Dissent PR – from suffragettes to slut walks

Responding to the use of PR to challenge inequalities in society, Bournemouth University, has run a series of seminars looking at ‘dissent PR’ and ‘protest PR’. My own contribution was to take a look at the role of women as activists and agitators over the past century. Here I share some musings from that work for your comments.

In studying the history of public relations, female experiences have largely been missing, with the accounts of women placed within the context of a predominantly male occupation.

However, the stories of two women are noticeable, not least because they are presented as villains. As they reflected opinions outside the dominant social power base, they could be considered as demonstrating a dissent position.

PR texts mention the Union activist, Mother Mary Harris Jones as an opponent to Ivy Ledbetter Lee in the case of the Ludlow Massacre at the Colorado Coal Strike in 1914. Lee’s work in restoring the reputation of the Rockefellers, who owned the coal mines, is presented as an initial step in professionalising PR, despite the fact that he distributed false information in presenting the corporate case. Indeed, a lie reported by the media that Mother Jones was a ‘former whore-house madam’ has been attributed to Lee.

It seems strange that the work of such female activists, agitators and social reformers has not been considered a relevant antecedent to modern PR practice. Instead, Mother Jones has been championed in a website for “investigative, political and social justice reporting” rather than what could be considered PR campaigning.

Another woman, who reflects the need for PR to “embrace the embarrassing” as Karen Russell has advocated, is Bessie Tyler, co-owner of the Southern Publicity Association. In 1920, the firm was contracted to increase recruitment of the KKK. In the first 15 months of the campaign, the agency’s share of the income generated was around $600,000. Indeed, Quarles (1999 p56) claims the campaign was responsible for transforming the Klan “from a somewhat easygoing Southern fraternity of patriotic whites into a violently aggressive national organization of chauvinistic, native-born, white Protestants”.

Bessie Tyler gets a brief mention in some PR histories – although they do not discuss allegations that she and her colleague, married Edward Young Clarke were caught “somewhat less than fully clad and sober, in a police raid on a house of questionable repute”. Shotwell (1974) claims “Far from a public relations woman, Tyler was allegedly a proprietress at a house of ill repute.”

In these two examples, we have women who are not seen as part of the emerging PR occupation despite enacting public relations activities in opposition to mainstream opinion. Both were presented as morally questionable and subject to criticism at the time and in subsequent PR literature.

Neither appears to have been a suffragist, with Brown stating she was against careers for women seeing their role as being in the home training children. Again, it seems surprising that the dissent of suffragettes are not generally presented as an antecedent of modern PR – despite other male activism (e.g. Boston Tea Party) being mentioned in the literature.

Where we tend to come across mention of the suffragettes is in relation to Bernays’ famous 1928 “Torches of Freedom” campaign where the ‘godfather of PR’ is seen to use the narrative of women’s emancipation to promote cigarettes to them. Sachs (2012) even alleges that this initiative helped women convey their equality message.

Doris Fleischman, Bernays’ wife is often portrayed as a feminist, although largely on the basis of retaining her birth name when she married. This is not necessarily that unusual given that Bernays’ sister not only retained her maiden name, but her husband became a Bernays himself.

Fleishman did navigate the tricky job of promoting the national convention in Atlanta in 1920 for National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Although Hernry (2012) reports that Doris later wrote that “No work I have ever done has had so deep and lasting an effect on me” (p19), this project seems to have been the only example of what we could consider dissent PR that she undertook.

The position of women outside the dominant social power base suggests a need for more radical activism to enable their voices, and causes, to be heard. This can be seen in the suffragette movement on both sides of the Atlantic. Women championing enfranchisement used protests and marches, combined with a level of civil disobedience. Lysack (2008) argues a level of sophistication in the public relations activities with shop-keepers and other businesses targeted by handbills reminding them that women were good customers and so should support the cause – despite the large-scale vandalism on their shops in 1912.

However, the suffragettes emphasised a need to appear socially acceptable if they were to gain an active place in society. They maintained gendered norms of dress with white costumes adorned with ribbons, jewellery, and so on.

This link between women’s activism and dress is an interesting one to examine further. From the bra-burning legacy of the 1970s’ feminist movement (again largely omitted from the PR literature), to fashion designer Katherine Hammnett’s oversized slogan T-shirts being worn by those at the women’s anti-nuclear camp at Greenham Common in the 1980s and by herself at a Downing Street reception with prime minister Margaret Thatcher.

