Why suffragists wore white, and more feminist symbols interpreted

From bluebirds and cats to pins shaped like jail cells, early 20th-century activists used visual cues to advocate for women’s right to vote.

Published 22 Mar 2021, 13:26 GMT, Updated 26 Mar 2021, 20:51 GMT
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Portrait of Michelle Duster, descendent of Ida B Wells. Michelle Duster is an award-winning author, speaker, and educator. In Chicago she has worked to honour the legacy of her paternal great-grandmother, Ida B. Wells – a key figure in the early movement for Civil Rights in the U.S.

Photograph by Celeste Sloman, National Geographic

It took more than 150 years for British and American suffragists to gain women’s right to vote—decades filled with struggle, sacrifice, and fervent attempts to sway public opinion. And those efforts at persuasion didn’t always involve speeches or personal appeals.

Suffragists used visual symbolism to help the public envision a world in which women could participate in the political process. Some emblems were savvy ways to help suffragists stick out in a crowd. Others signified the value that women would bring to public life if given the right to vote—although sometimes they obscured the contributions women of colour made to the suffrage movement.

From angry cats to women in white dresses, here’s your guide to some of the most potent symbols of the women’s suffrage movement.

White, purple, and yellow

The women’s movement didn’t rely on visual symbols at first, notes historian Einav Rabinovitch-Fox. That changed in the early 20th century, when suffragists in England and the United States realised that visual symbolism was a way to get their message across. British suffragists were the first to use the colours purple, white, and green and, inspired by that example, the National Woman’s Party, the militant U.S. organisation dedicated to enshrining women’s suffrage in the Constitution, adopted white, purple and yellow as its colours.

Photo shows women marching with banner "National Woman Suffrage" at the Woman Suffrage Parade in Washington, D.C., March 3, 1913. In background: northeast corner of Pennsylvania Ave. and 11th St.
Photograph by Library of Congress

Each colour had its own meaning. Purple meant loyalty, and gold “the colour of light and life...the torch that guides our purpose, pure and unswerving.” For British suffragists, green symbolised hope.

But white, symbolising purity, is the colour most associated with suffragists today. Long associated with youth, virginity, and moral virtue, white suggested that women could be expected to vote for politicians and policies that would better society. In massive suffrage parades, white-clad women contrasted with the crowds of darkly dressed men.

The color had practical benefits, too. “White cotton dresses made an impression en masse, were consistently in style, relatively inexpensive, and easy to maintain,” writes Sarah Gordon, curatorial scholar at the Center for Women’s History at the New York Historical Society.

State symbols 

Blue and orange tin bird, with the text "Votes For Women Nov 2, " intended to be used as campaign ephemera, nailed on fence posts, telephone poles, and trees on “Suffrage Blue Bird Day, ” to promote a state suffrage referendum, issued by the Massachusetts Women Suffrage Association, for the American market, 1915. Photography by Emilia van Beugen.
Photograph by Ken Florey Suffrage Collection, Gado/Getty

American women also conducted state-by-state attempts to gain suffrage. These efforts often generated their own symbols. One was the sunflower, the state flower of Kansas. Suffragists there began the fight as soon as Kansas became a territory in 1854, adopting the state’s flower and its colour, yellow, as they worked toward an 1867 referendum granting full statewide suffrage. They lost the referendum—and it would take another 25 years to obtain the right to vote in statewide election—but the symbol was later adopted by national suffragists who saw it as a potent sign of women’s organising power. 

The bluebird, which represented cheer and hope, held special significance for Massachusetts suffragists, who adopted it as their official symbol during their attempt to get the vote in their state. In 1908, The Blue Bird, a popular play by Maurice Maeterlinck, had become an international sensation. The fairy-tale-like play told the story of two children’s search for the “blue bird of happiness,” which they eventually find in their own backyard.

In 1915, during their campaign to sway a state ballot referendum, the Massachusetts Woman Suffrage Association capitalized on the symbol and gave out 100,000 “Votes for Women” bluebird signs that were displayed throughout the state. But despite the hopeful bird’s high visibility, the referendum failed and women waited six more years to gain suffrage there.

Cats

Birds weren’t the only animals that gained relevance in the struggle for suffrage. Cats became one of the movement’s most enduring symbols—and their meaning evolved over time as men and women grappled with what it would mean for women to participate in the political process.

“Cats appeared more frequently...than any other animal,” writes historian Kenneth Florey, who chalks it up to the popularity of the animals on the era’s popular suffrage postcards, which conveyed both support and disdain for the suffragist’s cause.

