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Symbolism in the Women’s Suffrage Movement

From the very beginnings of the Women’s suffrage movement, the organizers realized that they needed to use symbolism to help get their message across and make it memorable. This month we celebrate the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th amendment, giving women the right to vote, as it was ratified on August 18, 1920 and certified on August 26 of that year (find out about more women’s suffrage posts from the Library of Congress social media channels this month at this link). So this blog will look at the intentional symbols that were adopted by the suffragists, as well as both desirable and undesirable symbolism that arose as the movement progressed.

The movement took a long time to reach its goals. Many members of my family, men and women, either supported suffrage or actively worked for it. One of my great grandmothers was a student when she wrote to Susan B. Anthony asking what she could do for the cause. She rallied others to the cause, marched, and attended conventions, but never had the opportunity to vote. I remember her and all those who fought for my rights each time I vote.

A portrait of a woman wearing a lace cap with a decorative border and the date 1897.

An image of Lucretia Mott with the date 1897 showing how images of founders of the suffrage movement came to be used as icons. Scrapbooks of Elizabeth Smith Miller and Anne Fitzhugh Miller, page 32. This detail is from a page that seems out of sequence by date, but may relate to the 1897 convention of the National American Woman Suffrage Association. National American Woman Suffrage Association Collection.

The formal beginning of the Women Suffrage Movement was at the Seneca Falls Convention in New York, 172 years ago in the summer of 1848. Тhe location of the convention in New York was symbolic in itself as the state had been the first to give women the right to inherit and to give married women the right to own property — the beginning of laws to treat women as citizens instead of as the property of their husbands. The “Declaration of Sentiments” read by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and signed by attendees at the convention, echoed the Declaration of Independence, saying “We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men and women are created equal.”

Use of national symbols, as the Declaration of Independence had become, to convey women’s desire to join in the rights and freedoms that men enjoyed were evident in the early events of the movement. The women who headed the movement became iconic figureheads as the early conventions focused on them as speakers and organizers. Lucretia Mott, Susan B. Anthony, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, for example, became well known and so their names and likenesses were used to draw people to the events and to celebrate the movement. This use of the faces of the founders was to continue throughout the fight for the vote.

A woman wearing a hat with a cape and dress over trousers.

Engraving of Elizabeth Cady Stanton wearing the clothing she introduced to Amelia Bloomer. 1851. Elizabeth Cady Stanton Papers.

There were also unintended symbols of the movement as often happens when people experiment with ways of communicating the need for social change. The movement was often trivialized, or worse, the morality of women who left their proper duties as wives, mothers, and housekeepers to fight for the vote was questioned. An example of how this played badly for suffragists was the issue of what to wear. Fashions of the time were restrictive and contributed to women being seen as incapable. Voluminous skirts were both pointed to as evidence that women were incompetent and in fact limited what they were able to do. Progressive women were trying to stop the wearing of corsets and particularly the practice putting them onto girls as young as five. Corsets had reached the extreme of damaging the health of women and girls.

Elizabeth Cady Stanton was interested in dress reform and learned of a new fashion worn by activist Elizabeth Smith Miller: a skirt or dress over loose trousers. She tried the outfit and introduced it to another activist and editor of the progressive magazine, The Lily, Amelia Bloomer in 1851. Bloomer promoted this new form of dress, particularly a version with very full trousers drawn in at the ankle. What was then called the “Bloomer outfit” was extremely controversial and was ridiculed by those who opposed social change. There was a popular response as well, with music written for dances focusing on the fashion, such as Bloomer Waltz, by William Dessier (music at the link).

Stanton, Bloomer, and Anthony all agreed that they should disassociate the suffrage movement from the Bloomer outfit controversy. Instead women suffragists tended to wear modest practical clothing. The more severe form of dress we associate with the early suffrage movement was influenced by Quakers in the movement and calculated to throw off the accusations of women only having heads for fashion, while also creating an egalitarian style of dress that allowed for women of poor means to stand alongside wealthier women in the movement without feeling out of place. Subsequent generations of suffragists did not all continue to dress as plainly.

A group of women gather around a woman sewing a star on a striped banner.

