As the sun set on the Saturday of the 2016 Women’s March in Boston, a bus full of academics pulled up to the site of the protest with empty portfolios in hand.
Recognizing the importance of the swell of self-expression created on the historic day, they scoured the emptying streets, collecting and safely encasing reams of handmade posters left behind after the day’s events. They saw value in these discarded placards, viewing them as artifacts to be preserved, digitized, and curated. On the sheets of card, paper, and old boxes that they collected are cursive types, bold types, loud types, cute types, provocative types, hand-scrawled types, rebellious types, digital types, angry types—all sorts of type making a statement. They’re now being meticulously archived by these academics for future generations.
What can archives like this one and the designs of the protest posters of women’s movements tell us about the efforts of the women behind them?
As opposed to political cartoons, suffrage poster art of the early 20th century tended to be conservative in style, a tactic used to sway male voters. In contrast, the women’s movements of the 1960s and 1970s were born within the context of Civil Rights and anti-Vietnam protest, student upheavals, and sexual revolution. Feminism’s “second wave” unfolded amidst anti-establishment freedom and revolt: its designs therefore took liberty and risk, and looked to irony and subversion as tactics.
In its current wave, with a focus on intersectionality, on queer, non-binary, and non-white experiences, various design strategies have emerged. Some posters of the movement take an approachable line, suggesting ways in which equality might be integrated into present society, and swaying public opinion through visuals with mass appeal. Other contemporary designs assert that inequality and oppression is inherent to capitalism, and use the poster art form to reveal underlying structural problems, bemoan a feminism too wrapped up in individual successes, and develop non-binary modes of expression in a critique of gender binaries. “Call-out” and online feminism has also required its own design, typographies, and visual rhetoric.
Technological advancements in the 20th century in photography, silk-screening, and mass-produced printing have made posters an especially suitable (and economical) way to get out a message of dissent. Like broadsides before them, the poster is informative and effective for the dramatization of a specific point of view. The Suffragettes, Free Angela Davis, the Hackney Flashers, the women’s movements in India, Pakistan, Chile, the Women’s Action Network in Japan, Reclaim the Night, the Combahee River Collective, Black Feminism, the Women’s Liberation Movement, the See Red Women’s Workshop, the Comisión Femenil Mexicana Nacional, the Riot Grrrls, the Guerilla Girls and many more have all left their traces, not just in terms of the fights that they have won, but as physical debris; reams of paper, prints, and other paraphernalia produced in action and as calls for action. Different typographies have articulated different goals and historical contexts; fonts reveal the ways that different types of feminism have found expression throughout the years.
“Votes for Women”, Bertha M. Boye, 1911
Lacking in protest art, the California suffrage campaign borrowed an idea from the English suffrage movement and organized poster competitions to source new designs. This print won Bertha M. Boye $50 as a prize for best poster and was used for San Francisco College’s Equal Suffragette League postcards and placards.
The print’s slogan, writ with an elegant hand, doesn’t appear as an argument or threatening battle cry, instead, it reads as a reliable, unassailable truth. While many 19th century feminists had taken a revolutionary stance against society and its institutions, the suffragettes of the early 20th century suggested that the women’s vote would strengthen rather than destroy the existing culture. Its artwork, steeped in tradition, reflected that line of thought.
With a symmetrical design that reinforces the sense of tranquillity emanating from the stoic figure at its centre, Boye’s classic suffragette poster also makes use of symbolic colors and classical imagery to emphasize stability.
“Fuck housework”, Virtue Hathaway, nom de plume of Shirley J. Boccaccio, originally published in 1971
In a 1975 journal published by the New York City-based radical feminist group the Redstockings, an artist named Shirley Boccaccio—under the pseudonym Virtue Hathaway—tells the story of what she calls “The Great Poster Rip-Off.” It concerns her memorable 1970s poster design, which depicts a woman breaking her broom with the defiant snarl of a witch spread across her face. She stands under a banner of oppressive old English lettering while a twirl of ironic script wisps around her dress.
Virtue’s “Fuck Housework” poster became a cult hit at the time; it was printed, reproduced, copied, and sold, and since she copyrighted the image in 1971, the artist quickly enjoyed the fruits of her labor. Its success allowed for Virtue to provide for herself and her three small children (they’d previously been making ends meet on $320 a month) while also pursuing her dream of becoming a children’s author. A year after its success though, a big poster company stole the design, using its image on crockery and distributing the product in its stores across the States.
After hiring a lawyer and going to court, the judge denied Virtue’s case, calling the image “patently obscene”, a poster “against public policy and does nothing but demean our society”. With the oppressive word of the law weighing heavily over her, Virtue replied:
“He is right. The poster is an expression of outrage against public policy, the public policy of exploiting women.”
Ultimately, her lawyers cheated her too, and Virtue was thrown back into poverty.
“Woman Freedom Now”, Faith Ringgold, 1971
Given her activist efforts and role as cofounder of several support groups for black women artists, in the 1970s, the artist Faith Ringgold became the ideal candidate to help spearhead the gender crusade in the USA. Woman Freedom Now was one of a series of Ringgold’s advocacy placards, a design which writer and activist Amiri Baraka has christened a “modern classic” because it was one of the first works of graphic design to endorse feminism within the context of black liberation. This combination is expressed by a color scheme signifying solidarity with Black Power and text that salutes the women’s movement.