Coming up to date, clothing and dissent are at the heart of the 21st century Slut Walks phenomenon. This has become a global campaign advocating women’s rights as a result of a comment made by a member of the Toronto Police in 2011 in a talk about crime prevention at a law school that “women should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimized”.

Ironically it is those who dress in more provocative clothing, sometimes just their underwear, who attract media attention in such marches. Consequently, critics have argued the movement has focused on dress rather than power or deeper issues. Further criticism is that the approach reflects the “pornification of everything” and supports increased sexualisation of women. In the same way that critics have begun to question the Pink Ribbon and Breast Cancer campaigns for their promotional focus, it is not surprising that marketers have got involved with the Slut Walks – e.g. in Australia, Sex Party branding has been linked to the movement – this is a political party which emerged from an adult-industry lobby group in 2009. Indeed, the Slut Walk movement has been called “the pornification of protest” – in turn leading to the Muff March to protest against the influence of pornography.

Although there does not seem to be any direct engagement of public relations professionals in these recent activist initiatives – they clearly reflect understanding of PR techniques in gaining the attention of media, politicians and the general public.

It is perhaps, therefore interesting to examine why there seems to be little engagement in such activism within the occupation itself, particularly when it is increasingly dominated by women. Women in PR seem to want to be respected within the mainstream rather than seeking an activist role. Feminine attributes are emphasised as particularly relevant in PR – echoing in some ways the suffragettes’ concerns about being portrayed as masculine – and a liberal feminist agenda seems to dominate any discussion around a glass ceiling in PR.

I would like to see more consideration of the role of women as activists to provide greater breadth of the historical understanding of public relations, as well as how women have used dissent and activist PR techniques to get their voices heard in society.

In addition, it would be interesting to consider the sexualisation and representation of women involved in dissent and protest PR. Finally, we could examine more the nature of PR itself and where dissent and activism lie within the occupation and what this means as women increasingly dominate the field. For example, are they encouraged to be compliant communicators rather than agents for change within their organizations?

Share

Comments

5 Responses to “Dissent PR – from suffragettes to slut walks”
  1. Paul Seaman says:

    Heather, really really (really) interesting post! As a further comment I have to say I find the following women – for different and conflicted reasons – to be on my list of PR and campaigning heroines:

    Countess de Markievicz

    Viscountess Nancy Astor

    Both Pankhurst sisters

    Hannah More

    Mary Wollstonecraft

    Florence Nightingale

  2. I spoke with Josh Greenberg’s communications class (via Skype) at Carleton University in Ottawa this week about women in public relations, drawing on both a historical context and contemporary research. It is a pleasure to raise the profile of women such as Constance Hope and those we have mentioned here with a younger generation as possible role models, or women whose experiences we need to embrace even if embarrassing.

    As well as discussing the Slut Walks, Josh kindly introduced me to the phenomenon of Raging Grannies, which does not appear to have reached the UK at all. As with the Slut Walks, Raging Grannies originate in Canada. See http://raginggrannies.org/herstory/ for an interesting paper.

    There are many interesting aspects of their method of protest – from the use of dress, to humour (especially songs) and both using and challenging perceptions of older women in society to communicate their message. A fascinating approach to Protest PR – and one that I definitely will include in future in my reflections on women in this respect.

  3. Paul Seaman says:

    Here’s a link that I hope you’ll agree expresses the spirit Heather, rightly, celebrates:

    http://www.badreputation.org.uk/2011/09/12/revolting-women-the-ju-jutsuffragettes/

    There’s no such thing as a weaker sex…. and certainly the suffragettes challenged “gendered norms”.

    And: am I the only one who thinks that there’s nothing radical or empowering about feminists going topless to make their point? See here:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8H9RVPkETCE

    I rather prefer Mrs Edith Margaret Garrud’s well-dresssed and well-directed thuggery over their degrading (voyeuristic) protests.

  4. Thanks Paul – I love the story of Mrs Garrud, although why choose the term ‘thuggery’? Isn’t it a defensive rather than an offensive strategy that she was advocating?

  5. Paul Seaman says:

    Yes, “thuggery” was the wrong word. I should have posted “well-directed violence” instead (violence being a neutral term because it is as capable of being used for good as it is for bad purposes). In contrast, thuggery should never be celebrated.

Speak Your Mind

Tell us what you're thinking...
and oh, if you want a pic to show with your comment, go get a gravatar!