When on Jan. 30, First Lady Melania Trump showed up, unaccompanied, at the State of the Union Address, it marked her first public appearance since the “Stormy-stripper” story came out linking the porn star with Melania’s husband, President Donald Trump.
But what was even more striking was the outfit the very attractive first lady was wearing: a stunning all-white Christian Dior pantsuit. Just three weeks later, when Melania accompanied her husband to Parkland, Fla., to visit with the families of the 17 students and teachers killed in the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School massacre, she also wore white.
Was she aware of what a powerful statement she was making?
Women wearing white has taken on major importance, especially in this administration. When President Trump addressed Congress on Feb. 28, the 66 Democratic women in Congress all wore white. Rep. Louise Frankel of Florida, chair of the party’s Women’s Working Group, said in a statement that the women wore white “to unite against any attempts by the Trump administration to roll back the incredible progress women have made in the last century.” After all, women are still fighting for their rights, including equal pay, freedom from violence, paid sick and family leave, affordable health and child care, and especially the right to control their own bodies.
But how did white become a symbol of female rebellion, equality and affirmation?
A bit of history is in order — both about women and about the color white.
It starts with the suffragette movement, which actually began in England, where, interestingly, there is currently (and has been in the past) a female prime minister.
In 1792, Mary Wollstonecraft (whose daughter, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, wrote “Frankenstein”) published one of the first feminist philosophies, “A Vindication of the Rights of Women,” making her, as some have noted, the original suffragette. A century later, suffragette leader Emmeline Pankhurst resorted to marches and hunger strikes to get women the right to vote. Finally, in 1918, British women over 30 who owned property were allowed to vote, and, in 1928, all British women over 21 could vote.
Here in America, the campaign for women’s suffrage began well before the Civil War. In 1848, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott, referred to as abolitionist activists, held a convention in Seneca Falls, N.Y. Both women and men who believed in equality attended.
Susan B. Anthony joined their campaign, especially after the 15th Amendment to the Constitution allowed all men to vote, including black men.
Finally, however, the Equal Rights Amendment, the 19th, was ratified on Aug. 18, 1920, granting American women the right to vote. The 19th Amendment is also known as the women’s suffrage amendment. On Nov. 2 of that year, 8 million women across the U.S. voted for the first time.
White, purple and gold were the official colors of the suffragette movement. According to the Congressional Union for Woman Suffrage, purple stood for loyalty, gold for light and life, and white for purity — a symbol for the “quality of their purpose.”
2016 presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, fully aware of women’s history, knowingly wore white at crucial moments during her campaign: the night she won enough delegates to secure the Democratic nomination, the night she officially accepted the nomination at the Democratic National Convention, the night of the third and final debate against Donald Trump, and the day of Trump’s inauguration.
Likewise, many women wore white at the polls when they voted for Hillary and hashtags such as #wearwhitetovote popped up everywhere. Many of these same Hillary supporters turned up at Mount Hope Cemetery in Rochester, N.Y. to leave flags and flowers along with “I voted” stickers at Susan B. Anthony’s gravesite.
But Hillary wasn’t the only female political candidate to wear white. In 1984, Geraldine Ferraro wore white when she became the first woman to accept the vice- presidential nomination of a major party. Similarly, Shirley Chisholm wore white in 1969 when she became the first African-American woman elected to Congress. Chisholm wore white again when, three years later, she became the first African-American woman to run for president from a major party and the first woman to seek the Democratic party’s presidential nomination.
During the Women’s March on Washington, to remind people as Hillary did and Melania does, the marchers chanted, “Women’s rights are human rights.” A powerful message indeed.
Lynne Agress, who teaches in the Odyssey Program of Johns Hopkins, is president of BWB-Business Writing At Its Best Inc. and author of "The Feminine Irony" and "Working With Words in Business and Legal Writing." Her email is email@example.com.