Suffragist Colors Discussion (March 1997)


Query From Heather Munro Prescott prescott@ccsua.ctstateu.edu 11 Mar 1997

I apologize for asking something that came up a few years ago on H-Women, but I could not find the answer on the web page. What is the significance of the colors worn by the suffragists in the early twentieth century? I know that the colors were white, purple and gold, but I don't recall what they signified. Thanks.

>From Mary Ruthsdotter Nat'l Women's History Project nwhp@aol.com 12 Mar 1997

Hi Heather,
Here's the story as Alice Paul set it out: Alva Belmont thought the suffrage movement should have banners for its parades and she liked those colors. Period.

Here's another version, that is told in various places: The "meaning" of the purple and white were determined by the British suffragettes. After the Kansas campaign, where the state flower (sunflower) was prominently used as s suffrage symbol, American suffragists replaced the British green with yellow/gold for American organizing purposes.

>From Barbara J. Howe bhowe@wvnvm.wvnet.edu 12 March 1997

I assume folks know that NOW uses the same colors for its banners and that the banners are very similar in shape to the suffrage one-and that NOW asked people to dress in white for ERA marches as the suffragists dressed in white for their parades-the similarity ends there, since white jeans and t-shirts are much different from long white dresses.

>From Gayle V. Fischer gvfische@uga.cc.uga.edu 12 March 1997

I cannot find the exact source at the moment, but it seems to me that Edith P. Mayo wrote about suffrage iconography and colors in the early 1980s. If I remember correctly, Stanton and Anthony chose gold while campaigning in Kansas and gold comes from the state flower--the sunflower. And in 1876 at the U.S. Centennial women wore yellow ribbons as a sign of their struggle for women's rights. Gold was supposed to signify enlightenment.

The other color theme--purple, white and green--later, after the NWP was created--purple, white and gold. Originated with the British suffragists and symbolized loyalty, purity and hope. Alice Paul and other Americans who worked with British suffragists brought the colors to America. The modern women's movement later adopted the colors purple, white and gold as their own.

Somewhere I have newspaper articles that talk about suffragists in white dresses and suffrage hats. I remember that at least one author seemed to think there was a suffrage "uniform". I hope you find this information helpful.

>From Theresa Healy healy@unbc.edu 13 March 1997

If my memory serves me, the colours were used by English suffrage fighters to represent: courage (purple); purity of purpose (white) and renewal and strength (green). And I think I read this in a fabulous book called _Making a Spectacle_. I can't recall the author but she did a remarkable analysis of the iconography and artistry in the banners, many of which were designed by one of the Pankhursts and which represent a challenge to our understanding of who made up the fight for the vote. I also think the colours became highly fashionable and stores advertised hats, etc. in these colours, reminiscent of the fashions that hit our lives that originate in grass root choices.

>From Vivien Rose Vivien_Rose@nps.gov 13 March 1997

At Women's Rights National Historical Park, we tell people that the colors stand for purple-justice, white-purity, and gold-courage. Although I'm certain this is based in research, I don't have the reference(s) handy, and won't be able to look them up for a few weeks. If anyone is interested in more information, and is willing to wait, they can reach me by e-mail or 315-568-0007.

>From Tiffany Kay Wayne tkwayne@cats.ucsc.edu 13 March 1997

I agree with the "loyalty, purity, hope" interpretation of the suffrage colors. I recall working on a project and coming across the connection that purple was the key color of the earlier temperance campaigns and that suffragists picked it up from their sisters activists. I've been looking for the source so that I could provide more info on that. Anyone else ever hear about that connection?

>From Genevieve G McBride gmcbride@csd.uwm.edu 13 March 1997

Re: suffragists possibly "picking up" the color purple (sorry, Alice Walker) from their sisters in the temperance reform--although I found suffragists and temperance activists often were one and the same--this may have been so in the "earlier" temperance campaigns, but I also found numerous references in nineteenth-century temperance papers and the like from the 1870s on to the widespread use of white, as in Francis Willard and other women being known as the "white ribboners", because they wore them on their lapels. (By the way, the red AIDS lapel ribbons have many predecessors in reform; I found that lapel and "chapeau" ribbons of many colors for many causes were common among reformers from at least the 1860s on.)

