The Dignity of Continuity: The Ancestry of the the Purple, White and Gold
By: Hope Elizabeth May, Ph.D., J.D., Department of Philosophy & Religion, Central Michigan University
Shall we respect the dignity of continuity? Shall we be willing in this development of organized effort to recognize our ancestr
– May Wright Sewall, 1893
Allison LaCroix’s most interesting and welcomed post on the National Woman’s Party’s (NWP) colors of purple, white and gold, draws attention to the way the narrative about the symbolism of these colors changed over time. The earliest account found in the December 1913 edition of The Suffragist , tells us that the colors represented different aspects of the NWP’s purpose . Purple represented loyalty to the purpose; white symbolized the pure quality of the purpose; and gold stood for the pure and unswerving torch that guided the purpose. The symbolism was never to be discussed again. The original meaning of the colors gave way to newer meanings, and eventually the symbolism of the purple, white and gold morphed into “sacrifice, sincerity and knowledge.” The NWP’s colors, as Ms. LaCroix explains, were “interpreted differently at various stages of the movement” but “became universally known and recognized as a symbol of women’s equality.”
In fact, the NWP was not the first to use the purple, white and gold in connection with women’s equality. The same scheme was used by leading South Carolina suffragist Virginia D. Young who “mashed up” the colors of three different organizations (purposes) to form a purple, gold and white “rainbow cluster” that “many times excited inquiry.” In an 1892 article in the Woman ’ s Journal , Young tells us that wearing the “white of the W.C.T.U (Women’s Christian Temperance Union), the yellow ribbon of suffrage and the purple of the King’s daughters” allowed her to discuss the cause and edify her interlocutors as she dialogued about the intriguing idea of “women working for women.” ( Virginia D. Young, A yellow, white and purple bow-knot, The Woman ’ s Journal, 41/23 (1892) 324 .)
While Young’s usage of the “rainbow cluster” may have been an isolated instance of the use of the purple, white and gold, the colors were systematically and symbolically used by an earlier women’s organization. And as we recall that history, we will see that the colors of the NWP serve as a ‘red thread’ that connects the NWP’s work to deeper ancestral roots – specifically to the earlier work of U.S. suffragists and to the natural growth of this work into the broader purposes of humanitarianism, cosmopolitanism and peace.
The International Council of Women (ICW) was formed in 1888 in Washington in connection with a birthday celebration – a 40 th – held for that most precious child born in 1848 at Seneca Falls, New York: the organized U.S. women’s movement. Because the early suffrage leaders – Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton – had developed good contacts with suffragists abroad, they decided to invite their friends and make it an international celebration. The ICW arose rather spontaneously from the “hospitality and festive joy” of the birthday bash. The idea was to organize and unite women internationally, not for the sake of suffrage (for this issue was too controversial to unite women internationally) – but to “overthrow all forms of ignorance and injustice” and “apply the Golden Rule to society, custom and law.” These objectives were at the heart of the ICW and are included in the preamble of its Constitution. The ICW had a pure purpose – a torch of light and life – to which its members were loyal, constant and steadfast.
The ICW was a confederation of organized women and its members were national chapters. To join it, a country first had to federate its women’s organizations, and hence consolidate under one umbrella, all of the different purposes around which women had organized (temperance, peace, suffrage, moral education, etc.). That took time. The ICW met quinquenially (every 5 years) and by the time of its first quinquennial in 1893, the U.S. was still the only member.
But by the ICW’s second quinquennial in London in 1899, there were 9 countries that had federated their women’s organizations. Alice Paul would arrive in London 7 years later in 1906. Strikingly, it would be this international experience abroad – namely personally witnessing the work of the Pankhursts and the Women’s Social and Political Union, that would politically awaken Paul and move her to join the struggle for women’s equality.
Whilst the ICW was celebrating its second quinquennial in 1899, the topic of Universal Peace and Arbitration was very much in the air. The 1899 Hague Peace Conference was a watershed moment that established the world’s first international court. The Permanent Court of Arbitration was designed to replace war with a more humane method of dispute settlement, namely arbitration. As the ICW was meeting in London, men across the North Sea were meeting in The Hague, The Netherlands creating a new court for universal peace.
The ICW followed this movement closely. As early as 1897, a subcommittee on “Social Peace and International Arbitration” was formed in the U.S. chapter of the ICW and was presided over by Countess Cora di Brazzà. In connection with this work, di Brazzà designed a richly symbolic flag – dubbed the “Universal Peace Banner” – which used the colors of yellow, purple and white (pictured here).
Brazzà chose these colors because at the time, no national flag used the same scheme. Advocates of the peace and arbitration movement endorsed a cosmopolitan notion of patriotism, based on the idea that “Above all Nations is Humanity.” Thus, it was important to symbolize peace and arbitration in a manner that did not evoke a specific nation or national identity. Countess di Brazzà explained the colors as follows:
Yellow, because this is the color of active love, of energy, and of creative paternal force, attributes of the sunlight, ripeness and plenty. Purple, because this is the color of triumph achieved through constancy, self sacrifice and perseverance, which are feminine or maternal attributes. White, because this is the color of innocence and purity, attributes of the young and inexperienced.
