Postcards: a visual history of women in law

Published 20th June 2016

Postcards provide an entertaining insight into popular imagination. Used by ‘ordinary’ people, as well as the ‘great men’ of history, the well-known images used on postcards reveal what appealed to contemporary tastes or interests. A flurry of propagandistic postcards circulating in the early twentieth century demonstrate what anxieties and hopes were also in circulation on the subject of women entering professional employment in Britain.

Postcards are still a remarkably popular means of communication, and are kept as souvenirs in the same way that Edwardians sent postcards with a mind to collecting them; the phrase ‘one for your album’ was common in messages on postcards. The medium is characterised by immediacy and informality; they could be delivered in less than a day and their writers used shorthand to communicate brief notes to eachother. There light-heartedness and ease of communication by postcard is reflected in the images used, which were easily recognisable tropes, stereotypes, and depictions of important events.

The subject matter is incredibly broad, but this brief discussion will look at working women on postcards, particularly female lawyers. Fish carriers and oyster gatherers, who were nearly always working-class women, were often depicted respectfully by postcard images. By contrast, when a woman in the legal profession was the subject matter on a postcard, they were often derided and caricatured for transgressing into traditionally male workplaces. Whilst the fish carrier might be shown demurely going about her work, the female lawyer would be causing chaos in the courtroom. Jules Royer published a series entitled ‘The Female Lawyer’, where a woman appears in court attempting giving a defence speech whilst struggling to breastfeed, change nappies, and complete other childcare duties. What this reveals about Edwardian attitudes to women working is that women could work by all means, so long as they were employed in tasks suitable to their gender. Female doctors for example, were not quite antagonistic to societal expectations of women because of the caring nature of their work, and therefore did not attract such mockery as female lawyers in postcard imagery.

Another genre of postcard depiction of female lawyers speaks to the humour of postcard imagery. Women dressed in the traditional garb of barristers and judges are posed to look out of place, exaggerating the incompatibility of male clothing on female bodies. The great number of suffragette themed postcards from the early decades of the twentieth century substantiate that prejudices and anxieties about gender equality were a dominant theme in politics for all sections of society. That women entering the legal profession was also a theme on postcards situates the new role of women working in law as one of the great upheavals in the social structure in Britain.

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