the colours of protest

WSPU medal for valour, 1909.

Badges of honour, medals, ribbons, rosettes: delicate little things that carry great meaning.  The Women's Social and Political Union was founded in 1903.  Its priority was to somehow get British women the vote.  The decoration, above, was given by the WSPU to women who had been imprisoned for demonstrating, for 'occupying' the railings outside Parliament.  Once imprisoned, they would go on a hunger strike and then be force fed by very primitive means.  Their tactics were to be noticed, to be seen, to escape somehow the patronising male gaze that preferred them to be angels of the household.  

The colours, green, white and violet, stand for give, women and vote.  Other noble qualities were ascribed to these colours: hope, purity and dignity, but their earliest incarnation is as an acronym.  And it wasn't a secret society, it was to the WSPU's advantage to have this tricolour everywhere.  

At the time, in the early 1900s, violet was also the colour of half-mourning, that period after two years of full mourning in black crepe.  Green was one of the colours of the aesthetic movement, and peridots were re-discovered in 1900 when, after 2000 years, the island in the Red Sea that had peridot deposits was rediscovered.  The combination of violet and green was often seen in Liberty style dress – a combination of the aesthetic movement and art nouveau.  So the WSPU colours were very current, aesthetically, culturally and politically –  violet and green were not the robust primary colours found in military banners and flags.

The art nouveau pendant below is another version, less overtly militant than the medal on a ribbon, but no less powerful in its declaration of belief.


Suffragette jewellery: peridot, pearls and amethyst, ca 1900

In the ex-colonies of the British Empire, New Zealand's women had been givne the vote in 1893, Australia in 1902.  The UK gave it in 1918 but only to women over 30.

Stephanie Whitecolour, signs