Feminine, Fashionable, and Fearless
What image comes to your mind when you envision militant women fighting for a cause?
I’ll bet it’s not “fashionable,” “elegant,” “ladylike,” or “well-dressed.” However, these attributes accurately describe the suffragists of America. These shrewd women used their savvy sense of style and their intrinsic sense of dignity to help them win the right for women to vote.
The term “suffragist” was originally coined from the women’s suffrage movement. It was also commonly used to describe these contemporary women in an insulting, derogatory manner. After all, how dare women believe they have the right to vote?
While the men of this era falsely presumed that women couldn’t possibly have the ingenuity to create a unified, winning strategy, the suffragists were working to formulate a plan poised for success.
The suffragists began their grand plan by staying on point with the refined fashion of the day. As men foolishly accused them of wanting to be men, the ladies proved them wrong. They remained as feminine and stylish as possible. Following the ‘suffragist style guidelines’ was effortless for many women because ladylike lace-trimmed dresses, high necklines, and hats were already in fashion.
Their determination and level of commitment was so strong, some women went into debt to buy garments they believed to be worthy of their cause. “Concerning Dress,” a regular column in the newspaper, Votes For Women, proclaimed, “The suffragist of today is dainty and precise in her dress.”
Ladies in the movement were frequently encouraged to wear white dresses in delicate fabrics, so that by adding trims, sashes, scarves, belts, or jewelry, they could display the colors of their cause.
The American suffragists chose purple for loyalty, white for purity, and gold for life. The women also wore jewelry created with amethyst, moonstone, and gold. By wearing these colors they could send quiet messages of unity to each other.
Another perspicacious way they communicated was by embroidering their colors onto their silk stockings and then flashing other women to secretly signal solidarity. They were masters at using clothing to carry their message.
Not to mislead you, these daintily dressed women were not always dainty. While the suffragists primarily believed in peaceful demonstrations, a smaller group of activists known as suffragettes participated in higher levels of militant action including picketing, parades, and hunger strikes.
Although their actions sometimes resulted in imprisonment, they continued to carry themselves with dignity and integrity in knowing that their righteous cause was worthy of respect and honor. The original image of a militant, hysterical woman was crushed by the high regard and respect these women showed for themselves as well as others.
As pictures of suffragists frequently appeared in newspapers, the leaders of the movement encouraged them to always dress in their “smartest clothes” in case they were photographed and published. These strong-minded women took this advice to heart.
One historical photo is of three women, dressed in tailor-made suits and accessorized with fashionable hats, feathers, fur, and muffs. These women chained themselves to the railing of a government building in protest of inequality. The photos of the movement exhibit the dignity the suffragists maintained as they worked tenaciously for the cause they believed in.
Our style and how we dress sends a powerful message of who we are individually and collectively. It tells the world how we feel about ourselves and reveals our level of respect for others. What we wear impacts how we think, how we act, and how we are treated. The term “enclothed cognition” is used to describe the effect our clothing has on us. It’s been proven that we actually adopt the characteristics associated with a particular article of clothing.
If we wear warm, fuzzy, stretchy clothes, we are more likely to feel relaxed. Tailored suits tend to put us in a more formal, serious frame of mind. Wearing a uniform can influence our performance, tee-shirts with belligerent messages promote anger, while wearing cheerful colors can boost our mood and energy levels.
The impression the suffragists maintained was smart, sophisticated, savvy—and they will always be remembered as women of such. Their notable style has kept their image alive throughout history. The movement that began in 1848 did not end until 1920 when the nineteenth amendment guaranteeing the right for American women to vote passed. The suffragists efforts proved successful and in the end changed the world.