It is interesting to note that this symbolism resonates with the 1913 symbolism of the purple, white and gold of the NWP. The same meanings: light, loyalty, purity – are all there. As we saw, these colors were originally keyed to purpose in the NWP’s work. But in the Universal Peace Banner, they are keyed to the paternal (yellow), the maternal (purple) and the childlike (white).
There are other important differences between the two banners. First, the colors of the NWP’s flag are arranged horizontally, whereas the colors of the Universal Peace Banner are arranged vertically. This was for symbolic reasons: “the stripes set vertically, like the flag of France – the whole emblematic of liberty, unity and fraternity.” Another important difference is the symbolic ordering of the colors in the Universal Peace Banner which symbolized “the development of humanity.” This is described as follows: “First, the white, the child spirit; then the purple, signifying endurance, the maternal element creating the hearth and family ideals; and nearest the staff, the yellow, the paternal element, signifying power and will.” Finally, the Universal Peace Banner contains two clasped hands above a shield from the wrists of which rise the wings of a dove. This was to symbolize “the spirituality rising from the material when the hands and the minds of man and woman work together for the elevation of humanity.”
At the 1899 meeting of the ICW in London, the adoption of the Universal Peace Banner was considered. The center shield – one of the most interesting features of the flag – was dropped because it evoked symbolism used by the freemasons which was connected with atheism in Southern Europe. However, the ICW did adopt the colors of yellow, purple and white as its symbol of peace and international arbitration. Further, the U.S. chapter of the ICW adopted and used di Brazzà’s original flag in its peace activism – including the celebration of Peace Day (which was celebrated on May 18, to commemorate the day on which the 1899 Hague Peace Conference opened).
So the purple, white and gold of the NWP point to an earlier moment of women’s organization – an international moment which grew out of the U.S. women’s suffrage movement that embraced the goals of peace and international arbitration.
Consideration of the link between the colors of the NWP and the peace work of the ICW helps us to appreciate the fact that Alice Paul and the NWP were pioneering the method of non-violent resistance in the nation’s capitol. The fact that the NWP is often described as “militant” works to obscure this fact, as does the traditional narrative of non-violent resistance which tends to focus on Gandhi and Martin Luther King. But before Martin Luther King, the NWP championed the methods of non-violence – especially “speaking truth to power” (a phrase, incidentally, that has its origins in the Quaker religion in which Alice Paul was reared). The NWP “spoke truth to power” in a vivid manner with thoughtful and beautiful pageantry. Non-violent resistance with a woman’s touch!
Did the Universal Peace Banner influence the NWP’s colors? There is no evidence that either Alice Paul or Grace Hoffman White (often credited with selecting the colors) had seen the Universal Peace Banner. But it is of course, possible. The fact that the colors have essentially the same symbolism (at least in 1913) is suggestive. Further, Grace Hoffman White was involved in the peace movement and even published a poem in 1909 on the “Prince of Peace.” This too, betokens a connection. When Susan B. Anthony was asked to comment on the Universal Peace Banner in 1898, she responded by saying that its symbolism was “the legitimate outcome of the principles according to which she (Anthony) was reared.” And here she was referring to her Quaker upbringing, which of course was a common thread between her and Alice Paul. Anthony, moreover, who “had never been willing to wear a badge,” nevertheless “felt a desire to wear the Peace colors” and at a meeting of the U.S. chapter of the ICW pinned the yellow, purple and white to her dress. All of this falls short of proof that NWP’s colors were inspired by the colors of the Universal Peace Banner. But the absence of definitive proof should not prevent us from considering the thread of non-violence that connects the two symbols. In 1893, leading suffragist May Wright Sewall asked, “shall we be willing in this development of organized effort to recognize our ancestry?” The link between the colors of the NWP and the ICW helps us to do just that. Like warp and weft, the horizontal stripes of the NWP’s banner and the vertical stripes of the Universal Peace Banner connect non-violence at the domestic level with non-violence at the international level. The two symbols are profoundly and mysteriously linked.
Hope Elizabeth May is Professor of Philosophy at Central Michigan University, where she also directs its Center for Professional and Personal Ethics. Both a philosophy and a lawyer, Dr. May has created a number of innovative educational activities aimed at exposing the story of the 19 th century “Peace through Law” tradition of The Hague – and the role of organized women therein. These activities include A Grotian Moment , Piece of the Palace , Pro Concordia Labor and the Forward Into Light Master Classes that she organizes annually with the Peace Palace in The Hague, The Netherlands. She has spoken at a number of international institutions including The International Criminal Court and The Peace Palace (both in The Hague, The Netherlands), The Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (Phonm Penh, Cambodia), The No Gun Ri/Jeju Island Peace Academy (South Korea) and The Nobel Institute (Oslo, Norway). You can learn more about her work here .