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

(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.


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.

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