The poster adopts the form of a Bakuba chevron derived from Kongo textile design. Its configuration is effected by the joining of a series of red, black and green paper triangles, within which its three words are etched forward, backward and in reverse. They grow and repeat like a resounding, continual chant; the triangular formation of the typography evocatively implying a voice that grows loudly, and a visual echo of the shouting woman of Rodchenko’s famous print, who also has a triangle of text issuing from her mouth.
Ringgold’s interpretation of op art is effective: it transfixes one’s gaze on its kaleidoscope of ever-changing planes. Its typographic nature on the other hand makes for a straightforward, readable, and literal billboard. Poster art represented Ringgold’s first response to the Black Arts Movement’s demand for “art for the people”.
“Overthrow Cockrock and Idolize Your Girlfriend”, 1990s. Unknown artist
With sheets of A4 paper, typewriters, photocopiers, Sharpies, Letraset, scissors, and stacks of old magazines as their weapon, the Riot Grrrls addressed sexism, hypocrisy and the marginalization of women in the predominately male punk scene. Like the Guerrilla Girls 10 years before them, straightforward type—devoid of associative gender stereotypes—was used to make a straightforward demand.
The homemade and therefore personable nature of posters like this one speak to one of the Riot Grrrl’s central concerns: highlighting how an individual’s problems fit into larger political structures. A DIY-aesthetic self that created the artwork: This poster and the countless zines produced by the group chime with their mantra, as adopted from ’60s second-wave feminism, namely that the personal (the self of self-publish) is political.
My Wife Doesn’t Work, Kamla Bhasin
Grassroots feminist movements in India have often transformed the many-armed Hindu goddess into the image of a many-armed housewife laboring from morning to night. She’s invoked on manifold homemade posters, her hands juggling household goods, babies, frying pans, jugs of water, brooms, and washing baskets. On this particular print, the many-armed woman is typographic: script brandishes her arms, the declaration that wives don’t work is inscribed on her body like a truth at odds with the reality that’s depicted. Her hands have been sliced off, the labour they represent denied. These missing hands do not belong to her, they are not acknowledged as hands that work: the fierce poster is symbolic of women’s unpaid and unrecognized daily labor.
“Images and symbols need to have a certain universality in order to be broadly understood and accepted,” the artist behind the poster has said. These words, and the hands behind the print, belong to writer and activist Kamla Bhasin, who created the image during a poster workshop organized by the progressive Indian feminist publisher Kali for Women.
“Dear Joy, I ____ You”, Joy Li, 2016
Having migrated from China at the age of one to Sydney, Australia, 21-year-old Joy Li created this intensely personal yet unequivocally universal chart of everyday words uttered in her household to communicate her experiences as a female, first-generation migrant, and the gendered and racial structures that influence the way she perceives herself and is perceived by others. With phrases arranged according to frequency, tone and emotional impact, Li’s poster exposes the force of words and how they shape individuality. Its contrast of languages signifies the pressure and tension of not only having to conform to the standards of one culture, but two.
Bianco, designed by the Italian foundry AlphaType, is used for its feminine qualities—highlighting the gendered nature of the repetitive, impactful phrases. “I paired this with a Chinese typeface,” says Li, whose frustration is often heightened by the rift of not being fully versed in her mother tongue. “The choice of using a ‘heiti’ (sans serif), as a contemporary design, physically and metaphorically demonstrates the very current effects that the lingering words uttered in my household have on me.” After uploading the image and other similar pieces depicting her experience online, Li received a flood of solidarity messages from other Australian, American, Canadian, New Zealander, and Irish Asians with similar stories to tell.
“I March For All Womankind”, Deva Pardue, 2016
“When it comes to protest art, the importance of immediacy can’t be underestimated. Saying something with as little clutter as possible resonates the most,” says Deva Pardue, the New York-based designer whose powder pink and revolutionary red posters for the 2016 Women’s March went viral during the lead-up to the protest. Its sister print, Instagrammed by Rihanna, Naomi Campbell, and Reese Witherspoon to name a few, is similarly straightforward about the march’s goal for intersectionality: on it, three fists strike the air, each a different skin colour and all with matching red nails. Druk Super Condensed, a typeface by designer Berton Hasebe, packs a similar punch when used for Pardue’s typographic print, and juxtaposes the soft, traditionally feminine color palette to subtly destabilize stereotypes. Over 4,000 people in the U.S. alone downloaded free PDFs of the design for the march, and the online sale of prints raised thousands of dollars to benefit two non-profits advancing reproductive freedoms in the States.
Sexed Realities, Anja Kaiser, 2016
This is not a poster… It’s a beach towel, an object/garment to envelop the body that is enveloped by words that speak of how the body is a site on which sexual, racial, economic, social and cultural classifications are enacted. Its words—“corporate”, “stop being desperate”, “your body is a home office”—writ in Akzidenz Grotesk Extended, reveal the workings of a contemporary feminism, one that’s been twisted to promote the story of individual, not communal, success and gain. The type is elongated and seemingly distorted, reflecting the distortion of the idea that the personal is political. Note the print’s evocative use of chains and a ladder, a symbolic critique of a feminism that prioritizes climbing up the ladder in free-market society.
The towel is one part of a larger project by German graphic designer Anja Kaiser’s, entitled Sexed Realities, which provokes an engagement with how the pharmaceutical industry, pornography industry, and late capitalism are integrated in their responsibility to the cycles of reproductive and social control through the regulation of bodies. In probing how hormone-based medication is used and profited on as a common treatment for fertility, infertility, and ageing, Kaiser, with a nod to Donna Haraway’s statement that “biology is a discourse, not the living world itself”, explores how human-made products rely on binary sexed realities.