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Drawn to the truth: Cartoons chart women's battle for equality

The cartoon dates from 1928. "The Parliament of the future", it says, under a picture of an all-female House. If only, the sisters of the Nineties might reply.

The image is one of 145 in an exhibition drawn together by the Fawcett Society, the equality campaigners, spanning 130 years, which opens today. The aim of Fawcett's Funny Girls - Cartooning for Equality was to show through the cartoons women's battle for equal rights. But when they came up with the idea, the society had no idea whether that would be feasible.

Diane Atkinson, a historian and the show's curator, sifted 5,000 images, from Low, Giles and Mel Calman to Posy Simmonds, to discover it was. Fortunately, though the point of some old jokes was lost in time, others still carried a message. "I think they are quite a good barometer of the issues," Dr Atkinson said. "And I believe I've managed to cover quite a long time span quite economically through these images."

What can be seen is the rise of the Suffragette movement, the changes in attitude after the awarding of the vote to women and the subsequent struggle for equal rights. The subjects are not only politics at Westminster but, in a broader sense, in the workplace and home. A Punch cartoon in 1853 was one of the earliest to feature a woman MP. It was, Dr Atkinson said, "a bizarre, almost surrealistic image to the mid-Victorians".

Then humour turned full circle from the thought of women in Parliament as a joke in itself to the moment when a woman finally came out on top. When Margaret Thatcher beat Edward Heath to lead the Tories, the occasion was marked with a cartoon showing her pointing to Sir Edward chained to the Westminster railings in the manner of a Suffragette. His banners read "Keep Women Out Of The Top Spot" and "A Woman's Place Is In The Home".

Some things never change. Attacks on the appearance of women politicians are shown to have a historical precedent in a cartoon depicting all Suffragettes as so ugly they have never been kissed. "It's one of those cliches they recycle all the time - you must be a sad lesbian with a moustache," Dr Atkinson said. Despite the sexism, she said, the exhibition and accompanying book were not anti-male, nor angry and strident. "I'm not a woman who hates men - I am married to one." Shelagh Diplock, director of the Fawcett Society, said the cartoons reflected how far women have come and how much was still to be won.

But they also showed feminists had a sense of humour. "I wanted to show that we don't take ourselves seriously all the time. The battles of the sexes is often presented as earnest and hostile. But I'm a great believer in using humour to get people to re-think their ideas."

The date for launching the exhibition, at The Pump House People's History Museum, Manchester, was chosen 18 months ago but could not have been more appropriate. The exhibition goes to Glasgow in July and to London in October.

Mrs Diplock said: "I hope everyone will laugh but come away thinking 'This has been a long hard struggle, and where are we now? Yes, things have changed, but how much?' Then, having thought about it, they'll come and join the Fawcett."

Or stand for Parliament.