Also, I found that upon introduction of the use of the color purple for suffragists by Alice Paul and Lucy Burns, so the sources say, the women whose work/words I followed (in the midwest) who were followers of the National American Women Suffrage Association would refuse to wear that color, for fear of being connected with Paul and Burns' Congressional Committee-cum-Congressional Union-cum-National Women's Party's more "radical" and "militant" tactics. I also came across a caution by the NAWSA Carrie Lane Chapman Catt (also a midwestern woman) to never wear purple in the NAWSA parades. I wonder if the combining of the colors to represent all suffragists in our past perhaps came later, even much later, with the modern women's movement? The NWP and the LWV (NAWSA's successor) certainly were not on friendly or cooperative terms even into the twenties.

The NAWSA women I read about clung to their "suffrage yellow" (they never called it gold), which they did often wear with white. As for the earlier reference/query (I forget!) about costumes, I found that local and then state chapters of NAWSA, at least, but not "the National," did commission what they called "suffrage regalia" which would distinguish their contingents in state and then national parades.
For example, in Wisconsin, the "suffrage regalia" of a yellow tunic with black bordering, to be worn over a white "shirtwaist" (blouse) and long black skirt, could be purchased complete with "cockaded chapeau" for $3.95 in a Milwaukee department store...AND the "suffrage kit" included a round-trip ticket to Chicago for the NAWSA parade to picket the 1915 Republican convention (where the women followed a borrowed elephant burdened with a plank--the "missing suffrage plank" from the GOP platform; fortunately, I suppose, the windy city treated the women to a full-scale gale off Lake Michigan which created such a downpour that the detritus of the mammoth must have been washed to the gutters before the women marched in its wake.)

How's that for a picturesque poster of what women had to (literally!) go through to get the vote? BTW, Wisconsin's contingent marched to the Milwaukee depot behind a band of Grand Old Army of the Republic (Civil War) veterans, which played the tune of "On Wisconsin" while the women sang their own feminist lyrics to the state fight song. The lyrics can be found as the frontispiece in my _On Wisconsin Women_(U of Wisconsin Press, 1994), and the woman who wrote the lyrics and commissioned the "suffrage regalia" is pictured on the cover, wearing the costume and carrying the yellow-and-black Wisconsin banner she also commissioned to lead her contingent in the 1915 parade. Her costume and banner are still extant and can be seen in a new suffrage exhibit at the Waukesha County (Wisconsin) Historical Museum.

BTW, lest we think they had so much fun marching in funny costume for suffrage, I found a quote from the same woman, to the president of the Wisconsin Woman Suffrage Association from 1913-1920 and founder of the Wisconsin League of Women Voters, in which she rallied her troops to repeating the pageantry and parades but admitted to "despair" over the "demeaning things" that women had to do to win their rights.

>From David Doughan doughan@lgu.ac.uk 13 March 1997

The book Theresa Healy was thinking of is _The Spectacle of Women_ by Lisa Tickner, published in London by Chatto in 1987. It deals with the visual propaganda of the British suffrage movement 1907-1914, and has a whole page devoted to the colours of different groups: the purple, white and green (dignity/loyalty/courage, purity, hope/youth/regeneration) was adopted by the WSPU, but other equally significant organisations had their own colours, such as the red, white and green of the National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies: "Green as our hope in it, white as our faith in it, red as our love"(H.M. Swanwick _I Have Been Young_)

Although Tickner deals purely with the British movement in a comparatively short time-span, I would strongly recommend _The Spectacle of Women_ to anybody interested in the history of feminist campaigning. It is one of those rare books which not only breaks significant new ground and touches all the right academic bases, but is highly readable and looks good.

>From David Doughan (second post...see above) 17 March 1997

It's as well to remember that these women didn't just have fun. At the turn of the century, for women marching on the street could be a bit scary, as well as being seen as "demeaning": women plus street equals...well, you know. This was true even in a country like Britain, where marches were part of accepted political life. In more overtly repressive countries, marching could actually be seen as a revolutionary act, and therefore dangerous. Hence the difficulty in getting Munich women to march as late as 1912-a significant number chose to march in their carriages...

Still, a lot of those women did enjoy themselves, certainly in Britain. They were also quite canny, especially in the WSPU, who led the field in marketing themselves and the campaign with real flair-which is probably why their colours are the ones that have become associated with suffrage. When people complain about fashion mags, etc., commodifying the suffragists, they should remember that the suffragists started it...A good read on the marketing techniques of the WSPU is Diane Atkinson's _The Purple, White and Green_(Museum of London, 1992).


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