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The history of suffragettes wearing white

Miriam Baker

Posted on November 01 2019

New York Democratice congress representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez said via a tweet, "I wore all-white today to honor the women who paved the path before me, and for all the women yet to come. From suffragettes to Shirley Chisholm, I wouldn't be here if it wasn't for the mothers of the movement." That’s because she wore a white suit when she was sworn in as a member of Congress. By wearing white, Ocasio-Cortez was linking herself to the American and British women who fought for the right for women to participate in the political arena. 


Who got the right to vote? 

Source: Flickr (Julie Jordan Scott)


The colour white has been associated with suffragettes for more than a century. Now when we say suffragettes, we’re speaking about white women, who won the right to vote in the first two decades of the 20th century. British women over 30 got the vote in 1918, Dutch women in 1919, and American women on 26 August, 1920. Indigenous, Asian, South Asian, Latina and Black women were also suffragettes but didn’t get the right to vote until decades later. 


The early 20th century

The Suffragettes during the early 1900s wanted to make an impact and one way to do that was via fashion, a way for everyone to ‘look the part.’ According to CR Fashion book, the early suffragettes wanted to look presentable so they wore the prevailing look of long walking dresses, a corset and a jacket. So instead of wearing clothes that would distract from the message, they wore what was expected but in all white. 


Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence, the honorary treasurer of the Women’s Social and Political Union, chose purple for dignity and green for hope as the other colours to wear as flowers or sashes over the white dresses.  


Not only did this make an impact when they were photographed in black and white but they still looked feminine as expected by society. It was also easy for anyone to join the movement — all they had to do was wear white. 


It was certainly effective. Check out this photo of U.S. labour lawyer Inez Milholland Boissevain wearing a white cape and riding a white horse as she leads a parade of suffragettes down Pennsylvania Avenue in 1913. 


Political groundbreakers

Source: Wikipedia

When Shirley Chisholm became the first African American woman to be elected to Congress, she wore white. When Geraldine Ferraro became the first female vice presidential candidate, she wore a white suit at the 1984 Democratic National Convention, accessorized with a classic string of pearls. Hillary Clinton wore white when she accepted the Democratic nomination for the presidency in 2016 and wore the colour to Donald Trump’s inauguration.  


The 2019 U.S. State of the Union

Source: Flickr

Who can forget the moment when Democratic women strode into Congress during the 2019 State of the Union? It’s not the first time Democratic women wore white as a political statement against Donald Trump who likes to use the term ‘Nasty woman’ against women he doesn’t like or perceives as a threat. 


White continues to make an impact in the political arena. Former UK prime minister Theresa May has been seen in a white blazer but as it was paired with darker trousers, it may not have been a political statement. As we watch the U.S. election cycle continues to ramp up, will we see Kamala Harris and Elizabeth Warren in white? We don’t know for sure but if they do, they’ll be continuing a strong tradition that started more than 100 years ago. 






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