Sewing Stars on the Suffrage Banner. This appears to be one of a group of photos taken in 1920 showing Alice Paul and a group of suffragists sewing the 36th star on the suffrage flag to celebrate the ratification of the 19th Amendment. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

Stars and Stripes

The symbols of the United States were important to women’s suffrage efforts from early on. The women sought full citizenship, so these emblems were a natural for getting their point across. Red, white, and blue were used in banners and sashes, and flags were used in literature and events. Stars often appear on all sorts of items related to the movement. Stars represent the states on the flag and also in the suffrage movement. These were often used decoratively or, as the movement progressed might represent states that had given women the vote. In 1919, when Congress sent the amendment granting women the vote to states for ratification, the number of stars had taken on a particular meaning. The stars were used to keep track of the number of states that had ratified what came to be the 19th Amendment. Banners with stars displayed the count until the goal of 36 stars was finally reached.

Colors

The early Women’s Suffrage Movement in the United States used a variety of colors in sashes, banners, and signs. Red, white, and blue could always be used, but there was a desire for colors for the movement. Different organizations, different associations of professional women, and different parts of the country each had their own colors. The National American Woman Suffrage Association never had official colors, allowing the individual groups to use colors of their choosing. But as the movement organized and more national events were held, common colors for marchers were adopted from the Women’s Social and Political Union in England: purple, white and green. In England purple symbolized royalty, loyalty to the cause, and women’s quest for freedom; white meant purity; and green symbolized hope. In the United States these meant the same, but without the reference to royalty.

The colors used in the national movement changed in 1867 as Kansas women, who had adopted the state flower, the sunflower, as their emblem, fought and lost a major battle to win the vote. The gold of the sunflower was appealing as being like a beacon of hope and so the most common colors used in banners and sashes of the national events became purple, white, and gold. This postcard from the National Woman Suffrage Association, ca. 1910 from the collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of American History shows the use of gold in a sash and flag in the drawing of a woman participating in a march. As several national organizations formed, both these sets of colors continued for a time with specific uses. This button for the Women’s Political Union from between 1903 and 1917 in the collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of American History shows the use of purple, white, and green. The Congressional Union for Women’s Suffrage, formed in 1913, adopted purple, white, and gold.

Much later in the movement when large marches were organized it was found that white was particularly useful. As seen in this photo of a march in Washington DC in 1914, women marching together wearing white became common as it grabbed people’s attention, and the well-known meaning of purity for white was used to counter the anti-suffrage accusation that women who sought the vote must be morally corrupt. This also helped with the problem of unifying the many colors and emblems used by organizations in the movement. White dresses could be worn with sashes and membership pins using the colors of various organizations. Women still marched wearing other colors and their ordinary clothes, but the use of white was memorable and is still seen as a color of the suffrage effort, although it was actually only used in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Bicycles and Bloomers

Amelia Bloomer’s bloomers did not catch on well in the 1850s, either as a women’s suffrage garment or as a fashion. But the problem of garments that got in the way of working, sports, and even ordinary activities of life continued to be a problem. This changed with the introduction of the safety bicycle, a bicycle with two wheels of the same size that was easy for women to ride. Women could ride it with skirts, though its introduction did help raise hemlines. But garments for riding the bicycle: split skirts and full trousers gathered in below the knee started appearing in the 1880s and became the rage by the 1890s. The trousers were often called bloomers, although they had little resemblance to Amelia Bloomer’s costume of the 1850s. The bicycle and the bloomers took on the meaning women of the future, looking forward to a new century. In an interview with Nelly Bly in the New York paper The World, February 2, 1896, Susan B. Anthony said, “I’ll tell you what I think of bicycling. I think it has done more to emancipate woman than any one thing in the world. I rejoice every time I see a woman ride by on a wheel. It gives her a feeling of self-reliance and independence the moment she takes her seat; and away she goes, the picture of untrammelled womanhood.” However, she didn’t approve of the fashions that had developed as a result, saying that women would need to develop their own fashions that gave them freedom but did not subject them to ridicule.

There were, of course, grave concerns about women mounting bicycles an freely going off on their own, showing shape of their legs as they did so. “Eliza Jane” is a humorous and slightly risqué song from this era, published as a song sheet in about 1895. It describes the shocking behavior of a young lady riding a bicycle and expresses concerns about what might become of her marriage prospects and her moral character (Library of Congress Rare Book and Special Collections Division). As the song shows, Anthony was right that women needed to design their own clothes and they did. But all movements of social reform are plagued with expressions of ridicule and contempt designed to pressure people back into accepting their former condition.

