The American suffragette movement drew power and inspiration from their use of Joan of Arc as feminist symbol.
Joan of Arc has been embraced as both a martyred maiden saint and a secular icon of nationalism, heroism, and patriotism. During the struggle to achieve voting rights for women in the United States, the Maid of Orleans was beloved by the oft-reviled suffragette movement; and became an important symbol of feminism in America.
The Early Feminist Conception of Joan of Arc
The 15th century village girl who became a military leader and strategist was a natural symbol of feminism for the suffragettes. After all, she had left home without her parents’ permission in order to follow a traditional male role in the world; and she was eventually executed in part because she refused to bow to the will of the Church’s male-dominated hierarchy.
Joan’s image as a religious figure was not overly important to the early feminists. They saw her as a representation of a non-traditional, “gutsy” female warrior for universal rights. Not least, she argued her case before the Inquisition with wit and skill; despite the seemingly insurmountable handicaps of youth, inexperience, and illiteracy. As such, she inspired the “Votes for Women” crowd to keep up the good fight, no matter how many times they were jailed or ridiculed for their unorthodox beliefs. Consistently laughed at, brutalized, or lied about, it was no wonder that they identified with the young Joan; whose morals and visions had been constantly scrutinized and ultimately condemned.
The Suffragette Movement’s Use of Joan of Arc’s Image
Joan had been an important symbol of American patriotism since right after the Revolutionary War, when an Irish immigrant named John Burk wrote a play called “Female Patriotism Or the Death of Joan of Arc.” By 1912, Americans were quite familiar with Joan’s stirring exploits. For any citizen who had missed all the books, plays, and works of art, Ringling Brothers toured that season with a $500,000.00 extravaganza about Joan that boasted 1200 actors and sensational special effects.
The following year, Americans marched on Washington, demanding that the Constitution be amended to grant women the right to vote. Suffragette parades in England had been led by a woman dressed as Joan since 1911. United States women happily borrowed the tradition for the Washington march: the Women’s Suffrage Procession featured a progressive attorney named Inez Milholland mounted on a white horse.
Even though the press and official program referred to Ms. Milholland as a “herald,” possibly to distinguish American feminists from their supposedly more radical British counterparts, it was evident that she had been attired and posed to resemble an idealized image of Joan.
Joan became a Catholic saint on May 16, 1920. This, coupled with the anti-French sentiment that followed World War I, promptly dropped Joan from the quasi-official list of acceptable feminist heroines. All the same, there was a time when “la Pucelle” led American women into a battle eventually won in the legislature rather than on the field; a fact that doubtless would have surprised the historical Joan as much as it might have pleased her.
- Heimann, Nora M. and Coyle, Laura, Joan of Arc: Her Image in France and America, Corcoran, 2006.
- Gordon, Mary, Joan of Arc: A Life, Penguin Books, 2000.
- Spoto, Donald, Joan: The Mysterious Life of the Heretic Who Became a Saint, HarperCollins, 2007.