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The History of the Color White and Women's Suffrage Movement

Teen Vogue logo Teen Vogue 8/14/2020 Laura Pitcher
Nydia Velazquez, Ann McLane Kuster, Julia Brownley, Judy Chu, Ann Kirkpatrick posing for a photo © Alex Wong

To mark the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, The Uncounted is a series that elevates the stories of women of color who have been disenfranchised and often written out of history.

Fashion has and always will be political. Throughout history, dress has always been used as a symbol of power, wealth, and status. Beyond that, the ways in which we dress can tie us to political and social movements, from the black berets worn by the Black Panthers to MAGA caps worn by Trump supporters today. This rings true for the women’s suffrage movement, a decades-long fight for the right to vote for women in the United States.

A lingering symbol of the movement is white clothing. Yet it was just one of the colors used by the Suffrage Movement. Following a 1908 rally in London’s Hyde Park that attracted over 300,000 protesters wearing white, the visual impact of having a dress code became evident. Supporters had been encouraged to wear white dresses with tricolour sashes. Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence, a suffragette and key member of the Women’s Social and Political Union, which The Telegraph notes was the leading force behind the suffrage movement, is recognized as instituting three official colors in 1908: purple, white, and golden yellow.

a vintage photo of a group of people posing for the camera: The head of the Women's Sunday Procession to Hyde Park, London, 21 June 1908. On Sunday 21 June 1908 thousands of people gathered in London to watch six processions organised by the suffragettes which all congregated in Hyde Park. The processions were part of the suffragettes' campaign for votes for women. (Photo by Historica Graphica Collection/Heritage Images/Getty Images) © Heritage Images The head of the Women's Sunday Procession to Hyde Park, London, 21 June 1908. On Sunday 21 June 1908 thousands of people gathered in London to watch six processions organised by the suffragettes which all congregated in Hyde Park. The processions were part of the suffragettes' campaign for votes for women. (Photo by Historica Graphica Collection/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

Case Western Reserve University history professor Einav Rabinovitch-Fox, PhD told Teen Vogue that these colors were chosen to symbolize loyalty, purity, and hope. “Purple is loyalty, loyalty to the cause, white is purity, and yellow is hope,” she says. In the United States, white, purple and gold were the official colors of the National Women’s Party, according to The New York Times. They also were specifically selected as colors women might already have in their wardrobe, allowing more supporters to have access to the movement. With 20th century fashion also becoming more comfortable, the movement incorporated narrower skirts and less undergarments, says Rabinovitch-Fox.

Rabinovitch-Fox explains that the women leading the suffragist movement were very media savvy. “Not only for their time but, I think, even for our time,” she says. Off the back of previous fashion choices associated with feminism ending in mockery, such as the bloomer, she says the movement realized that gaining the right to vote would require building a new more appealing image of what it means to advocate for women’s rights. Glenda Tinnin, one of the organizers of the National American Woman Suffrage Association, said, “An idea that is driven home to the mind through the eye, produces a more striking and lasting impression than any that goes through the ear.”

Part of the reason why the color white stuck as the core color associated with the movement is that the photographic evidence from that period is in black and white, says Rabinovitch-Fox. “Even when they used yellow, which I think actually at the time, yellow might have been more popular than white as a suffrage color, at least in the United States, on a black and white photograph it will still look as white,” she says. “They definitely used white. It's not that white was a marginal color. Partly because white was more available than a yellow dress and it's a cheaper fabric.”

African American educator and U.S. congresswoman Shirley Chisholm stands at a podium and gives the victory sign, circa 1968. (Photo by Pictorial Parade/Getty Images) © Pictorial Parade African American educator and U.S. congresswoman Shirley Chisholm stands at a podium and gives the victory sign, circa 1968. (Photo by Pictorial Parade/Getty Images)

With white clothing readily available and often cheaper, the color became a useful way for recruiting, says Rabinovitch-Fox. Black suffragists used the color beyond the struggle for the vote, wearing all white during the 1917 silent parade to protest lynching and racial discrimination. “African American or working-class women used the color white not only to support the suffrage cause but also to show their own respectability in the public sphere and say ‘we're pure, we’re moral and respectable women’,” Rabinovitch-Fox says. “which is something Black women did not have [in public discourse].” It’s important to note that some white women leaders of the suffrage movement worked alongside white supremacists.

