The colours, purple, green and white, have a strong emotional resonance for me and for many Australian women. These colours and the trumpeting angel on this teacup, made around 1910, show it is a product of the UK Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) headed by Emmeline Pankhurst. Later these colours became emblematic of the Australian women’s movement. Many of us still wear our politics on our sleeves by putting on these colours for International Women’s Day and other special events.
The WSPU adopted the purple, green and white colours before a big street march of 1908. The Times estimated the crowd numbered up to half a million and some 10,000 scarves in the colours were sold. The colours were used for everything from ribbons, brooches and hatpins to bicycles. In 1911 even Margaret Fisher, wife of the Australian Prime Minister, was persuaded to wear them when marching in support of votes for British women in London. Two years later Emily Wilding Davison was carrying the colours when she ran in front of the king’s race horse during the Derby, losing her life as a result.
The meaning of the WSPU colours were described as white for purity in public as well as private life, purple for dignity and self-respect and green for hope and new life. Although they were originally an organisational device to distinguish the WSPU from other suffrage organisations, they soon took on much broader meanings of sisterhood and solidarity in the struggle.
It was in this way that the colours came to Australia. Suffragist Vida Goldstein, who first campaigned to enter federal parliament in 1903, got them slightly wrong in her campaign for the Senate in 1910, thinking they were purple, green and lavender. But she had them right for her campaign for Kooyong in 1913. She used them again for the flag of the Women’s Peace Army, which she established during World War I to oppose conscription.
When Bessie Rischbieth, the redoubtable leader of the Australian Federation of Women Voters, visited London in the 1920s the Suffragette Fellowship gave her some of the WSPU china and a Votes for Women collar. These now have a treasured place in the National Library of Australia.
The arrival of the second wave of the women’s movement brought with it new iconography. No longer the trumpeting angel but instead the female symbol, long used in science and based on the hand mirror possessed by Venus. After so many centuries of scientific research demonstrating female inadequacy, women appropriated the symbol in the same way the gay movement appropriated the pink triangle used by the Nazis to denote homosexuals.
In Australia, the new symbol took on the WSPU colours, particularly after International Women’s Year in 1975. This was the year of the BBC’s very popular Shoulder to Shoulder series about the suffragettes. It was also the year that Elizabeth Reid, as Women’s Adviser to Prime Minster Whitlam, obtained government funding for a nation-wide consciousness-raising exercise. Reid directed that the WSPU colours be used for the International Women’s Year symbol and they were first widely seen in a first-day cover and postage stamp released by Australia Post in March 1975.
Newly appointed ‘femocrats’ then arranged for government publications to use the colours and they were adopted by government bodies such as the National Women’s Advisory Council appointed by Malcolm Fraser. They became part of the badging of advocacy organisations such as Women’s Electoral Lobby and new women’s services such as domestic violence refuges. They came out every year for International Women’s Day and Reclaim the Night marches as well as on feminist blogs and websites.
Even the Howard Government used the WSPU colours for the official celebration of the Australian suffrage centenary, including a commemorative fountain in the House of Representatives garden at Old Parliament House in Canberra. The pedant in me can’t resist pointing out how anachronistic this was. The WSPU colours were not devised till 1908, well after most Australian women gained the vote in 1902. However, the WSPU colours had much more resonance than the white temperance ribbons associated with the suffrage movements in Australia and New Zealand at the time. In the first decade of the 21st century other governments, like that in the ACT, also displayed the colours for International Women’s Day.
In 2005 I conducted a small survey to find out what the WSPU colours meant to feminist activists in Australia in the early 21st century. I found that for these women wearing the colours was about identity. It meant showing solidarity with other women and commitment to the women’s movement. One said that just seeing the colours made her happy that there were a lot of people who shared her values and it gave her a sense of belonging. Others said the colours were an important link to the history of the women’s movement.
The colours continue to have a strong emotional resonance for many women. They signify sisterhood, whether on a Governor-General’s lapel when swearing in Australia’s first woman Prime Minister or on street banners. The WSPU china is a reminder of this strong purple, green and white strand in our history.
Post by Marian Sawer
Marian Sawer is Emeritus Professor and Public Policy Fellow at the Australian National Univerisity College of Arts and Social Sciences. Her research specialities include democratic theory and practice, electoral administration, gender politics and policy, social liberalism, intersection of social movements and the state.