I had such a cool post idea for today, darlings. I was going to write everything I knew about suffragette jewelry: about how the use of green, white, and violet means “Give Women the Vote” and how many great examples there were of suffragette jewelry online.
Here’s the thing: before I write anything for you, even if I’m writing about something I think I know, I do research. I went looking for information on suffragette jewelry expecting confirmation of what I already knew plus maybe a detail or two.
But lo and behold: most of what I know about suffragette jewelry is wrong. Or if not actually wrong, at least drastically oversimplified.
What I thought I knew: jewelry from the late 1800’s and early 1900’s with a color scheme of green, white, and violet is suffragette jewelry! The colors stand for the acronym “Give Women the Vote.” Suffragettes are awesome, jewelry is awesome, this is all awesome.
This turned out to be partly true.
At least one of the most popular suffragette groups – the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) did claim the colors purple, white, and green (in 1908). But not because it makes up an acronym; rather, because the WSPU felt that the three hues represented qualities that every suffragette had: nobility/dignity, purity, and hope.
The WSPU also never said “Give Women the Vote” at all. Their rallying cry was “Votes for Women.”
That’s not to say there was never any high end jewelry produced in the purple/green/white color scheme that was an intentional nod to the suffragette movement: we have primary source proof that there was. (Image source.)
Mappin & Webb, a renowned London jeweler, dedicated a page of their 1908 Christmas catalog to green, white, and purple suffragette jewelry. At least some high end suffragette jewelry definitely existed – pretty pieces that I imagine mostly on elegant noncombatants, like the mom from Mary Poppins, rather than on the women who were getting arrested.
But such pieces would only have been produced for a small window of time: after the WSPU declared their colors in 1908 but before the start of World War I in 1914.
In the United States, suffragettes were more likely to wear celluloid buttons (a recent invention) demanding votes for women or to sell their jewelry to raise money for the cause. (Image source.)
Also worth noting: the suffragettes were not a subtle bunch. Expressing their beliefs in secretly color coded jewelry really is off-brand for them, for the most part.
There are pieces of jewelry definitively associated with the suffragette movement, but they’re rare and the majority of them looked nothing like the typical high end designs of the time.
Above, you can see a hunger strike medal from the Museum of London’s collection. It was presented to suffragette Leonora Tyson, honoring her for maintaining her hunger strike so valiantly that she was force fed on 4/3/1912.
Speaking of the Museum of London: Beverley Cook, the curator responsible for the museum’s suffragette collections, has spoken out against the idea that green/white/violet color schemes symbolize a “Give Women the Vote” acronym, saying there’s nothing in the historical record to support it.
These medal belonged to another suffragette, Florence Haig, who suffered multiple incarcerations for the cause, as well as hunger strikes. Can you imagine Florence Haig deciding she wanted a tasteful crescent brooch with amethysts, peridot, and white enamel to support the cause? I think not.
There is another kind of jewelry legitimately associated with the suffragette movement: and that’s the Holloway brooch. These rare, fascinating pieces were designed by Sylvia Pankhurst, noted suffragette leader, and presented to certain suffragettes to mark their releases from Holloway prison. The design incorporates a portcullis with a purple, white, and green ribbon superimposed on the front. Full of meaning, but definitely not luxe of material and bearing no resemblance to high end jewelry of the day.
So what’s the deal with all of this fine green, white, and violet jewelry being listed as suffragette jewelry?
Here’s an explanation from Lang Antiques’ Antique Jewelry University:
To provide further historical context for the use of the WSPU colors it is important to note that the latter half of the nineteenth century saw the discovery of demantoid garnet in the Ural Mountains of Russia. Its beautiful bright green color inspired a ‘demantoid fever’ that raged through Europe invigorating the Edwardian, Belle Epoque and Art Nouveau design aesthetics. Another popular green gem of the period was peridot, which was said to be the favorite gemstone of King Edward VII, and was therefore incorporated in much of the jewelry produced in Great Britain from the mid-1800s until the onset of war.
Red-purple (violet) and yellow-green appear directly opposite each other on the color wheel making them complementary colors. The opposition of these colors creates what is referred to as maximum contrast and maximum stability. Color theory would account for the popularity of mating peridot or demantoid with a purple gem – amethyst (or rhodolite garnet). The color combination is striking to the eye and the coupling was inevitable. Add pearls or diamonds or white enamel to this combination and you have the colors of the WSPU. Jewelry in this color combination was created long before the WSPU and is still popular today. Labeling EVERY Art Nouveau, Edwardian or Belle Epoque jewelry item in this color palette Suffragist jewelry is undoubtedly incorrect and any piece outside the years 1908 (WSPU declaring their colors) to 1914 (onset of war in Europe) absolutely incorrect.”
