The Language Of The Most Iconic Women’s Rights Posters

We take a look back at 100 years of fighting for women’s rights.
Woman with megaphone standing in front of a government building and a few protest signs that can't be fully read.

March 8 marks International Women’s Day, a holiday that invites us all to think about the progress that has been made in fighting for women’s rights. It also reminds us of the work still left to be done to create a world free of bias, stereotypes and discrimination.

We know that language is a powerful tool, and that the words on protest posters, as well as the visual language of their design, can be impactful in raising awareness or demanding change. From “Votes for Women” during the suffrage movement to #MeToo in the past few years, the slogans that define women’s rights movements show both how far we’ve come and how far we still have to go.

Babbel looked back at women’s rights posters from the last century and asked our international community to vote on a selection of iconic posters to identify the most popular. Here are the top five, followed by an analysis of what makes these phrases so powerful.

Want to learn more about the language women’s rights in English? Try our Babbel course on Gender & Identity!

The Top 5 Women’s Rights Posters From The Last Century

Do women have to be naked to get into the Met Museum womens rights posters
Copyright © Guerrilla Girls, courtesy

Do Women Have To Be Naked To Get Into The Met. Museum? was created in 1989 as part of a collection called Guerrilla Girls Talk Back. Since 1984, the Guerrilla Girls have been exposing discrimination in the art world, particularly in New York, and their members wear recognizable gorilla masks to protect their identities.

Do Women Have To Be Naked To Get Into The Met. Museum? depicts a reclining naked woman wearing a gorilla mask. The image is based on the painting by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres (1780-1867) entitled “La Grande Odalisque 1814” (In Paris’s Louvre). The bold rhetorical question on a bright yellow background catches the eye, and gets the reader thinking.

We Are the Resistance Vanessa Witter

We Are The Resistance was created by Vanessa Witter in 2017 for the Women’s March in Los Angeles that year. Witter drew on her admiration for actress Carrie Fisher, who plays Princess Leia, the powerful general and leader of the Rebel Alliance in the Star Wars films, as well as artist and feminist icon Barbara Kruger, who is renowned for her slogan designs of white text on a red background. Pop culture references, such as this poster’s reference to Star Wars, point to shared reference points among groups of protestors.

Femme Fists poster womens rights posters

Femme Fists is part of a series of posters designed in 2016 by New York-based designer Deva Pardue, titled For All Womankind. In 2017, the Femme Fists image went viral, and For All Womankind posters were carried in women’s marches over the world. Pardue’s idea for the symbolic image of the clenched fist came from her desire to subvert gender stereotypes. The clenched-fist motif used in protest usually features a man’s hand, but Pardue created this symbol with a female, manicured hand as a symbol of strength. This exploration of womanhood of all kinds is strengthened by the range of skin colors. The slogan “All Womankind” plays on the word “mankind” while highlighting the importance of discussions of intersectionality and race in gender discourse.

we can do it rosie the riveter poster

We Can Do It! by J. Howard Miller dates back to 1943. Though it emerged during the WWII era, the iconic image featuring a woman often referred to as Rosie the Riveter — after a war-era allegorical figure — is widely known and has been recreated many times, even by Beyoncé. The message is simple and clear, but also enthusiastic. Originally, the poster was designed with the war effort in mind, but the associations of the image have changed with time.

Sisters! Question every aspect of our lives womens rights posters
© See Red Women’s Workshop

Sisters! Question every aspect of our lives was created in 1977 by the collective See Red Women’s Workshop. Using screen printing, the collective produced posters to counteract sexist images of women. This poster aimed to point out aspects of sexism in women’s everyday lives, such as the stereotyped expectation that women do more household chores, in order to empower women to challenge them. The poster is a call to action, addressing women as sisters and asking them to fight against everyday sexism in their daily lives.

These women’s rights posters, alongside other examples from the past century, feature in new poster book, I can’t believe I still have to protest this shit by Swedish author Jessica Hallbäck (published by Bokförlaget Max Ström on International Women’s Day).

In the spirit of these powerful images, we’ve compiled our own advice for how to create an effective protest poster.

