Red, white or pink? Women's rights don't come color-coded

Story highlights

  • Louise Bernikow: These lovely images that purport to embody the suffrage movement are sanitized pictures of a particular time and particular people
  • When meanings are ascribed to these colors, as they are, we run into peculiar and often misleading interpretations of history, she writes

Louise Bernikow is the author of nine books. She is currently writing one about the suffrage fight in New York City. Unless otherwise noted, facts here reflect research for that work. She is also consulting for organizations celebrating the 2017 centennial of women's voting rights in New York state and blogs for the Huffington Post. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN)The color was red for International Women's Day, although red used to signify concern for women's heart health and before that, well -- The Reds! Pussy hats were pink at the big women's marches in January, but pink signifies breast cancer awareness, or did. Does it still?

While I support every person out there protesting and admit to a knee-jerk aversion to describing women in terms of what they are wearing, turning political activism into a color war does have its limits. I understand that visual symbols of solidarity are important, but when meanings are ascribed to these colors, as they are, we run into peculiar and often misleading interpretations of history.
Louise Bernikow
From the time Hillary Clinton appeared in a white pants suit for a presidential debate and then for her acceptance speech at the Democratic convention, observers went haywire. Every major news outlet, presumably relying on snippets found on Google, proclaimed that white was the color of the suffrage movement and that Clinton's wardrobe was "a nod" to that long ago fight for the vote.
A few commentators discovered that earlier women's movements were as conscious as we are of colors as symbols. They found Emmeline Pankhurst and the British militant Women's Social and Political Union decorating their signage in white, purple and green and the Pankhurst-influenced American Alice Paul choosing purple, white and gold to signify her National Woman's Party, devoted to civil disobedience, who picketed Woodrow Wilson's White House and were thrown in jail for it.
They also found -- and reproduced -- stunning newspaper photographs of massive numbers of women parading in neat lines in places like New York's Fifth Avenue, all in white dresses. Obviously taken with the trope, Rep. Nancy Pelosi urged Democratic women to attend President Trump's address to Congress earlier this month wearing white. Another nod to the suffrage movement.
White is hardly a neutral choice. While Pankhurst and Paul chose it as a symbol of the "purity" of their aims at the beginning of the 20th century, it could not then and cannot now be dissociated from its racial connotations. For centuries, white bridal attire "meant" sexual purity. At the same time that agitation for women's voting rights was gaining adherents, the alleged sexual purity of white women lay at the root of most lynchings.
Rows of lovely white women in white dresses ought to horrify today's activists and probably does. Surely the "look" of Second Wave feminist demonstrations was entirely the opposite: noisy, motley attired, diverse. Even more so, as the world saw in January, people in the streets insisting on women's rights are as varied in look, attire, signage, chants and attitude as anyone can imagine.
The Silent Sentinels protested in front of the White House six days a week from January 10, 1917 until June 4, 1919. They were the first organization to picket at the White House. They were often arrested for obstructing traffic and sent to jail, where they dealt with harsh living conditions, rancid food, and denial of  medical care and visitors.
But the long ago images are also misleading. They purport to represent "the suffrage movement," which was not a monolith, but a decades- long sprawl, a tangle of people and ideas, often in conflict with each other, leading, by 1920, to passage of the amendment giving women the right to vote. The 19th-century pioneer generation -- Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony and their allies -- gave not a hoot for the color of their clothes nor for marching around in public. Public spectacle came in with the next generation, who "took it to the streets," with street corner soapbox speakers and parades, which appalled more conservative members of the movement.
Early marches were fueled by white working class women fighting the exploitations of industrial capitalism. Believing that winning the vote would help that fight, they carried signs demanding equal pay for equal work and an end to sweatshops. By 1912, socialists carrying red or purple placards marched, singing "La Marseillaise," along with suffragists who were not always so pleased to have them there. No African American women were present, partly because they were not wanted in public demonstrations and partly because their activism had taken a different, less visible turn.
As the movement grew larger and more popular, public support for granting voting rights to educated white women became strong. But the majority of the American public and opponents of woman suffrage did not believe "other" women -- immigrants and workers, Chinese women in California, Jewish radicals in New York and African-American women everywhere -- deserved the vote. Leaders of mainstream suffrage organizations kept these "others" out of sight for, they would say, "tactical" reasons.
The result is those suffrage tableaus that keep popping up in the media today. Everyone dresses alike, to display solidarity. Absolute order and discipline in the line of march are paramount. Class ideas are enshrined -- women on horseback actually own those horses. All is respectable, non-threatening and, to some, beautiful. As the country drifted toward entering World War I by 1916, suffrage leaders offered themselves to that effort, and the whiteness took on the extra added patina of patriotism.
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These lovely images that purport to embody the suffrage movement, then, are sanitized pictures of a particular time and particular people. Although we could not have gotten to today without that movement, I say that if we're nodding to anything, we should nod at the mirror, because out there agitating for women's rights right now is something that looks like America.