Updated June 17, 2019
Throughout history, color has been a way to provide instant visual recognition and the women’s suffrage movement was no different. The colors associated with women’s suffrage represented the many sides of the cause. The British women’s suffrage colors were purple, white, and green. Purple, white, and gold were the colors of the American suffrage movement. So, why these colors and why the difference from one side of the pond to the other?
Women’s suffrage distinguishes itself through color
When the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) in England was looking for a color scheme to distinguish their political movement, they chose purple, white, and green. Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence, editor of Votes for Women, a weekly newspaper, explained “Purple, as everyone knows is the royal colour, it stands for the royal blood that flows in the veins of every suffragette, the instinct of freedom and dignity… white stands for purity in private and public life… green is the colour of hope and the emblem of spring.” (The Colours of the Suffragettes)
To deflect the impression of masculinity that was projected upon the women’s suffrage movement, women were encouraged to wear dresses in delicate fabrics and colors, with white often the color of choice. Sashes of purple and green were worn over the white dress.
Dresses and sashes were not the only way the colors of the women’s suffrage movement were incorporated into everyday life in England. Tri-color shoes and even tri-color underwear was sold. The Elswick bicycle for ladies (Elswick Cycle Company, Newcastle) was enameled in the WSPU colors. Brooches and badges supporting the movement were commissioned and sold. The Holloway Prison brooch was designed by Sylvia Pankhurst and awarded to WSPU members who were imprisoned. The broad arrow (symbol of conflict) contained the colors of the movement.
In the United States, gold replaced green as a color representative of the women’s suffrage movement. The use of gold goes back to 1867 when Kansas was considering passage of a state suffrage referendum. Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony adopted the Kansas state flower, the sunflower, as a symbol of the suffrage cause. Soon, gold pins, ribbons, and sashes, as well as yellow roses became symbols of the cause.
The Suffragist, Vol. 1 No. 4, published on December 6, 1913, describes the symbolism of the colors. “Purple is the color of loyalty, constancy to purpose, unswerving steadfastness to a cause. White, the emblem of purity, symbolizes the quality of our purpose; and gold, the color of light and life, is as the torch that guides our purpose, pure and unswerving.” Simplified, the tri-colors signified loyalty, purity, and life. (La Croix)
Jill Zahniser is an Alice Paul biographer and women’s suffrage historian. She contacted us about this blog on June 12, 2019, to offer the following to clarify the colors. We thank her for helping us present the best information possible for you!
“The largest group, NAWSA (National American Woman Suffrage Association), had no official colors, but gold was the most commonly used and later, once parades were utilized, white. The tricolor was used exclusively in this country by the Congressional Union/National Woman’s Party.
“White and gold are the only two colors which were historically employed by the whole of the suffrage movement, militant and mainstream.” (Zahniser)
Just like their British counterparts, American women were imprisoned during the fight for the right to vote. A “Jailed for Freedom” pin was presented to members of the National Woman’s Party who served prison sentences for picketing the White House in the cause of women’s suffrage. The pin was based on the Holloway Brooch.
Many brave women stepped up and put their lives and reputations on the line so that all women would be afforded the right to vote during the suffrage movement. One who is remembered for giving her life for the cause was Inez Milholland, is perhaps best known for protesting on March 3, 1913, as Joan of Arc, wearing all white, and riding a white horse. She neglected her own health and died at the age of 30 after falling ill during a speech. Find out more about her in
Banner image compiled from the National Women’s History Museum Online Exhibit