Tonight, when President Trump addresses Congress for the first time in his presidency, he'll face a line of Democrat women (all members of the Women's Working Group) who have all decided to wear white "to stand in solidarity with the women of our nation." Using the color white as a symbol of women's protest isn't a new item in most of our political vocabularies; wearing white to vote last November was a big trend among Democrats, particularly women, who sought to honor the legacy of suffrage in America. But wearing white also has a complicated legacy for both women's rights and female identity in general — one involving discourses on ideas regarding purity, class and race. For all its looks-so-crisp simplicity, white is a pretty complicated color, and the WWG's decision to wear it is a powerful one.
We need to put this fashion-forward rebellion into context. Not only are Democratic women giving themselves a day of complete terror of coffee and raspberries — they're also making an interesting entry into the history of white clothing as a tool of female political resistance.
Western Culture Has Often Held Very Specific Ideas About Women Wearing White
Some have argued that white clothes on women have undergone a "transformation" in Western culture, from a patriarchal instrument of purity to a symbol of female power. This view isn't entirely accurate, which I'll dig into in a minute. But in Western history, white clothing for women has often been highly symbolic, demarcating them from other, color-wearing women, marking them as either wealthier or more holy.
On a purely practical level, the ability to wear white has been the reserve of the rich for much of human history because of the labor-intensive ways in which white clothes had to be cleaned and bleached. To wear white as a woman indicated that you had servants to manage your life. But, particularly in the medieval period, it also meant something else: holiness.
Nuns in medieval Christianity often wore white for a brief period after they took the veil to show their virginity and commitment to being a bride of Christ. The famous 14th century English mystic Margery Kempe famously wore white continually after a pilgrimage, in what one writer called her show of "spiritual virginity;" famous saint Catherine of Siena was often pictured in white. White was a representation of virginity (and therefore of a lack of sexual corruption and moral cleanliness), marking them as "valuable" women.
And for the record, this was all happening centuries before brides wore white — most European brides just wore their best clothes to marry up until the age of Queen Victoria, when white came into fashion when she wore it to marry Prince Albert; afterwards, it promptly took on the associated qualities of virginity and virtue.
White Was One Of The Colors Used To Represent The Suffragettes
The history that the Democratic women are likely referencing in their white outfits tonight is the triumvirate of colors selected to represent the English and American suffragette movement: white, green and purple. The colors were selected in 1908 by the treasurer of the Women's Social and Political Union, Lady Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence, who also ran the publication Votes For Women and had famous arguments with suffragette leader Emmeline Pankhurst about whether or not radical tactics like window-smashing were good ideas for the cause.
Pethick-Lawrence picked white to symbolize purity, green for hope, and purple for dignity — and the fact that Pethick-Lawrence was an upper-class British white woman is entirely relevant to her picks for the movement's color scheme. The tricolors were sold as merchandise on everything from ribbons to hats and bags at expensive department stores like Selfridges, but it's pretty notable that white was usually the color worn by (white) suffragettes as they marched on both sides of the Atlantic. Above all, the suffragettes wanted to emphasize their purity, which was meant to symbolize the "quality of our purpose," according to writing at the time.
Intriguingly, though, suffragettes weren't getting the idea of white color as a symbol of personal and ideological purity from nowhere. They took it from the temperance movement of Britain and the US in the late 19th century, which also utilized white ribbons and all-white clothing. And the National Women's History Museum offers a possibility to explain why white was the big color of both groups, who did a lot of street protesting. Male critics at the time tended to sneer about women who took part in political marches, "saying that women on the streets must be women of the streets" — in other words, sex workers. The white clothing was meant to be a rebuke to such thinking, even though it was just playing into patriarchal ideas about women's sexuality and worth (the suffragettes often fell into problematic thinking like this; for example, it's widely agreed by historians that racism on a wide variety of fronts has tainted the legacy of women's suffrage).
White Clothing Also Has A Separate History With Female Labor Activists
Beyond the suffragettes and their long white dresses, white has long been used as a part of women's activism in America. U.S. women's labor strikes in the early part of the 20th century gravitated towards the color white as a symbol of solidarity. Between 1909 and 1934, there was a common tendency among women strikers, who were often protesting about the rights of garment and textile workers in factories, to wear all-white, or to have white accessories: armbands reading "Don't Be A Scab," white sailor hats, and short-sleeved white shirts were common. The thing that's interesting about the usage of white here is that textile workers were neither upper-class nor wealthy. White as a protest color had broken out of its traditional niche.
White would also become part of the arsenal of empowered women through another niche: female nurses during the World Wars. One of the most prominent depictions of women in public during World War I was the Red Cross nurse on recruitment posters, who dressed all in white, emblazoned with a red cross. White was the color both of agitation and of wartime action. It was a potent mix.
Women Of Color Reclaiming White As A Feminist Symbol Is An Important Endeavor
Wearing white as an action of feminist protest is also noteworthy because there's currently an unprecedented number of women of color in Democratic Congress. And reclaiming white as a protest color for everybody — rather than just for white female elites who spearheaded the suffragette movement and often deliberately excluded women of color — is extremely important. An element of the past that feminism always has to acknowledge, clearly and openly, is that white-wearing white women do not and did not represent the whole of womanhood, and that everybody has the right to wear white and stand up for women's rights. (It was a discourse that Shirley Chisholm, woman of color and the first female candidate for American President, appreciated, as she often wore white, like in the picture above.)
This is particularly important because whiteness in clothing, throughout Western colonial history, has often been shot through with ideas about "racial purity," such as that the color was only fit to be worn by the 'higher' Caucasian race — which is horrifying racist nonsense.
There are schools of thought that propose that today's feminists should pick another color as part of our larger moves towards greater intersectionality and inclusiveness in all arenas: we could start marching in clothes that are purple for dignity, for instance. But white is eye-catching, and strongly symbolic — and thus, rather than being tossed out, it could also be reclaimed, and worn proudly, to show how much feminism can and should change. When the Democrats stand up in white to meet Trump, they'll be the latest part of an intriguing history of the hue that runs from symbolizing virginity to labor riots — and shows that there's no limit to what women can do.