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Why did women in Congress wear white for Trump’s State of the Union address?

The choice has historical significance.

Anna Howard Shaw and Carrie Chapman Catt lead an estimated 20,000 supporters in a women's suffrage march on New York's Fifth Avenue in 1915. (AP) (AP)

Even in the early 20th century, women seeking the right to vote knew how to get the media’s attention.

In demonstrations and parades, the suffragists donned white dresses meant to generate photo coverage in the daily newspapers. The color choice also echoed England’s suffrage movement, which used purple, white and green as its official colors.

The white outfits dozens of female lawmakers wore to the State of the Union address Tuesday night were a visual tribute to the U.S. suffragists and an attempt to spark the same kind of publicity, said Rebecca Boggs Roberts, the author of “Suffragists in Washington, D.C.: The 1913 Parade and the Fight for the Vote.”

It worked.

Hours before the speech, Democratic women were already posing in the Capitol in their white suits and dresses. “This afternoon, ahead of the #SOTU,” Rep. Sheila Jackson (D-Texas) tweeted, “I was honored to stand alongside some of the 106 women of the #116 Congress in #suffragette white @HouseDemWomen.”

And in the evening, when President Trump paid tribute to the record number of female lawmakers elected to Congress, the crowd of women in white on the House floor erupted in cheers and chants of “USA! USA!”

Members of Congress stood and applauded when President Trump highlighted women's electoral gains during his 2019 State of the Union address on Feb. 5. (Video: The Washington Post)

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“It’s a color that’s going to stand out in a sea of navy suits, so that looks good on television,” Boggs Roberts said. “They’re doing exactly the same thing.”

But the sea of white prompted a senior Trump reelection campaign adviser to liken the display to the Ku Klux Klan on Twitter early Wednesday morning. Other Trump supporters joined in.

A century ago, U.S. suffragists carefully chose the colors of their flag. Purple represented loyalty and was a nod to England’s suffragettes. White symbolized purity and contrasted with the flag’s darker colors. Gold paid homage to the sunflowers in Kansas, where Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton had campaigned for the right to vote.

The suffragists’ outfits of purple and gold sashes over white dresses were intended to look appealing in newspaper photographs, Boggs Roberts said. The white was also intended to look nonthreatening so people would have a harder time criticizing the women’s appearance as aggressive or masculine.

“When the biggest publicity tool was newspapers and images were black and white, (if) you make a good photo, it gets reproduced everywhere,” Boggs Roberts said. “And there is nothing they did that they did not consider the visual element to.”

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Women could buy “suffrage costumes” at some department stores or add a purple or gold accessory to any white dress or blouse, Einav Rabinovitch-Fox wrote in “Nasty Women and Bad Hombres: Gender and Race in the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election.” The idea was always to convey their message visually.

“An idea that is driven home to the mind through the eye produces a more striking and lasting impression than any that goes through the ear,” the book quoted suffragist Glenna Tinnin as saying.

Women’s ability to be identified with the movement simply by wearing specific colors ensured working-class women’s inclusion, Rabinovitch-Fox wrote. She wrote that for African American women, dressing like the white suffragists enabled them to simultaneously promote women’s rights and racial equality.

In a particularly striking use of white in 1913, labor lawyer Inez Milholland Boissevain wore a white cape and rode a white horse to lead a suffrage parade down Pennsylvania Avenue in the nation’s capital. More than 5,000 marchers and about two dozen floats followed her until angry crowds blocked the marchers, according to the Library of Congress.

At the opening of the Democratic National Convention three years later, thousands of suffragists in white dresses stood silently along 12 blocks of St. Louis, according to media reports. The display was termed the “golden lane” because the women had yellow parasols and sashes that said “Votes for Women.”

Male delegates to the convention walked or rode to the convention hall through the lines of women, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported. The delegates voted that day to add women’s suffrage to the Democratic Party’s platform.

Decades after the 19th Amendment granting women the right to vote was ratified in August 1920, white remained an important sartorial tool for women seeking to promote political agendas.

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Shirley Chisholm, who served as a congresswoman from New York, wore white on the night in 1968 when she became the first African American woman to be elected to Congress. She then dressed in a white blazer and blouse to appear on her presidential campaign posters four years later. “Bring U.S. together,” the poster read. “Vote Chisholm 1972. Unbought and unbossed.”

Women wore white in 1978 to march in the District in support of the Equal Rights Amendment. Geraldine Ferraro, the first woman to become a vice presidential candidate on a major party ticket, wore white to deliver her acceptance speech at the 1984 Democratic National Convention.

White has also played an important role in the politics of the 21st century. Hillary Clinton wore it to accept the Democratic nomination for president in July 2016, to the last presidential debate and to Trump’s inauguration. On Election Day, many women across the country wore white pantsuits to cast their votes for Clinton.

Freshman Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), a star of the Democrats’ progressive wing, wore all white to her swearing-in on Jan. 3.

To Amanda Litman, executive director of the political action committee Run for Something, the lawmakers wearing white to Trump’s speech symbolizes women’s refusal to be left out of the administration’s policy priorities.

“For us, it’s an indication that we’re building on a movement and that any single woman’s achievements does not stand alone,” said Litman, whose organization supports young progressives running for local public office. “She is standing on the shoulders of the women who came before her.”

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