Women cycled on undaunted. M. Florence wrote a musical tribute to “The Cycling Women of America” titled “Bloomer 2 Step March,” with a cyclist on the cover of the sheet music that provides a more positive image of the new woman on her bicycle (1895). When it came to greater freedom of dress and movement, the coming of the safety bicycle helped to bring an era of change that was unstoppable.

A womean dressed as Justice holding a scale and wearing a cap marked "liberty" stands before a sunrise with yellow daffodils on either side of her.

Sheet music cover for the suffrage song “The Dawning,” Watson, Minnie Graves, composer, lyricist, 1917. This cover shows the use of gold jonquils (or daffodils) as a symbol of the women’s movement, used for their gold color that was a symbol of hope for the future. The full sheet music is at the link.

Flora and Fauna

Iconic emblems were adopted by state associations, such as the bluebird used by the Massachusetts Women Suffrage Association and sunflower used during the effort to gain ratification of the amendment for women suffrage in Kansas. Maine suffragists chose their own golden flower, the jonquil (daffodil) and this year a great many yellow daffodils were grown in Maine to celebrate the centennial. The golden daffodil turned out to be a useful flower as smaller varieties could be worn in the lapel and bouquets might be used in events — available any time of year as florists could easily force them. So towards the end of the battle for the vote in the early 20th century this became the flower of choice. This was partly driven by the use of the red rose as the emblem of the  Women’s Anti-Suffrage Association,  as seen in this example of sheet music from that society “The Anti-Suffrage Rose.” The song uses an illustration of roses on the cover, and the lyrics pit the rose against the jonquil. Anti-suffragists wore the red rose to events where state ratification was debated. Suffragists found they needed a wearable contrasting symbol and Maine suffragists’ choice of the jonquil provided a solution.

One surprising latecomer to the emblems of the women’s movement was the cat. The cat was used as a symbol of the domestic woman by anti-suffragists to say that women ought to be sitting by the hearth and taking care of the home, rather than going out and demonstrating to get the vote.

In 1916, Nell Richardson and Alice Burke set off on a road trip sponsored by the National American Woman Suffrage Association to promote votes for women in a car they called the “golden flyer”  (although like all cars of the time, it was black). Women driving around the country in a car at a time when few did was excellent publicity. They started off from New York in April in a ceremony with a car filled with daffodils by well-wishers.  They gave speeches in an effort to influence the 1916 presidential election platforms in favor of obtaining the vote. Early in their travels they were given a black kitten. They named him Saxon and declared him their mascot. Because newspapers at the time picked up the story, the news of the journey of the suffragists and their cat spread around the country. Taking a negative symbol and turning it into a positive one is a classic one used by many movements to counter those opposed to a movement. This research guide provides information on articles on the journey of Richardson and Burke as found in Chronicling America.

A woman on an elaborately outfitted horse blows a trumpet. The United States Capitol can be seen in the background.

Cover for the program booklet for the 1913 Woman Suffrage Procession in Washington DC. Part of the Printed Ephemera: Three Centuries of Broadsides and Other Printed Ephemera online presentation. The full program can be found at the link,

Mythological Figures

Movements often adopt mythic figures that symbolize the ideals 0f their movement and the women’s suffrage movement had several. The herald, seen on the program cover for a large march in Washington, DC, in March 1913 above, took several forms. She usually wore a cape and blew a trumpet heralding a new age of freedom for women. The logo for the Women’s Political Union on the button mentioned above shows her dressed for battle with a sword and a large version of the image is found on the cover of the sheet music for “Votes for Women” by J. Marion. I think it is likely Rose Sanderman, seen holding a trumpet in a February 1913 event in the photograph (below right), is emulating the herald.

Two women, one holding a trumpet pose for the camera as other women holding flags stand behind them.

Suffragists Rose Sanderman (holding horn) and Elizabeth Freeman (right), February 10, 1913. No location is given. George Grantham Bain Collection, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

Other figures used by the suffragists in tableaus (a popular entertainment of the late 19th and early 20th centuries), plays, demonstrations, and marches were drawn from figures representing America and its ideals. Columbia depicted in many different ways, is a goddess figure representing the Americas. Liberty, and Justice (the goddess Themis from Greek mythology) represented ideals of the United States. The irony that these figures used by the United States to represent the country and its ideals are all women, and yet women could not fully enjoy the freedoms these figures invoked was not lost on suffragists. In the later part of the movement these figures were helpful to gain the attention of onlookers in large marches. They also showed up on paraphernalia and sometimes on sheet music, as Justice is shown on the cover of “The Dawning” above.

