in the media and advertising. While female public figures continue to break barriers and set new standards for representations and portrayals of women, women are, even today, often slandered and derided by mainstream media. Negative media portrayal of women – is certainly not new, although it is possible that many people, even ardent feminists, might believe so. On this Love Your Body Day, we would like to contribute an amazing story to the historical knowledge of those looking to override “society’s” perception of women as presented in the media. May we introduce you to Nina Allender?
Allender, who sketched political cartoons for the National Woman’s Party (NWP) from 1914 to 1927, was one of the principal cartoonists who helped change the traditional image of the suffragist as unattractive, selfish, and rowdy. She created a suffragist image labeled the “Allender Girl,” who was young, slender, and energetic—a capable woman with an intense commitment to the cause. Allender used her illustrations to present a spectrum of women: feminist, wife, mother, student, and activist.
As the NWP presented itself on the national stage around 1913, there were the popular images of women, such as Charles Dana Gibson’s “Gibson Girl,” that represented the American ideal of femininity at the turn of the century. She was a male fantasy, being eternally young and beautiful, not bothered by political motivations or activism. In general, women were placed on precarious pedestals, always on the verge of falling off. They were vilified in the press when they stepped out of line into the public sphere. It was not until women’s political organizations began to publish their own images that they were able to take control of and change the negative stereotypes and characterizations.
Only months after she first tried her hand at cartooning, Nina Allender created the image for which she became best known—a uniquely styled suffragist, who soon became known as “the Allender Girl.” Allender’s suffragist was young, vibrant, energetic and competent, in contrast to the mannish dowdy figures that had dominated the popular press for years. Allender’s suffragist figure lacked the passivity and shyness of the Gibson Girl, and she minimized the flirtatiousness and frivolity of other similar images. She was slender and fashionably-attired. Her commitment and objectives were apparent and her hands-on-hips posture could emanate authority, strength, and control, as she confidently asserted that [her] “hat was in the ring” of politics.
This is perhaps her most well-known cartoon and, according to The Suffragist, the NWP’s weekly newspaper, soon became a new Declaration of Independence for American women.
Allender’s overall goal with the “Allender Girl” was to impress upon Suffragist readers that the suffragists of the present day were not masculine spinsters who hated men, nor were they abandoning traditional family values; they were modern women who were intelligent enough to make their own choices.
Today, Allender is considered one of the most influential political artists of the era, capturing the spirited struggle for women’s rights as it happened and providing a unique window into this intense chapter in women’s history. Allender fit into the NWP’s plan for women’s empowerment including and beyond the vote. As the NWP encouraged women to lobby, picket, speak in public, and take on suffrage work, Allender’s cartoons demonstrated to women how empowering and strong they could feel while doing this work. Allender provided women with a positive, self-respecting, independent role model through her cartoons.
On this Love Your Body Day, it is so important to remember that women have been changing the public images of themselves, and that women have been working together to lift themselves up and fight back against sexist, disrespectful, and negative representations of women in the media. The unfortunate thing is that we still have so much progress to make, but when you compare the Nineteenth and early Twentieth century to the present, we think women should be grateful for artists such as Nina Allender for using her talent to help break barriers for women in media representation. Allender’s cartoons impacted women and shifted both society’s perception of them and their perception of themselves. She made it so that women would not have to be quite so afraid to publicly lobby or march in the streets – visually encouraging them to stand up for their rights. Allender’s cartoons shifted the focus away from how women were dressed to point to what they could do; the power that women could attain over their lives. Allender led the way in empowering women by providing them with images they could relate to and feel inspired by. We still have a long way to go to eradicate the representation of women as objects – as body parts to be evaluated based on looks and not ability – but Allender started the ball rolling. Today we want to pay tribute to her, the visionary cartoonist who invited women to view themselves as they are, and not as society tells them to be.
If you have never seen an Allender cartoon in person, we invite you to visit the Sewall-Belmont House & Museum where we have a number on exhibit. If they move you as they move us and moved thousands of women during the struggle for suffrage, please consider adopting an Allender. You can learn more about this work here.
~ Elisabeth Crum & Jennifer Krafchik
This post is part of the 2011 Love Your Body Day Blog Carnival