Crafting a Voice: The History of Suffrage Banners

FEB 6, 2020
Alice Paul sewing a suffrage flag 1912, Library of Congress

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). 

Women’s rights activists Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, 1891 
(Ohio History Connection, SC 1903) 

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. 

Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Photographs and Prints Division, The New York Public Library. (1864). Portrait of abolitionist Sojourner Truth, sitting with yarn and knitting needles, 1864. Retrieved from Digital Collections.
Postcard featuring an illustration done by a Cincinnati woman, 1912-1915 
(Ohio History Connection, SC 5690)

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. 

Nine African-American women posed, standing, full length, with Nannie Burroughs holding banner reading, “Banner State Woman’s National Baptist Convention”. , None. [Between 1905 and 1915] [Photograph] Retrieved from the Library of Congress.

Looking at colors used in banners and sashes stitched by suffragists, you can see the thought behind their brand strategy. 

Yellow/Gold

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. 

A handmade banner inspired by the suffrage movement.

Purple

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. 

Oklahoma Federation of Colored Womens Clubs Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture

Green

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. 

White

The absence of color stands for purity both in private and public life. 

Suffragists gathered on the steps of the Ohio Statehouse in Columbus, 1914 
(Ohio History Connection, SC 1492)

Floral

Beyond the sunflower and roses, florals were used in suffrage imagery to signify the strength in femininity. 

Greek goddess

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. 

Suffragist dressed as a mythical goddess on horseback, 1914 
(Ohio History Connection, P 162)

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.

Featured Designs: Happy Geo | Watercolor White Clouds

Looking for a way to learn more about women’s history and the suffrage movement?
Here are a few options to get your started:

  1. Join me at one of my upcoming suffrage banner workshops to stitch a sentiment that resonates with you featuring Spoonflower fabric. Upcoming workshop dates:
  2. Unable to attend one of the workshops listed above? Follow me on social media for upcoming announcements about additional workshops.
  3. Support other Spoonflower designers and create a banner from the comfort of your home. I’m obsessed with this design by vinpauld, which highlights a variety of women in history. You can stitch up your own suffragist sash thanks to fentonslee and these cut and sew banners by a_frayer are incredibly charming. 
  4. Women’s Vote 100 has compiled a list of exhibits, concerts, and special events happening across the United States. 
  5. Visit a historic site that is tied to women’s history. National Votes for Women Trail has a wonderful assortment of sites across the country on this interactive map. 
  6. Read Crafting Dissent: Handicraft as Protest from the American Revolution to Pussyhats by Hinda Mandell to learn more about the history of handicraft as a form of advocacy. 

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.

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  • Our Guild is having it’s big biennial show this year, and our special exhibit is the “Century of Women’s Progress Quilt Challenge”, a curated collection of story quilts honoring the hundred-year anniversary of the 19th amendment and highlighting progress toward equality over the century since women obtained the vote.

    Link below to a page highlighting four entries of Special Merit.

    MANY of the quilt artists submitting works used Spoonflower to print imagery for their creations. And we are not the only guild with a show/exhibit oriented around this important anniversary.

  • this is an awesome post. i am bookmarking it because there is some personal research i want to do. thank you!

    • Lauree, thank you for your kind words! I hope you have fun searching for stories about your family and other interesting activists in your area.

    • Kim,
      Thank you for your kind words! Make sure to share your quilt if you make one and check out the Social Justice Sewing Academy for some activist quilt inspiration.

  • So cool! My 5th grade Girl Scout troop in NE Ohio is planning to make suffragist dresses and sashes to wear in a parade this spring. I will be sure to share this research with them. We will be visiting our local historical society to do research on local suffragists who we can then pretend to be. Any chance you’ll be in NE Ohio this spring?