Symbols of the Women's Suffrage Movement

Many symbols were used during the campaign for women's suffrage. Here you will find some of the meanings behind colors, animals, flowers, and other symbols that suffragists and anti-suffragists used.
Massachusetts Suffrage Bluebird. National Museum of American History
Massachusetts suffrage bluebird. Courtesy the National Museum of American History (https://americanhistory.si.edu/collections/search/object/nmah_508085)

Animals: Bluebird

The Massachusetts Woman Suffrage Association chose the bluebird as their symbol leading up to a 1915 state referendum on women’s access to the vote. On Suffrage Blue Bird Day (July 19, 1915) as many as 100,000 of these tin bluebird signs were displayed across the state. The 1915 Massachusetts referendum failed, and women did not get the vote in Massachusetts until the passage of the 19th Amendment to the US Constitution.[1]

Animals: Cats and Dogs

In the popular mainstream culture of the suffrage era, women were associated with animals perceived as passive, like cats. Middle class, white women were expected to stay in the home. Men, on the other hand, were expected to be outdoors. They often played sports or did other forms of physical exercise. Men were often associated with physically active animals like dogs. Anti-suffrage artists used these animals symbolically in their cartoons.

Anti-suffrage organizations in Britain used cats to try to make the point that women were simple and delicate. The cartoons implied that women’s suffrage was just as absurd as cat suffrage because women (and cats) were incapable of voting.

Clipping from The Sunday Oregonian newspaper from July 9, 1916 depicting suffragists Alice Burke and Nell Richardson with Saxon the cat.
Clipping from The Sunday Oregonian newspaper from July 9, 1916 depicting suffragists Alice Burke and Nell Richardson with Saxon the cat.
Cats were also used symbolically in some American anti-suffrage ads. A number of American cartoons showed men at home with a cat, taking care of the children. The cat symbolized a loss of the man’s masculinity. Some people believed that if women participated in politics, men would be left at home to raise the children.

In England, suffragists reclaimed the cat. Postcards, posters, and cartoons showed cats in purple, green, and gold demanding access to the ballot. In the United States, there was also some reclaiming of the cat as a symbol of suffrage. In April of 1916, Nell Richardson and Alice Burke started a cross-country road trip. Setting out from New York City, these two women stopped in cities and towns across America, speaking on street corners, in people’s homes, and other meeting places to talk about the importance of women’s suffrage. Along the way, the women were given a little black cat. Named Saxon after the brand of car that they were driving, the cat became their unofficial mascot. Saxon’s trials and tribulations were part of the stories the women published in newspapers across the country about their travels.[2]
Purple white and gold flag of the NWP. National Museum of American History
Purple, white, and gold flag of the Congressional Union, which later became the National Woman's Party. Courtesy the National Museum of American History (https://americanhistory.si.edu/collections/search/object/nmah_1065893)

Colors: Purple, White, and Gold

While gold was the only color used by all US suffrage organizations (though white also became widely adopted once parades started), the purple, white, and gold combination was used only by the National Woman’s Party in the United States. The organization described the meaning of these colors in a newsletter published December 6, 1913: “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.”[3, 4]

Colors: Purple, White, and Green

These were the colors used by the Women’s Social and Political Union in England. They adopted these colors in 1908. Purple represented royalty and “the royal blood that flows in the veins of every suffragette, the instinct of freedom and dignity;” white represented purity; and green represented hope and “the emblem of spring.”[a] Alice Paul protested in England with the Women’s Social and Political Union in England, and brought the tactics of their leader, Emmeline Pankhurst, back to the United States. [4]

1915 suffrage parade in New York City. Coll LOC
Women in white march in a 1915 suffrage parade in New York City. Courtesy Library of Congress (https://www.loc.gov/item/2014700130/)

Colors: White

Suffragists were often portrayed as masculine and ugly. To help counter that anti-suffrage media image, suffragists wore dresses in parades. These were often all white, with suffrage sashes. These white dresses symbolized the femininity and purity of the suffrage cause. [4]

Colors: Gold

In 1867, Kansas suffragists adopted the sunflower, the state flower, as a symbol of their campaign. From then on, yellow (gold) became associated with the national women’s suffrage movement.[5, 6] It was described as “the color of light and life, is as the torch that guides our purpose, pure and unswerving.”[3] Gold and white were the only colors that all US suffrage organizations used. [4]

Flowers: Roses (Yellow and Red)

In 1920, suffragists and anti-suffragists met in Nashville, Tennessee to lobby the state legislature for and against ratifying the Nineteenth Amendment. Arguments on both sides were intense – Tennessee was poised to either be the needed 36th state to ratify the amendment for it to become law or to reject ratification and ensure the fight continued. Both sides wore rose-shaped pins to indicate which side of the battle they were on: suffragists work yellow roses, and anti-suffragists wore red roses.[7]

Close up photo of an annual sunflower with bright yellow petals and golden brown center.
Sunflower. NPS photo

Flowers: Sunflower

In 1867, Kansas suffragists adopted the sunflower, the state flower, as the symbol of their campaign. Prior to this, Elizabeth Cady Stanton had written for The Lily, a largely temperance-focused newspaper out of Seneca Falls, under the pen name, “Sunflower.” Many advocates of temperance, like Elizabeth Cady Stanton, saw a direct connection between women’s access to the vote and the support and creation of temperance laws.

jailed for freedom pin
"Jailed for Freedom" pin. Courtesy National Museum of American History.

Jail Cell Door

In 1917, Silent Sentinels, organized by the National Woman’s Party, stood in silent vigil outside of the White House as a strategy to raise awareness for woman suffrage. Once the United States entered World War I, the public’s tolerance for protest diminished. More than 90 of the Silent Sentinels were arrested on charges of obstructing traffic and were sent to prison both in DC and at Occoquan in Virginia. While imprisoned, they were beaten, force fed, and other indignities. The publicity of their mistreatment was instrumental in changing the opinions of the public and of Congress regarding woman suffrage.

Silver pins shaped like a jail cell door with a heart-shaped padlock were given by the National Woman’s Party to each of the women “jailed for freedom.”[5, 6] The National Woman’s Party “Jailed for Freedom” pin was based on the Holloway Prison pin that English suffragette Sylvia Pankhurst gave to members of the Women’s Social and Political Union who had been imprisoned.

NWP activists watching Alice Paul Sew Star on Flag
Alice Paul sews a star onto the National Woman's Party ratification flag, representing another state's ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment. Courtesy Library of Congress (https://www.loc.gov/item/mnwp000263/)

Stars

On the flag of the United States, each state in the union is represented by a star. In 1919, the National Woman’s Party led by Alice Paul began sewing stars on a giant purple, white, and gold flag. Each time a state ratified the Nineteenth Amendment, a new star would be sewn on the flag. There was room on the National Woman’s Party flag for 36 stars, symbolizing the number of state ratifications required for the amendment to become law.

Sources

[1] National Museum of American History. "Woman Suffrage Bluebird Sign." National Museum of American History: Collections

[2] National Park Service. “Women’s Suffrage and the Cat.” National Park Service.

[3] From The Suffragist, December 6, 1913.

[4] H-Net. “Suffragist Colors Discussion (March 1997).” H-Women.

[5] National Museum of American History. “Treasures of American History: Woman Suffrage.” National Museum of American History

[6] Blake, Debbie. “The Colours of the Suffragettes.” Women’s History Bites, November 25, 2014.

[7] Bomboy, Scott. “The Vote that Led to the 19th Amendment.” Constitution Daily (National Constitution Center), August 18, 2019.

Last updated: April 6, 2020