State of the Union: Why did female lawmakers wear white for Trump's address?

Congresswomen, dressed in white in tribute to the women's suffrage movement, pose for a photo as they arrive for the State of the Union address at the US Capitol in Washington, DC on Feb 5, 2019.
Congresswomen, dressed in white in tribute to the women's suffrage movement, pose for a photo as they arrive for the State of the Union address at the US Capitol in Washington, DC on Feb 5, 2019.PHOTO: AFP

WASHINGTON (WASHINGTON POST) - Even in the early 20th century, women seeking the right to vote knew how to get the media's attention.

In demonstrations and parades, the suffragists donned white dresses meant to generate photo coverage in the daily newspapers. The colour choice also echoed England's suffrage movement, which used purple, white and green as its official colours.

The white outfits many female lawmakers wore to the State of the Union address on Tuesday (Feb 5) are a nod to the US suffragists and an attempt to spark the same kind of publicity, said Rebecca Boggs Roberts, the author of Suffragists In Washington, D.C.: The 1913 Parade And The Fight For The Vote.

"It's a colour that's going to stand out in a sea of navy suits, so that looks good on television," Boggs Roberts said. "They're doing exactly the same thing."

The House Democratic Women's Working Group invited all of the female lawmakers to wear white in a show of support for their "hard-earned rights", Democrat Representative Lois Frankel said in a statement. Several female lawmakers wore white to President Trump's first State of the Union address in 2017.

The congresswomen switched to black outfits in 2018 to recognise the #MeToo movement. First Lady Melania Trump, meanwhile, wore a white pantsuit to watch her husband's speech.

A century ago, US suffragists carefully chose the colours of their flag.


Purple represented loyalty and was a nod to England's suffragettes.

White symbolised purity and contrasted with the flag's darker colours. Gold paid homage to the sunflowers in Kansas, where Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton had campaigned for the right to vote.

The suffragists' outfits of purple and gold sashes over white dresses were intended to look appealing in newspaper photographs, Boggs Roberts said.

The white was also intended to look non-threatening so people would have a harder time criticising the women's appearance as aggressive or masculine.

"When the biggest publicity tool was newspapers and images were black and white, (if) you make a good photo, it gets reproduced everywhere," Boggs Roberts said. "And there is nothing they did that they did not consider the visual element to."

Women could buy "suffrage costumes" at some department stores or add a purple or gold accessory to any white dress or blouse, Einav Rabinovitch-Fox wrote in Nasty Women And Bad Hombres: Gender and Race in the 2016 US Presidential Election.

The idea was always to convey their message visually.

"An idea that is driven home to the mind through the eye produces a more striking and lasting impression than any that goes through the ear," the book quoted suffragist Glenna Tinnin as saying.

Congresswomen, dressed in white in tribute to the women's suffrage movement, attend the State of the Union address, on Feb 5, 2019. PHOTO: AFP

Women's ability to be identified with the movement simply by wearing specific colours ensured working-class women's inclusion, Rabinovitch-Fox wrote. She wrote that for African American women, dressing like the white suffragists enabled them to simultaneously promote women's rights and racial equality.

In a particularly striking use of white in 1913, labour lawyer Inez Milholland Boissevain wore a white cape and rode a white horse to lead a suffrage parade down Pennsylvania Avenue in the nation's capital.

More than 5,000 marchers and about two dozen floats followed her until angry crowds blocked the marchers, according to the Library of Congress.

At the opening of the Democratic National Convention three years later, thousands of suffragists in white dresses stood silently along 12 blocks of St. Louis, according to media reports.

Democratic female members of Congress cheer after President Donald Trump said there are more women in Congress than ever before during his second State of the Union address. PHOTO: REUTERS

The display was termed the "golden lane" because the women had yellow parasols and sashes that said "Votes for Women".

Male delegates to the convention walked or rode to the convention hall through the lines of women, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported. The delegates voted that day to add women's suffrage to the Democratic Party's platform.

Decades after the 19th Amendment granting women the right to vote was ratified in August 1920, white remained an important sartorial tool for women seeking to promote political agendas.

Shirley Chisholm, who served as a congresswoman from New York, wore white on the night in 1968 when she became the first African American woman to be elected to Congress. She then dressed in a white blazer and blouse to appear on her presidential campaign posters four years later.

"Bring U.S. together," the poster read. "Vote Chisholm 1972. Unbought and unbossed."

Women wore white in 1978 to march in the District in support of the Equal Rights Amendment.

New York Representative Alexandria Octavio-Cortez (centre) poses for a picture with other women ahead of US President Donald Trump's State of the Union address, on Feb 5, 2019. PHOTO: AFP

Geraldine Ferraro, the first woman to become a vice presidential candidate on a major party ticket, wore white to deliver her acceptance speech at the 1984 Democratic National Convention.

White has also played an important role in the politics of the 21st century. Hillary Clinton wore it to accept the Democratic nomination for president in July 2016, to the last presidential debate and to Trump's inauguration.

On Election Day, many women across the country wore white pantsuits to cast their votes for Clinton.

Freshman Democratic Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a star of the Democrats' progressive wing, wore all white to her swearing-in on Jan 3.

To Amanda Litman, executive director of the political action committee Run for Something, the lawmakers wearing white to Trump's speech symbolises women's refusal to be left out of the administration's policy priorities.

"For us, it's an indication that we're building on a movement and that any single woman's achievements does not stand alone," said Litman, whose organisation supports young progressives running for local public office. "She is standing on the shoulders of the women who came before her."