As a woman interested in politics, I stand out just fine. When Ayanna Pressley ran against Representative Mike Capuano in MA-7, we noticed her. When Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez won the primary to serve New York’s Bronx and Astoria, she was hard to miss. And when Krish Vignarajah competed against not one, but seven men in the democratic primary for Governor of Maryland, she simply could not be ignored.
So there I was — headphones in so that I could surreptitiously watch the State of the Union from the TD library between bouts of homework — wondering why all of the strong, inspiring women in Congress this year felt the need to wear white. Trust me, we know they’re there, and no matter what color palette they chose, they’d be pretty darn conspicuous.
Their choice sent a lot of messages. But to me, none of those included “We are united, and we are coming to kick some Republican butt” (which, by all accounts, appears to have been the intention).
We were told that the white suits were supposed to be a feminist call-to-arms — congresswomen tweeted that they had drawn visual inspiration from the turn-of-the-century suffragette movement. There is majesty in this choice: not only is it timely at the centennial of women’s right to vote, but many of the women wearing varying shades of cream, eggshell and optic white were elected in 2018, often considered to be “the year of the woman”— a year that echoes similar political success seen in 1919 and 1992. Indeed, the sea of white makes us reckon with where we’ve been, how far we’ve come and how far we have yet to go.
The sartorial reminders of our past, as brilliantly orchestrated by House women, stand as both a celebration of women’s accomplishments and as a reminder that we, like our great-grandmothers, still have a long way to go. In that respect, white is a tasteful selection.
But the choice of white also forces us to reckon with another part of history: the lack of inclusivity of the suffragette movement, and the reason suffragettes chose white in the first place. Today, suffragettes would be condemned for espousing a traditionally “white feminist” approach. Some, like hero-of-high-school-textbooks Elizabeth Cady Stanton, pushed for suffrage because they resented that black men already had voting rights. Though there were acknowledgements of intersectionality in some strains of the movement, the general aim was to enfranchise white women and only white women. It should not be forgotten that the famous Seneca Falls convention included only a single non-white person — Frederick Douglass.
I understand that the complicated history of the suffragettes is not always easy to articulate in the political climate of soundbites and “I can’t hear you”-ism, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. At the very least, it is irresponsible to pledge unadulterated allegiance to the suffragettes (though honestly, I get it— #suffragettes is a lot easier than #suffragettesbuttheywerekindofracist).
Even if we managed to thoroughly explain what we do and don’t want to take from the suffragette movement, I think white is a dangerous choice. As Mrs. Banks from the first (and definitively better!) Mary Poppins should remind us, the suffragettes (both British and American) donned three colors on their sash: white, yes, but also purple and green. The suffragettes chose white to represent purity, a color that continues to embody an outdated feminine ideal of innocence and virginity. In that regard, white implies feminine docility and dependence on, rather than equality with, men. Consider then that purple represented loyalty, and green represented hope. Out of the three, I believe that hope better defines today’s feminist movement.
But second, and perhaps more importantly, why did these women choose to express their political beliefs through clothing at all? Neither Hillary nor I have forgotten the ridiculous barrage of media coverage over her pantsuits. The excessive discussion of her clothing de-legitimized her as a politician and turned her into a walking rainbow. When we choose to use a fashion statement to make a political one, we offer anti-feminists an invitation to focus on women’s clothing over their politics.
I acknowledge that Congressional women did invite men to join them in in an attempt to de-emphasize sexist tropes about women’s fashion. However, their efforts fell short for two reasons. First, Congressional men wearing white shirts just looks like…well…men going to work. Second, given that we live in a world in which women’s clothing is already scrutinized more than men’s, the effects of sartorial activism will continue to harm the perception of women legislators as less serious.
It may be that in writing this article, I fall into the very trap that I reject: making a hypercritical judgment of women’s clothing. It’s complicated. But in wearing clothing in order to get noticed, these Congresswomen force us to notice their clothing more than we already do.
There’s no wrong way to be a feminist. If Congressional women fully acknowledged these historical points and still felt that white was a valid expression of their message, all power to them. I only caution that there may be historical context they missed; I believe that their protest has the potential to delegitimize the political voice of women in the future.
Though I question their State of the Union tactics, I am excited to see that women in Congress have already begun to collaborate. There are still so few of us, and many of our concerns are shared; we must continue to stick together. I am glad for this watershed opportunity to reconsider tactics for women’s political involvement, and am excited to see what our new legislators will accomplish in the next two years and beyond. As we continue to move forward, we as women — in politics, business, or any field — need to reflect on our actions and our history to ensure that we don’t embrace the pernicious assumptions that hold us back.
Kaley Pillinger is a sophomore in Timothy Dwight College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .