The National Woman’s Party And the Meaning Behind Their Purple, White, and Gold Textiles
By: Allison LaCroix
When I began my internship with the Sewall-Belmont House a few months ago, my primary responsibility was to work with collections staff to conduct an inventory of all of the textiles in the National Woman’s Party (NWP) collection. While it was immediately apparent that this was an extensive and diverse collection, containing banners, flags, sashes, costumes, hats, and more; I was immediately struck by the sheer numbers of items that featured the tricolor motif of purple, white, and gold – the official colors of the NWP. Tricolor items in the collection number in the hundreds and are housed in both onsite and offsite storage. The completed inventory includes 300 large tricolor banners, nearly 100 tricolor sashes, approximately 75 purple and white caps and 60 tricolor capes, and hundreds of costume and fabric pieces, 120 of which were purple and gold gauze tunics. (To see more of these, check out #TextileTuesday posts from @SBHMuseum).
The pieces were all clearly well worn and used, and the costume pieces in particular show a great deal of variation in both the style and quality of construction. It is clear that the majority of the pieces served a primarily utilitarian function – they were not fashion pieces that the women tailored or labored over for hours; rather, they were produced en masse and worn by groups of women to make a visual impact and a political statement.
The purple, white, and gold were declared the official colors of the NWP in 1913 and were featured prominently in parades, plays, and campaigns nationwide. No matter the event, men and women across the nation would see the colors and immediately say: “here come the suffragettes.” (Up Hill With Banners Flying)
It is clear that the purple, white, and gold were afforded a place of prominence and power in the NWP, however, the question of their meaning was never as universally determined. One of the earliest designations for the colors appeared in Vol. 1, No. 4 of The Suffragist, published on Dec. 6, 1913. Under the statement of purpose for the fledgling Congressional Union for Woman Suffrage, it was noted that “the colors adopted by the Union are purple, white, and gold, selected for the significance they bear in the work the Union has undertaken. 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. Our cluster of ribbons has meaning and significance. It is the standard for justice to the race, for democracy that is real and whole, not hesitant and partial.” The Suffragist contained the list of the official colors at the top of the inside front page for the next few years; however, formal discussion of the symbolic nature of the colors was not discussed again, even as the party transformed from the CU into the official NWP.
Many publications today still reference the tricolors as signifying loyalty, purity, and life as stated in The Suffragist, however this does not pay tribute to the full story of the colors. Other publications of the early 20th century indicate the meaning for many National Woman’s Party members or factions may have changed or evolved over time. Evidence of this comes from an alternate interpretation put forth by Grace Hoffman White – a member of the party from the time it was founded in 1913, and the woman who is often credited with the selection of the purple, white, and gold as the official colors. A ribbon wall-hanging created by White attributes purple to represent the “royal glory of womanhood,” white as “purity in home and politics,” and gold to the “crown of victory.”
Yet another interpretation from NWP member Anna Kelton Wiley surfaced in later years, during the NWP biennial convention November 1936. Wiley noted: “We are surrounded by our lovely banners, the purple, white and gold, the purple meaning sacrifice, the white meaning sincerity, and the gold, knowledge.”
Ultimately, even though the colors of the NWP were interpreted differently at various stages of the movement for suffrage, and again during the ERA movement, the power of the colors came from the unity and recognition that they afforded the members of the NWP and the broader public. No matter what the individual colors may have signified, together the tricolors banners became universally known and recognized as a symbol of women’s equality. Men and women alike could employ the tricolors to demonstrate either discreet or outright support, as the colors could be displayed or worn in solidarity with the movement. Even though the meaning of the tricolors may have shifted over time and from member to member, the most powerful aspect of the colors that is still abundantly clear in writings, photographs, and the remaining textile collection at the SBHM, is that the women of the NWP were never short on ways to proudly display their purple, white, and gold!