So, basically: it’s just a good color scheme. There’s no reason to believe most of the “suffragette” pieces you see around the internet aren’t valid antiques, but there’s no reason to believe they have any real connection to the suffragette movement, either.
My guess is that most sellers putting the suffragette label on their green/white/violet pieces aren’t seeking to deceive anyone, they just don’t know the real story: much like me, prior to writing this article.
If you want a pretty piece of jewelry that was definitely associated with the suffragette movement, my advice to you (which is good advice in all antique jewelry situations) is to source your piece from a dealer you trust completely.
For example: this piece, currently for sale by the reputable Three Graces, is listed as suffragette jewelry. But the description also says this:
We see it as a right for women to own jewelry when in the past there was a more serious right in question — for a woman to be able to vote. Suffragette jewelry has many imitators with real examples few in number. This is only the fifth piece in fourteen years which has met our exacting vetting process.
Green, white and purple were the emblematic colors used to symbolize allegiance to the movement to gain the vote or “the suffrage”. Today we wear simple ribbons of color to represent our support of any number of causes. It seems so hard to imagine that it was only 100 years ago that so many individuals were denied a voice in the most basic rights of a democratic society.”
In a day and age when we must face the insult of this vomitous nonsense about repealing the 19th amendment, it’s more important than ever to remember that the right to vote was only ever a sure thing for men. White men, to be specific.
For the rest of us: our ancestors fought for the right to have our voices heard, and it’s the least we can do to get off our butts and exercise that hard-won privilege.
Please go vote on November 8th, US readers. Do it for the suffragettes.
Hughes, Ivor. “Suffragette Memorabilia: Separating the Fact from the Fiction.” New England Antiques Journal. October 8, 2015. Web. October 19, 2016.
“Myths & Misinformation About Suffrage Jewelry.” Inherited Values. June, 2011. Web. October 19, 2016.
“Suffragist Jewelry.” Lang Antiques’ Antique Jewelry University. Web. October 19, 2016.
“Silver Hunger Strike Medallion with Purple, White and Green Ribbon.” Museum of London, Museum of London.
“Hunger Strike Medal.” Museum of London, Museum of London.
“Brooch.” Museum of London, Museum of London.
“Brooch.” Museum of London, Museum of London.
Yaeger, Lynn. “Inside the Suffragists’ Jewelry Box: How Women of the Movement Wore Their Pride on Their Sleeves.” Vogue, October 26, 2015.
I have read about certain symbols in suffragette jewelry, besides the colors which can help authenicate it. The portcullis is obviously one, but also wings and brooches that look like chain linked together. I’m sure there are more but this is what I can remember. Thank you for sharing your in depth knowledge with us, Becky.
I only just found this article whilst researching the topic myself.
Thank you for explaining the misconceptions!
Love your work.
My pleasure! I found it a very enlightening subject to research, myself. Thanks so much for commenting, and for you kind words!
What a fabulous article!
Whether you like her or not, Hillary should be inspired by the past and wear these colors as she casts her vote. After all, this is groundbreaking that we could have our first women president.
Women have come full circle!
That would be pretty fabulous. It’s hard not to be inspired by the fact that women have come from not being allowed to vote to having the chance to vote for one of our own for President of the United States in less than 100 years.
What a terrific and timely post- thank you!
Excellent article, Becky!
Thank you, Jamie!!
Long time reader first time commenter. This was an awesomely informative and fascinating post. You have a gift for making historical topics interesting. Thank you, Becky!
Thank you so much, fabulous first-time commenter Ava! I’m so glad you enjoyed it.
Also: this is an A+++ first comment.
I loved learning more about this. But the women’s suffrage movement was not an easy one. They could be arrested for even showing up at the polls — and were (Susan B. Anthony was on trial in 1872). But most interesting to me when I researched this subject? The staunchest opposition for women having the right to vote came from other women, and it was intense.
Lisa Sullivan says
Thank you for your thorough research which has given me a better understanding of suffragette jewelry, Becky!
I thoroughly enjoyed leaning more about this fascinating subject, myself – thank you for sharing my interest and making it more fun!
Amy Roseveare says
So interesting! Thanks for all your research and sharing about this interesting category of jewelry, Becky.
It was my pleasure! I thoroughly enjoyed myself.