Sunday, October 15, 2017

Gordon Brewster and Gender Equality

Original in National Library
Click on any image for a larger version

I have been doing blog posts on the various themes which appear in the cartoons of Gordon Brewster, at least in those nearly 500 cartoons in the National Library of Ireland's collection.

It struck me to wonder if there was much on gender equality astir in that period, 1922-32, so I had a look. I could only come up with two cartoons which specifically referenced this subject, but it further struck me that it might be worth extending my quest to looking at how women are portrayed in the collection.

The cartoon above, from 1925, seems to be ultra-male in its subject matter but this hides its major significance for gender equality at the time. The cartoon refers to the passing of the Civil Service Regulation (Amendment) Bill by a slim majority in Dáil Éireann. In other words it just got barely over the line.

But it is in the reason why such a bill was necessary that the heart of the gender issue lies. The Civil Service was recruiting for clerk typists and customs officers. The Government wanted only female typists and only male customs officers. The rationale was, apparently, that mixed typing pools were not the thing, and anyway the women would be cheaper to employ, and, customs officers needed a combination of bulk and testosterone in case they got attacked by ungallant smugglers on the border.

However, existing legislation did not permit gender discrimination in the recruitment process so the law had to be changed.

This second cartoon refers to the situation in the UK in 1928. It features the then British prime minister Stanley Baldwin being cornered by a woman advocate of universal female suffrage.

The Representation of the People (Equal Franchise) Bill, which was introduced a month after the cartoon appeared, became law on 2 July 1928. This statute is sometimes informally known as the Fifth Reform Act or the Equal Suffrage Act.

This act widened suffrage by giving the vote to all women over 21 years old, regardless of property ownership. Prior to this act only women over 30 years of age who met minimum property qualifications could vote.

Similar provision was made for the Parliament of Northern Ireland by the Representation of the People Act (Northern Ireland) 1928 (18 & 19 Geo V, Ch 24 (NI).

The United Kingdom general election held on Thursday 30 May 1929 was often referred to as the "Flapper Election" as it was the first election in which women aged 21 or over were allowed to vote, under the provisions of the Representation of the People (Equal Franchise) Act 1928.

Women in the Irish Free State already had this right since 1922.

And so we pass on to the depiction of women generally in the collection.

The collection has some resonances of the old British seaside penny postcards which tended to portray women at the extremes. The cartoon above might equate, mutatis mutandis, with the more desirable female image though the seaside version would normally be more generously endowed.

Then you had the seriously over-endowed wife or mother in law version. Here she brings her considerable weight to bear on the over-burdened tax payer in the interest of the longer term viability of the state.

Many of the other representations of women in the collection simply reflect prevailing social attitudes. The cartoon above, whatever about its precise context, depicts the stay-at-home rear-the-children mother.

Not forgetting having the babies who can be produced for the entertainment and pride of the father outside of office hours.

I should probably remark, by way of background here, that Gordon had two children who were effectively raised by himself and the housekeeper as his wife had gone off to England when they were very young. From my contact with his late daughter, Dolores, I gathered that the children adored their father and he them.

There was an old woman who lived in a shoe.
She had so many children, she didn't know what to do.
She gave them some broth without any bread;

And whipped them all soundly and put them to bed.

Issues of accommodation, discipline and the wise Mammy all rolled into one.

The irony here is that this cartoon is praising a man for his "womanly" virtues. Michael Hayes was Ceann Comhairle (Speaker) of the Free State Dáil Éireann during its first decade. He is here being praised, on his retirement, for his ability to keep that unruly bunch of children, who are our representatives in the national parliament, in check over that decade.

Then we have the romancing of women in portrayals as victims. In this case it is the Catholic minority in Northern Ireland which is subject to brutal discrimination by the evil loyalist régime.

There are even sexual undertones in some of these representations which only become explicit when visibly censored in responding to the sensibilities of the audience concerned.

The cartoon above (left) is a homage cartoon to the cartoonist Raemaekers who specialised in atrocities by the Germans in Belgium during WWI. Brewster detested the régime in Northern Ireland so, for him, the parallel is relevant.

But he can't transpose the original without covering up the lady's exposed breast in deference to the sensibilities of his readers.

Had he not done so the cartoon might not have passed editorial muster. The sexual overtones in the original, combined with the new cartoon being specifically directed at the person of Lord Craigavon, might just have been a bridge too far.

A more neutral version, where the bound lady represents Irish industry exposed to the ravages of foreign competition, carries on the same theme, but with the male hero, a Taoiseach in shining armour and a kilt, coming to the rescue.

Finally, the business MAN bringing home the bacon, so to speak, emulating the prince in Cinderella. There was still a long way to go before we had typical business WOMEN outside of landladies and sweetshopkeepers.

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