In honor of the 100th anniversary of the 19th amendment, we sat down with Sarah Marsom, an Ohio-based heritage resource consultant and Spoonflower maker, to learn more about the history of women’s right to vote and the suffrage banners that helped spread their message. As craftivism becomes more prevalent in today’s culture, Sarah shares how the women of the past used their craft to share their voice and how you can continue to carry on the legacy they left behind.
Sarah: Women used sewing as a way to not only gain financial autonomy but to also craft a voice for themselves in politics. It is hard to believe there was a time when women could not vote. In fact, for many women around the world it has been 50 years or less since they could vote for an elected official of their choice. This year, people across the United States of America are celebrating the 100th anniversary of the 19th amendment, which granted women the right to vote (the majority of women of color could not vote until the Voting Rights Act of 1965).
Sewing has been a form of political advocacy for centuries. It has been used to create economies independent from colonizers, and the Anti-Slavery Sewing Society chapters in the United States stitched clothing for runaway slaves. Fabric banners were integral to the women’s rights movement in the 1800/1900s around the world. Women were already stitching outfits for the family and/or working in textile factories to earn an income for their family, so it makes sense they would use the skills and materials they had to advocate for themselves.
There is not clear documentation of the first suffrage banner, but what is clear is the suffragists (women who fought for the right to vote) thoughtfully organized their goals to help develop cohesive branding to maximize their impact.
In England, the Artists’ Suffrage League was founded in 1907 and created clear guidelines for text and colors for advocacy materials in addition to producing banners for protests. Their cohesive branding was used by the suffragists in the United States as well, with historical documents showing these women from the other side of the Atlantic Ocean communicated and shared strategies.
Looking at colors used in banners and sashes stitched by suffragists, you can see the thought behind their brand strategy.
Kansas sunflowers inspired suffragists Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony to incorporate yellow and gold into the women’s movement. The use of yellow would go on to inspire “The Yellow Ribbon,” a song that was performed in 1876 during U.S. Centennial celebrations (lyrics for this song and other suffrage tunes can be found here). Yellow would continue to have significance in the movement. Tennessee suffragists wore yellow roses, and people opposed to women’s right to vote wore red roses. Suffragists were triumphant in their battle of the roses, and Tennessee became the final vote needed to ratify the 19th amendment.
Purple has been a color to signify royalty (click here for that bit of textile history), and suffragists used it to imply they were worthy of having a political opinion.
Spring is tied to hope and rebirth; the suffragists’ use of green stood for their ability to be hopeful even during a difficult fight for equality and potential for political systems to be reborn.
The absence of color stands for purity both in private and public life.
Beyond the sunflower and roses, florals were used in suffrage imagery to signify the strength in femininity.
Many people attribute the Greeks with the founding of democracy. By harnessing the power of a Greek goddesses in banner imagery, the suffragists could reinforce that women have always been a part of democracy.
Sewists have continued to use the needle and thread since the 19th amendment was passed—empowering themselves with a flattering outfit, curating their personal space by customizing their home textiles, and creating pieces that express their political beliefs. As we celebrate the 100th anniversary of women’s right to vote, we have the opportunity to craft creations that pay homage to the women of the past and advocate for equality today.
Looking for a way to learn more about women’s history and the suffrage movement?
Here are a few options to get your started:
Inspired to meet more strong women in the Spoonflower community? Get to know 10 different Spoonflower designers from our International Women’s Day spotlight.
About the Guest Author
Sarah is a heritage resource consultant and crafter based in Columbus, Ohio. In 2017, Sarah launched the Tiny Activist Project, which raises understanding of activists from the past through dolls. Every doll sold helps sustain a scholarship fund to send emerging professionals to historic preservation conferences. Sarah’s work crafting connections to the past on her website.