'The Cat and Mouse Act', 1914. Suffragette poster which graphically depicts the workings of the Prisoner's Temporary Discharge for Ill-Health Act, known by the WSPU as the Cat and Mouse Act. During 1913 and 1914 the force-feeding of suffragettes on hunger-strike stopped. Instead, the weakened campaigners were released from prison on a special license but were liable to be re-arrested to complete their sentence when their health improved. The large, bloody-toothed cat represents the police, the prison authorities and the Home Secretary, Reginald McKenna, who was responsible for the Act. The 'mouse' is a small and injured suffragette. Intended to wear down the morale and resolve of the suffragettes, the Cat and Mouse Act failed in both theory and practice: when suffragettes were released they were nursed in suffragette nursing homes and then went into hiding, from where many of them continued to commit yet more militant 'outrages'.
Photograph by Museum of London/Heritage Images/Getty

At first, cats were an anti-suffrage symbol. In the 19th century, cats and dogs had gendered associations. Dogs, known for being active, were associated with men, and cats were associated with women, who were expected to remain within their designated sphere of hearth and home. Women who deviated from social norms were sometimes portrayed as hissing outdoor cats, the antithesis of the placid housecat. Anti-suffragists feared that men’s masculinity would be diminished as women entered public life. As a result, cats often appeared on postcards that depicted men forced to perform “feminine” tasks such as the laundry, childcare, or cooking.

An English law lent the symbol even more power. In 1913, British Parliament passed the Temporary Discharge for Ill-Health Act in response to the increasing use of hunger strikes by militant suffragists, who were imprisoned for things like smashing windows, setting mailboxes on fire, and engaging in arson and bombings to gain attention for their cause. The law ended the use of force feeding in jail, which had generated intense public outcry, and allowed prisoners on hunger strike to be released and re-imprisoned once their health improved. Women were subject to surveillance and control during their temporary releases from jail, however, and the law was promptly nicknamed the “Cat and Mouse Act.”

A few years later, two American suffragists embraced the cat as a pro-suffrage symbol during a nationwide tour to promote suffrage. In April 1916, Nell Richardson and Alice Burke set out in the “Golden Flyer,” a car donated by the Saxon Motor Company, and drove from New York to California and back, giving speeches and newspaper interviews along the way. They took a kitten named Saxon with them, and the cat generated publicity of its own as the press documented its growth over the six-month trip. (The Spanish flu nearly derailed the women's suffrage movement.)

Jail cells

British suffragists weren’t the only ones jailed for their work on behalf of the vote. American suffragists, too, faced arrest and imprisonment for their protests and publicity attempts. Throughout 1917 and 1918, a group of “Silent Sentinels“—women who stood in front of the White House holding signs imploring President Woodrow Wilson to support suffrage—were imprisoned. In an incident now known as the Night of Terror, they were dragged, beaten, and tortured by prison guards. In the days that followed, the women were force-fed and brutalised. 

Helena Hill Weed, Norwalk, Conn. Serving 3 day sentence in D.C. prison in 1917 for carrying banner, "Governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed."
Photograph by Library of Congress

Their treatment sparked public outrage, and all of the women were released. Afterward, the National Woman’s Party acknowledged the women’s ordeal with silver pins in the shape of a jail cell door with heart-shaped locks, designed by illustrator and suffragist Nina Allender.

The Allender Girl

Allender also helped change the stereotype of suffragists—who were often depicted in the media as masculine, ugly spinsters—with a character known as the Allender Girl. The fictional character was “an attractive, energetic, slender young suffragist,” writes historian Alice Sheppard. The portrayal challenged public fears that women would lose their femininity if they gained political power. Between 1914 and 1927, Allender would draw more than 150 political cartoons, many featuring the Allender Girl, for the National Woman’s Party’s publications.

The Suffragist, 1914 by Nina Allender
Photograph by Illustration by Nina Allender via Alamy

But though the Allender Girl reflected the energy and enthusiasm of the movement, it also perpetuated a myth that all suffragists were white and economically privileged, erasing the contributions of women of colour and gains across class and age boundaries.

“For too long, the history of how women won the right to vote [has been] top-heavy and dominated by a few iconic leaders, all white and native-born,” explains historian Susan Ware in a 2019 Washington Post opinion piece. “Thousands of unheralded women representing a vibrant mix of regions, races and generations came together in one of the most significant moments of political mobilisation in all of American history.”

White women eventually gained suffrage in 1920, but it would be another half-century before all women’s voting rights were protected nationwide with the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. (Although women won the vote, the fight for equality isn’t over.)

While the use of cats, colours, and iconic fashion helped stir up energy for the suffrage movement, it took wide-scale societal change to make women’s suffrage a reality—as well as the legal savvy, civil disobedience, and tireless organisation of its advocates.

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