Why some women are wearing white on Election Day

Inspired by Hillary Clinton, women are wearing white on Election Day. It's a nod to the candidate, and the history of women's voting. It may also be an opportunity to reflect on how to create a more inclusive America.

Neal Menschel /The Christian Science Monitor
Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton and Tim Kaine celebrate at the Democratic National Convention in the Wells Fargo Center on July 28, 2016 in Philadelphia. The white suit Secretary Clinton wore drew attention, with many suggesting it was inspired by the suffrage movement.

As America waits to learn who its next president will be, it may be a moment to reflect on the past – and ponder the future.

Today, Hillary Clinton is the first woman to be on the ballot as a major party’s nominee for president. In recognition of that achievement, a social media movement is calling for women to wear white when they go to the polls. Women overwhelmingly say that #WearWhiteToVote is an opportunity to show their solidarity with the Democratic nominee, who wore white both to accept her party’s nomination back in July and at the third presidential debate.

Though it’s unclear whether Mrs. Clinton herself intended the allusion, many observers have made the connection between the suffragists who wore white with accessories of purple and green in their fight to win the right to vote for women and Clinton's wardrobe choices. For some, there’s a sense that Clinton’s nomination is the culmination of a story that began nearly two centuries ago. But others suggest that it’s a sign, more than anything, of how far we still have to go.

“I think we imagine ourselves beyond that now, that we couldn’t possibly oppose a woman running for president the way we opposed the suffragists,” Lisa Tetrault, associate professor of history at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Penn., tells The Christian Science Monitor in a phone interview. Nevertheless, she says, “I think we have held [Clinton] to an entirely different standard.”

The suffragists, a movement of women advocating for the right to vote, began to coalesce around the issue in the 1840s. During parades and other advocacy activities, the women were “encouraged to wear white,” Alden O’Brien, curator of Costume and Textiles at the Daughters of the American Revolution Museum, said in an interview with the Smithsonian Institution. 

The color white has “associations with purity and starting afresh that was sort of the appeal for the suffragists,” Hazel Clark, professor of design studies and fashion studies at The New School in New York, tells the Monitor in a phone interview. “It’s a kind of blank slate in a way.”

Geraldine Ferraro dressed in white when accepting the Democratic vice presidential nomination in 1984, when she became the first woman on a major party’s ticket. Shirley Chisholm, the first African-American woman to be elected to Congress, wore white on that day in 1968, and three years later, while campaigning to be the first woman presidential candidate on a major party’s ticket.

Clinton’s choice to wear white has inspired many women to do the same as they headed to polls across the country on Tuesday. Countless women took to social media in independent, grass-roots efforts to get women to wear white when they vote. Maureen O’Brien, from Albany, N.Y., told The Boston Globe it would be “a nod to everything Hillary has gone through” this election cycle.

What people wear is a statement about what they care about, some political historians have observed. And the #WearWhiteToVote movement may be a sign that having a female president is important to Americans. If so, that would be a shift from February, when just one-third of voters polled by CNN thought it was extremely or very important for the United States to have a female president in their lifetime. For most Americans – especially among younger voters – PBS suggested, “the milestone has been eclipsed by other advances.”

Though it is predominantly Clinton supporters who have donned white, some Twitter users have suggested that the movement is for everyone, no matter how they who they are or vote. But #WearWhiteToVote hasn’t resonated with all Americans. In that way, it’s similar to the suffragist movement and the Clinton campaign as a whole.

“The 19th Amendment was a very mixed victory. It was a victory for white women,” Professor Tetrault explains, noting that “suffrage organizations just shrugged their shoulders” when black women asked for support in continuing their struggle for the right to vote.

Whatever the outcome of the election, it’s important that we “think really carefully about who we see when we think about women,” she added. Many women do not share Clinton’s background, nor her path in life, and if she wins, it will be particularly important to ensure that it is a victory for all women, and not just for white, middle-class women.

That’s not to discount that women have come a tremendously long way: though women began to run for president as early as 1872, Tetrault says that it was “well beyond [the suffragists’] imagination, to be honest,” that a woman could ever be a major-party’s presidential nominee.

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