The 1913 parade and pageant in Washington, DC made full use of the symbols of the country and their movement, as well as the Greek revival architecture of federal buildings. German actress Hedwig Reicher was called upon to portray Columbia, seen below in a photo in front of the Treasury Building with women in white costumes resembling togas behind her. Liberty, according to the newspapers of the time, was played by dancer Florence Noyes. The Library of Congress has a photograph of Liberty with some of her attendants, though it does not have the name of the person portraying her.

The 1913 parade was a triumph for the suffragists, providing a lasting impression and achieving national news attention that they needed to help further their fight as they sought to gain the needed Congressional support to to pass the amendment and send it to states for ratification.

A woman wearing a helmet, armor, and a cape stands in front of a building with columns with other women and girls in white costumes behind her.

German actress Hedwig Reicher wearing costume of “Columbia” with other suffrage pageant participants standing in background in front of the Treasury Building, March 3, 1913, Washington, D.C.

Jailed for Freedom

A pin in the form of a jail cell door.

Woman suffrage jail pin. 1917. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

When Woodrow Wilson became president in 1913, many suffragists hoped that he would support their cause. They were disappointed as that support did not come. In January 1917 the National Women’s Party led by Alice Paul organized demonstrations near the White House, calling on Wilson to support them. These came to be called “silent sentinels” as they stood holding flags and banners, as shown in this photo of women in front of the White House in 1917. As the United States entered World War I, this activity was not tolerated. Women protesters were arrested, often on charges of obstructing traffic, and jailed. By October of 1917, some had been sentenced to six months in jail. Alice Paul was sentenced to seven months. Some imprisoned women went on hunger strikes. This did not stop the protests, as shown in this photo of a woman holding a sign in 1917 saying, “To ask freedom for women is not a crime. Suffrage prisoners should not be treated as criminals.”  Concern for the women grew, both within the movement and more generally. Women prisoners were abused and hunger strikers were force fed. On November 14, 1917, the superintendent of  Occoquan Workhouse ordered guards to brutalize the suffragists, an event remembered as “The Night of Terror.” Wilson was alarmed by the turn events were taking, especially the hunger strikes. On January 9, 1918 he formally endorsed the amendment for equal suffrage for women.

This period was the dark before the dawn. The women who had been jailed were treated as heroes of the cause. A symbol of this was the door of the jail cells. A silver pin was made of a cell door and presented to those who had gone to jail.

Enduring symbols

Two women reading a letter.

Elizabeth Cady Stanton, left, and Susan B. Anthony. Between 1880 and 1902. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

Today we know that the 19th Amendment became law on August 26, 1920. But the generations of women who fought for the right to vote had no idea how long their struggle would last. Hope came as state by state adopted laws permitting women to vote. The various ways of marking the important moments and the movement and finding ways for each generation of women to be inspired to take up the fight required innovation and the introduction of new symbols and iconic images as the needs of the effort changed.

Perhaps we women should remember the suffragists whenever we wear trousers, ride a bicycle, sign a petition, or participate in a demonstration because these and many other things are now ours to choose as a result of their journey. But the symbols most widely known today are those associated with the movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The fight for women’s votes has been commemorated or evoked by wearing white. Some remember the banners of purple, white, and gold. And we still return to the use of the images of early suffragists, particularly Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, as emblems of the movement who brought us the vote, just as these women were used as standard bearers in the early part of the movement. But of course, they would tell us that the best way that we can honor them is to cast our votes.

Resources

Campbell, Amanda, “Bicycles, Bloomers, and the Vote,”  Teaching with the Library of Congress, November 5, 2019

Elizabeth Cady Stanton Papers, Library of Congress

Marching for the Vote: Remembering the Woman Suffrage Parade of 1913, Library of Congress Research Guide

National Woman Suffrage Association Collection, Library of Congress

Scrapbooks of Elizabeth Smith Miller and Anne Fitzhugh Miller, Library of Congress

Susan B. Anthony Papers, Library of Congress

Women’s Suffrage in Sheet Music, Library of Congress

Zonker, Beth, “Counting Down with #19Suffrage Stories: 100th Anniversary of the 19th Amendment,” Library of Congress Blog, August 2, 2020.

One Comment

  1. lentigogirl
    August 24, 2020 at 10:42 am

    Terrific, inspiring post. I envy you knowing your family’s history on suffrage. Our family genealogist has been stumped trying to figure out which of our foremothers may have been the first to vote.

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