The History of Women Wearing Suffragette White

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Fashion has become instrumental to the expression of politics in America, from divisive headwear–think pussyhats and MAGA caps–to designers creating T-shirts encouraging people to vote. Most recently, female members of the United States Congress made a sartorial statement through their decision to sport “Suffragette white” at the State of the Union address, as they did at last year’s gathering. According to Representative Lois Frankel of Florida’s tweet announcing their intention in 2019, their white wardrobes were meant to show that the legislators were working to support the “economic security of women and their families.” This year, Representative Brenda Lawrence said the group continues to stand „against President Trump’s backwards agenda,“ which she says challenges „the foundation that was built by the women pioneers of this country.“ Referred to as suffragette white by Frankel and others, the color of choice calls upon a century-old history of women working to gain ground in American politics.

Here, CR examines the legacy of the color in women’s political activism and how the current congresswomen are working towards a progressive future built upon the hard work of those who came before them.

In the early 1900s, the women’s suffrage movement grew in the U.S. and Britain as women lobbying for the right to vote, organizing parades and marches not unlike the ones we see today, and in the process, establishing three identifying colors to wear to events. They were purple to represent loyalty, gold as a nod to the sunflowers of Kansas where Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton campaigned, and white to represent purity and virtue. In Britain, the gold was replaced by green to signify hope, and the three shades were established as the official campaign colors of the Women’s Social and Political Union in London, soon becoming emblematic of the women’s suffrage movement at large. Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence, a suffragette and key member of the WSPU, is recognized as instituting the three official colors in 1908. From then on, suffragettes would often wear the purple and gold (or green) as a sash over a white dress at public events.

Because getting their message across was their main concern, women conformed to the popular styles of the early 20th century. They wanted to look presentable to the public, but this meant wearing the fashionable, not-quite floor-length walking dresses with a corset and a jacket. These garments did not offer full physical mobility, highlighting traditional ideas about femininity and a woman’s place in society. Instead of challenging this completely and rebelling through dress, the suffragettes decided to wear head-to-toe white, thus appropriating the visual indicators of their femininity to serve their own cause. This also served as a defense against any criticism for appearing too intimidating or masculine as they challenged the status quo.

As the movement spread, wearing white became an accessible way for anyone to join the cause. By making a color rather than a specific garment their key identifier, the suffragettes created a democratized uniform, meaning women of any race or economic status could afford to dress the part.

With white as their calling card, the suffragettes stood out not only in the streets, but also in the media coverage of their marches. When black-and-white photography was the primary form of visual documentation, white provided a clear and bright contrast on the front pages of newspapers, attracting the eye of readers. The Democratic women of Congress re-created this same effect by forming a body of white at the State of the Union address. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi stood out in all-white, seated behind President Trump and next to Vice President Pence, who were both wearing black suits. The others formed an assemblage of cream, ivory, and pearly white in the chamber, creating a spotlight through fashion choices and aiming to shine their solidarity among the Republican representatives.

This deliberate choice of dress aligns with other historic moments in politics in which women have donned the color of the suffrage movement. On March 3, 1913, over 8,000 suffragists paraded down Pennsylvania Avenue, garnering the attention of spectators, most of whom were men, who had flocked to the nation’s capital for the inauguration of President Woodrow Wilson, which was to take place the following day. A similar scene was created decades later at the March for the Equal Rights Amendment in 1978, during which the largest gathering of women’s rights supporters to date took to the streets of Washington D.C. decked out in suffragette white.

Specific women in politics have also made sartorial statements in all-white ensembles, marking significant moments in history. In 1968, Shirley Chisholm wore white as she became the first African American woman to be elected to Congress. Geraldine Ferraro also opted for a white suit at the 1984 Democratic National Convention as she made her acceptance speech as the first female vice presidential candidate on a major party ticket. In 2016, Hillary Clinton wore a white pantsuit as she accepted the Democratic nomination for president, becoming the first woman to make it past the primary election. In 2019, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the youngest woman in history to be elected to Congress, wore exclusively white, save for her signature red lipstick, to her swearing-in ceremony. Afterwards, she tweeted „I wore all-white today to honor the women who paved the path before me, and for all the women yet to come. From suffragettes to Shirley Chisholm, I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for the mothers of the movement.“

Aligning with Ocasio-Cortez’s sentiment, the representatives who chose to wear white at the State of the Union, a year ago and yesterday, showed that the women making strides in today’s politics recognize the efforts of the suffragettes and other leaders of the women’s rights movement in the 20th century who came before them.

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