“What are the suffrage colors?” I have been asked this question many times as the curatorial team’s unofficial suffrage historian at the Center for Women’s History. From exhibition design to what flowers to use at a suffrage-related event, people want a visual shorthand to represent the suffrage movement. However, because there were many suffrage organizations, and no one “movement,” there is no one color, logo, or other “brand identity.” The more important question might be, why is it so hard to answer the question in the first place?
By 1900, urbanization, immigration, Jim Crow laws, and women in the industrial labor force made suffrage ever more urgent. Although several Western states gave women the vote starting in 1869, other states resisted, and the 1878 “Susan B. Anthony Amendment” proposing women’s suffrage gathered dust in Congress. New activism in the early 20th century reinvigorated the cause. While groups and individuals agreed on the end goal, they often disagreed philosophically. For example, the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) pursued gradual, state-by-state change (until shifting course in 1916!), while the National Woman’s Party (NWP) sought a swifter constitutional amendment. NWP members went to prison for picketing the White House, dismaying moderates. Black communities linked the vote to fighting racism, and while some white-led groups welcomed Black members, others sought the vote to entrench white power. Workers demanded the vote to gain shorter days, higher wages, and safer workplaces. In other words, there was never one suffrage movement in the United States. With all of these perspectives, there is no one group, and no one brand, to now claim as the suffrage image.
A few color schemes dominate artifacts and documents. One is purple, green, and white, which were the colors used by a radical British suffrage group, the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), founded and led by Emmeline Pankhurst. The WSPU gained notoriety for civil disobedience and dramatic actions such as damaging property and hunger strikes. Harriot Stanton Blatch, the daughter of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, spent years in London and was deeply influenced by Pankhurst. When Blatch founded the Women’s Political Union in New York in 1910, she adopted the same color scheme. The WPU sold its merchandise in Suffrage Shops in New York City, including a horse-drawn van that Blatch had converted into a sort of pop-up shop. The color scheme was a clear connection with British radicalism, though the WPU was not as militant. Purple was also associated with the National American Woman Suffrage Association. For example, a postcard with a purple border, part of a series of 30, was produced in 1910 and was “endorsed and approved by the National American Woman Suffrage Association.”
And then there’s yellow, which reportedly harkened back to the Kansas suffrage campaign where the yellow represented sunflowers. In New York, the Woman Suffrage Party, organized by Carrie Chapman Catt in 1909 out of many small suffrage societies, distributed yellow pennants and sashes to be worn in parades and at rallies. Other organizations took on the yellow as well, as seen in a Spanish-language broadside produced by a California organization in their 1911 campaign.
There’s also blue, by itself or combined with yellow. In 1913, Catt helped form the Empire State Campaign aimed at a New York State suffrage amendment, using a logo of a sunrise and blue lettering. Both the Woman Suffrage Party and the Empire State Campaign pressured the York State legislature to hold a referendum on votes for women in 1915. That referendum failed. Shortly before the second referendum in November 1917, 12,000 women participated in an enormous parade down Fifth Avenue, organized by the New York Woman Suffrage Party. The related buttons were yellow, and the posters were blue and yellow.
The issue of color representing different approaches to suffrage became contentious after the 1915 New York referendum failed. Catt asked the WPU and NAWSA to stop using the purple and green color scheme, because she believed the association with British radicals was damaging the American suffrage efforts. When she took over NAWSA the same year, she brought the deep yellow to their merchandise. However, no doubt to Catt’s horror, the nascent National Women’s Party—organized by Alice Paul and Lucy Burns—adopted a color scheme of purple, white, and gold. One writer attributes the colors as representing loyalty, purity and hope. But the purple also evoked the British radicals, and Paul gained notoriety for picketing the White House during World War I and accusing Wilson of hypocrisy as he fought for democracy abroad but not at home. Photos of the NWP pickets are of course in black and white, but their large banners are clearly tricolor.
The class and race associations of various groups further complicate the “suffrage color” question. Alva Belmont, who after divorcing William Vanderbilt poured money into suffrage organizations, had plates reading “Votes for Women” in dark blue script made for two conferences at her Newport, RI, mansion and the “suffrage lunchroom” at her Political Equity Association headquarters in Manhattan. Meanwhile, a number of suffrage groups don’t seem to have used a particular color. A broadside from the Wage Earner’s Suffrage League in the Sophia Smith Collection is an indeterminate orangish sepia; this could be the original color, or more likely it has faded due to age and cheap, acidic paper. Neither is there evidence that the Equal Suffrage League, which represented the National Association of Colored Women’s suffrage initiative, ascribed to a particular color. The NACW itself used purple, but had no connections to the radical British group, nor was it allied with the NWP, which tried to ban Black women from the 1913 parade in Washington, D.C. in order to placate Southern suffragists. These groups may not have had the financial power to generate branded swag, or in a too-frequent collecting scenario, branded material they might have produced failed to make it to the archives.
And then…there’s those white dresses. At Donald Trump’s 2020 State of the Union address, Democratic women in the House of Representatives wore white in an homage to the suffragists and the centennial of the 19th Amendment. This drew attention, and an article in the New York Times includes some lovely photos. It is true that many suffragists wore white in parades, in part to represent what they saw as the purity they would bring to politics. Moreover, white cotton dresses made an impression en masse, were consistently in style, relatively inexpensive, and easy to maintain. The participants in the 1917 Silent Parade organized by the NAACP also wore white. But there was no one uniform. The Delta Sigma Thetas of Howard University paraded in the 1913 parade in Washington, D.C., in their caps and gowns, claiming their status as university students as well as Black suffragists.
So, the answer to the suffrage color question is—it’s complicated! That there was no one color is an indication of multiple groups and approaches. To better understand the role of colors in the fight for the vote, it’s necessary to pay attention to this variety. While we don’t get an easy answer about colors, we are better served by a nuanced understanding of the variety of suffrage philosophies.
Read more from our suffrage centennial series:
- Commemorating an Incomplete Victory: The 19th Amendment at 100
- Why Suffrage? A Broader Look At Women’s Collective Action in the 19th Century
- White Supremacy and the Suffrage Movement
- “Girls in Caps and Gowns”: The Deltas March for Suffrage
- Obstacles to Suffrage after 1920
- “Get Ready to Vote:” Black Women after the Voting Rights Act
- Fighting Back: Women of Color and the Ongoing Struggle for Citizenship Beyond the Vote
- Many Fronts, One Struggle: Native American Women’s Activism Since the 19th Amendment
- The Suffrage Centennial: Righting, and Rewriting, Historical Wrongs
Written by Sarah Gordon, Curatorial Scholar in Women’s History, Center for Women’s History