Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Ten Little, Nine Little, Eight Little Suffragettes...(And Then There Were None)

by Stephen J. Gertz

In 1868, American songwriter Stephen Winner, adapting the Irish folk tune Michael Finnegan, wrote new lyrics for a minstrel show and retitled the song, 10 Little Injuns. In 1869, newer lyrics were written by Frank J. Green for Christy's Minstrels, an American blackface troupe that toured Europe, and the world was thus stained with Ten Little Niggers.

Circa 1910-15, the Pottsville,, Pennsylvania branch of Dives, Pomeroy and Stewart, a department store otherwise known as Pomeroy's and headquartered in Reading, published a pamphlet that adapted the song as a satire on woman suffrage and equal rights, and in so doing conclusively demonstrated that Pomeroy's brain trust would never win a spelling bee.

Or, perhaps, that the people of Pottstown, located in the Delaware Valley forty miles northwest of Philadelphia, then spoke using the "back vowels following the Southern Shift, the front vowels  following the northern pattern...There is some historic indication of sporadic R-dropping in Philadelphia..." (Linguistic Geography of Pennsylvania).

Or, rather, that simply spelling the word correctly would give it legitimacy, and, more to the point, lose the potential for major heh-heh yuk-yuks.

Hence, Ten Little Suffergets.

In the story, ten little girls, each with hair ribbon, black strap shoes and knee-length dresses, carry protest signs supporting women’s suffrage, as well as Equal Rights, No Home Rule, Down with Teachers, Down with the Men, Cake Every Day, and No More Spanking. It's The Little Rascals in pinafores, with an attitude, Darla Hood and Miss Crabtree on the march against Spanky, Alfalfa, Wheezer, and Farina, those pre-pubescent male chauvinist pigs.

As in Ten Little Indians, the group loses a member in each sequence, here for  typical transgressions of little girls: gobbling cakes, crying over a dead doll, kissing a boy, - the usual sins of the  contemporary sub-Sweet Sixteen set, suffragettes as self-destructive children. The girls' protest comes to a violent end when the last girl standing engages in a little blunt-force trauma doll massacre, leaving Lt. Bobby Goren, of TV's Law & Order: Criminal Intent, to sort it all out, the last little girl faked-out by Goren's  third-degree psych-out. The only thing omitted from Ten Little Suffergets is a Criminal Intent-esque last line:

Asst. D.A. Carter: It's reform school for Little Miss Charybdis, the  doll-slaying reformer.

Goren:  'Got my vote.

While no credit is given to the illustrator, the girls appear quite similar to the stylized Campbell Kids, etc. of Grace Drayton (1877-1936), particularly to those in her comic strip, Dotty Dimples. (I pause here for a tartaric & malic acid cocktail to balance the high sugar content implicit in Dotty Dimples, a name I write with insulin-ink to counteract the cloying of readers' - and my - blood).

Beginning with the Seneca Falls Convention of 1848, by 1887 agitation for a woman's right to vote had led to the merger of the  National Woman Suffrage Association and the American Woman Suffrage Association, each respectively addressing federal and state legislation. The National American Woman Suffrage Association led the struggle into the 20th century.

But opposition to the woman's vote was strong with groups like the National  Organization Against Womans Suffrage active in protest. Men were clearly in the majority against the vote for women and some women agreed.

If Grace Drayton was responsible for the illustrations (and verse) in Ten Little Suffergets she was not alone among women who opposed gaining the vote. 

Writer Helen Kendrick Johnson (1844-1917) was against it. From 1894–1896 she was editor of the American Woman’s Journal and founded the Meridian Club in 1886.

In 1897 she wrote what is considered the best summary of the arguments against woman suffrage, Woman and the Republic: A Survey of the Woman-Suffrage Movement in the United States and a Discussion of the Claims and Arguments of its Foremost Proponents (NY: D. Appleton, 1897).  Within, as if a proto-Phyllis Schlafly, she argued that the vote was unnecessary to establish  legal, economic and other equal rights for women, and that the woman's role in domestic matters was essential to maintain and uphold American culture, values, and the republic itself.

This is an extremely scarce lampoon of the women's suffrage movement.  Only one little, two little, three little copies are located in institutional libraries, at Bryn Mawr College's Women’s Suffrage Ephemera Collection, Penn State University, and at the Cotsen Childrens Library at Princeton. And then there are none.

[Anon.] Ten Little Suffergets. Pottsville, Pennsylvania: Dives, Pomeroy, and Stewart, n.d. (c. 1910-1915). First (only) edition. Slim octavo. 11 pp. Front wrapper and each page  with black, white, brown and orange illustrations with comic verse. Printed advertisement to rear cover.

Images courtesy of The Literary Lion, with our thanks.

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