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Each week on the Junior Curators blog, we travel back in time to a different place in Tennessee history. Stories may be about a famous person, place or event from Tennessee’s past. They will include things like priceless artifacts, pictures, videos, and even some games. Be sure to better understand the story by answering the questions at the end of each post.
After learning the story, be sure to share what you've learned with your parents, family, or friends. Try making your own exhibit about it, shooting a movie, or writing a story about it. Let your creativity run wild!
by Katie Yenna
How do you express yourself to the world? Do you wear brightly colored clothes, wild hair or big jewelry? These are all symbols of ourselves. They tell others who we are and what we believe is important. This idea was certainly true during the women’s suffrage movement in the United States, and Tennessee. Suffragists carefully chose colors, objects and clothing to communicate to others.
One of the most well-known ways these suffragists expressed themselves, and their views, was through the use of color. In the United States, pro-suffrage groups mostly used the colors yellow, white and purple. They used these in their banners, sashes and clothing to show their message. They would display them during their meetings, while marching in parades and when giving speeches. Yellow, or gold, has long been a traditional color representing “light.” Purple has been viewed as the color of “loyalty.” White means “purity.” All of these colors created a symbol of what the suffrage movement meant to those women fighting for the right to vote. In fact, the use of these colors was described in a National Woman’s Party newsletter published in 1913. The newsletter said, “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.” The combination of the purple, white and gold was used only by the National Woman’s Party in the US. Their well-known leader was Alice Paul.
Even though the color has faded, you see the use of yellow and purple in this “Votes for Women” sash,
Courtesy of the National Museum of American History.
The suffrage movement in the United Kingdom used similar colors in their sashes but used purple (meaning loyalty), white (for purity) and green (representing spring).
Color was also important when creating banners for their cause. The Tennessee State Museum has several banners in our collection that were used by suffrage organizations. Below, you’ll see the banner used by the Nashville Equal Suffrage Association, in 1920, when appealing to the public for their right to vote.
Tennessee State Museum Collection.
Here, you can clearly see the use of yellow and white. These colors were often used by these pro-suffrage groups. Women used banners in parades, when marching and on the steps of our state capitol to promote their message. These banners also have objects, along with colors, that show us how they felt about gaining the right to vote. This one has an evergreen tree, a shining sun and scales that are perfectly balanced. Here, the tree represents the “liberty tree.” This was a common symbol during the American Revolution. It was used because these women felt they were fighting for the same cause, their freedom. The sun was a symbol of enlightenment. This was included because they felt a duty to educate the public on why they were fighting so hard for the right to vote. Lastly, the balanced scales underneath the tree represented equal justice for women under the law.
The use of color, once again, was important during the final vote on the 19th Amendment, the decision to give women the right to vote. During the summer of 1920 in Nashville, members of the state legislature met to cast their final vote. They were either wearing a yellow or red rose on their jacket. As we learned above, yellow was the color of the pro-suffrage movement, and those who supported it wore a yellow rose. Those who were against suffrage and planned to vote “no” when the time came, decided to wear a red rose. People also worse pins based on how they felt about suffrage.
Anti-Suffrage Pin, Tennessee State Museum Collection.
Pro-Suffrage Pin, National Museum of American History.
Animals were even used by pro and anti-suffragist groups during the movement to further their cause. A blue bird was chosen by the Massachusetts Woman Suffrage Association in 1915, as their symbol. When it came time to vote for the amendment for their state, on July 19, 1915, an estimated 100,000 tin blue birds were on display across the state in support of suffrage. In the end, Massachusetts decided against giving women the vote, but the blue bird still stood as a clear symbol of the movement. This bird even made it to Tennessee and was included in the pro-suffrage banner (below) used in Nashville in 1920.
Massachusetts suffrage bluebird. Courtesy the National Museum of American History.
Cats were also used to describe pro and anti-suffrage members during the movement. Cats were compared to women who were expected to stay in the home and fulfill the expected roll of a home maker. Within anti-suffrage groups, they used cats in their ads to represent the “loss” of a man’s role in the family if women got the right to vote. They believed that men would be left in the home to raise the children while women were too busy being involved in politics.
There are many ways to communicate to the world about what is important to you. The use of color, animals and banners were just a few of the ways suffragists chose to communicate. Through this effort, they were able to create worldwide recognition of their cause through this simple act that still endures today. Look all around you this month, as Nashville celebrates the 100th anniversary of the passage of the 19th amendment, and you will see these symbols once again.
Symbol- a thing that represents or stands for something else
Amendment- a minor change or addition designed to improve a text, piece of legislation
Suffrage- the right to vote in political elections
Loyalty- a strong feeling of support or allegiance
National Woman’s Party (NWP)- organization formed in 1916 to fight for women’s suffrage, Alice Paul was a member of this group.
Nashville Equal Suffrage Association- organization formed in 1911 dedicated to women’s suffrage and the belief in “quietly and earnestly avoiding militant methods.” Ann Dallas Dudley was a member of this group.
Tennessee Equal Suffrage Campaign Committee- a group that helped establish local suffrage leagues throughout the state
Banner- a long strip of cloth bearing a slogan or design, hung in a public place or carried in a demonstration
Enlightenment- give greater knowledge and understanding about a subject or situation
Committee- group of people appointed for a specific function, typically consisting of members of a larger group
What were the three most common colors used by Suffragists in the United States during the movement and what did they mean?
What is a symbol and why were they important to the suffrage movement?
What did members of the state legislature wear to show their feelings on women’s suffrage?
Create a banner that could be used in a march for woman’s voting rights! Use colors that were part of the movement or use ones that have special meaning to you. Include symbols that are inspiring and a phrase that communicates your message (example: Votes for Women!).
To learn more about the movement, important leaders and their groups, visit the Tennessee Encyclopedia by clicking below.
Visit the National Archives Museum website to view their special exhibit titled Rightfully Hers: American Women and the Vote.
Katie Yenna is the Education Outreach Coordinator at the Tennessee State Museum.