a vintage photo of a group of people standing in front of a building: A silent march to protest the police treatment of blacks during riots in East St. Louis, New York, New York, 1917. They marched down Fifth Avenue on that summer Saturday without saying a word. They chanted no chants, sang no protest songs. The only sounds were the disconcertingly mournful thuds of muffled drums and, of course, the marchers' footsteps on the hot pavement. It was a parade of silent protest. (Photo by Underwood Archives/Getty Images) © Underwood Archives A silent march to protest the police treatment of blacks during riots in East St. Louis, New York, New York, 1917. They marched down Fifth Avenue on that summer Saturday without saying a word. They chanted no chants, sang no protest songs. The only sounds were the disconcertingly mournful thuds of muffled drums and, of course, the marchers' footsteps on the hot pavement. It was a parade of silent protest. (Photo by Underwood Archives/Getty Images)

It was mainly white women who won the right to vote in 1919, with women of color forced to wait nearly 50 extra years after the passage of the 19th Amendment to gain voting access. Today, women continue to wear the color to pay tribute to the suffragists and show sisterhood and solidarity. The House Democratic Women’s Working Group urged female lawmakers to wear white for Trump’s speech last year to “honor all those who came before us and send a message of solidarity that we’re not going back on our hard-earned rights.” Hillary Clinton wore a white pantsuit during her acceptance speech at the 2016 Democratic National Convention. Shirley Chisholm, the first black woman to be elected to Congress, wore all-white on her first day. So too did congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. “I wore white today in honour of the women who came before me, and the women yet to come,” she wrote on her Instagram account.

Hillary Clinton standing in front of a computer: Hillary Clinton, 2016 Democratic presidential nominee, waves while arriving on stage during the Democratic National Convention (DNC) in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, U.S., on Thursday, July 28, 2016. Division among Democrats has been overcome through speeches from two presidents, another first lady and a vice-president, who raised the stakes for their candidate by warning that her opponent posed an unprecedented threat to American diplomacy. Photographer: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images © Bloomberg Hillary Clinton, 2016 Democratic presidential nominee, waves while arriving on stage during the Democratic National Convention (DNC) in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, U.S., on Thursday, July 28, 2016. Division among Democrats has been overcome through speeches from two presidents, another first lady and a vice-president, who raised the stakes for their candidate by warning that her opponent posed an unprecedented threat to American diplomacy. Photographer: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Chosen for its visual impact and accessibility, the color white became a political tool of dress not only for the Women's Suffrage Movement but for Black suffragists, who were at the forefront of a movement, to protest racial discrimination also. While the color used in a unified manner is clearly powerful, Einav Rabinovitch-Fox is sorry that purple and yellow have dropped out of the conversation when talking about suffrage colors. Regardless, she sees the use of the color by women in politics today as an important nod to the movement. “Fashion has power and we can use it to our favor. So why not?” she says.

Nydia Velazquez, Ann McLane Kuster, Julia Brownley, Judy Chu, Ann Kirkpatrick posing for a photo: WASHINGTON, DC - FEBRUARY 05: Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) watches President Donald Trump's State of the Union address in the chamber of the U.S. House of Representatives at the U.S. Capitol Building on February 5, 2019 in Washington, DC. A group of female Democratic lawmakers chose to wear white to the speech in solidarity with women and a nod to the suffragette movement. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images) © Alex Wong WASHINGTON, DC - FEBRUARY 05: Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) watches President Donald Trump's State of the Union address in the chamber of the U.S. House of Representatives at the U.S. Capitol Building on February 5, 2019 in Washington, DC. A group of female Democratic lawmakers chose to wear white to the speech in solidarity with women and a nod to the suffragette movement. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

These historic roots make wearing white an international choice for politicians and leaders alike today and the color, hopefully with the inclusion of purple and yellow, will continue to be a symbol of solidarity and sisterhood. This symbol, however, mustn’t be celebrated without the awareness that the work towards equal voting rights is not finished, with voting restrictions impacting transgender people’s right to vote and felony disenfranchisement disproportionately impacting Black people.

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