Advice For Making Impactful Women’s Rights Posters

Joining a protest gives you a platform to stand for something you believe in, loud and clear.

First and foremost: just showing up to a protest is an act of allegiance to the cause in question. Creating a sign gives your voice even more impact. The power of language helps to incite change. Protest signs originated as crowd-sourced traditions, putting raw political feeling into urgent slogans. In today’s digital world, where hashtags and viral social media posts dominate news cycles, there’s now what we can call a performative aspect to protest and sign making. A tweeted photo is equally as important, arguably, as the protest itself, because it has the potential to deliver the message to digital audiences across the world.

In the spirit of International Women’s Day, our linguistic guide to creating a standout poster is here to help you make an impact.

1. The bigger, the better

Bold letters and colors will help your sign stand out amongst the crowd. Here’s your chance to get artsy and creative!

2. Messaging

Think about what you really want to say to the world. Sketch out your message in pencil first, before using more bold colors and contrast to grab people’s attention — at the protest and potentially beyond. Do you want to speak directly to governing authorities? Or maybe, you want your statement to boldly outline the issue while using humor. Whatever it is you’re protesting, think about what the most important message is for you personally to relay outwards.

3. Tone

Tone, in linguistics, is the all-important factor that determines how something is relayed. This is the same for written wording. Take the protest posters “If it’s not your body, it’s not your choice” and “We need to talk about the elephant in the womb” spotted during protests all over the world. Both take a stand against strict abortion laws — the first one taking a direct and urgent approach, while the latter delivers the message with a pun.

4. Creativity

Use humor if you feel it’s appropriate: catchphrases and callbacks to current meme trends can help to grab people’s attention. One sign spotted at a Fridays for Future protest displayed the slogan “Do it for David,” connecting the fight against climate change to biologist and broadcaster David Attenborough, a vocal advocate of the science behind the climate crisis and a beloved national treasure by all generations.

5. Call to action

Using a catchy call to action, such as those used during climate protests like “There is no planet B!” or “Build kindness not walls,” helps motivate onlookers, which really is the whole point of protesting. Sometimes, straightforward also works: One of the most popular signs during the protests following the U.S. Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade read simply “Keep Abortion Legal.”

6. Rhyme

Rhyme is a linguistic repetition of similar sounds (usually the same sounds), which causes our brain to pay attention. Some famous examples from UK protests include: “Theresa the appeaser”/ #TheresaTheAppeaser, against Theresa May, who in 2017 was reluctant to denounce Donald Trump’s travel ban on Muslim countries. “Thatcher, Thatcher, Milk Snatcher” is still known today as a protest chant, from the time Margaret Thatcher allowed free milk to be eliminated for students over the age of seven and protestors took to the streets. Rhymes are responsible for creating a comfortable flow in sentences, poems, songs or protest chants and signs due to their linguistic predictability. As a result, they are easier to memorize and reproduce.

7. Puns

A pun or joke used in a protest context, like: “How will we throw shade if there are no trees?” can really catch attention. Despite the fact that protests are of course serious, a lighthearted joke used in the right way can add spirit, bridging the context of the protest with humor and a shared laugh. Striking the appropriate respectful balance between humor and context is recommended.

8. Go meta

Don’t be afraid to go meta. Going meta refers to the act of doing things in a self-aware or self-referential way. “I’m so angry I made a sign,” for example, references the action of making a sign while also linking it back to the context of the protest. “Not usually a sign guy, but geez” works in a similar way.

9. Swearing, mindfully

(Mindful) swearing can help to emphasize the urgency of a protest. This is because politeness does not always lead to the desired outcome. Signs with slogans such as “I can’t believe we’re still debating this s**t” and “Now you’ve p****d off my grandma” during the March for our Lives (in support of gun control) illustrate the usage of swearing as a kind of “last resort” when protesting. Swearing is not always recommended, but doesn’t always communicate a lack of sophistication when making a political argument.

10. Pop culture

Cultural references used during protests, such as “Orange is not the new black,” used during an anti-Donald Trump march, and “Melania blink twice if you need help” (also during the Women’s March) help us signal shared cultural reference points among protestors.

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