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It is 100 years since women in Britain were finally granted the right to vote – as long they were over 30 and met some other criteria – but it was a decade prior that the suffragettes adopted their iconic colours. Purple, white and green became the tricolore of choice for the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), with the hope they would unite those attending a mass demonstration in London’s Hyde Park on 21 June 1908. It turned out to be a wise idea to have a semblance of uniform as some 500,000 people from all over Britain showed up. And when they went home, they took the WSPU colours with them.
Soon they were being used on all manner of items, from rosettes and sashes to flags, banners, postcards and posters. Shops got in on the act and put purple, white and green on handbags, shoes, toilet soap and underwear. Wealthier women could show their support through their jewellery, by wearing amethysts, pearls, peridots or emeralds. In the weekly newspaper Votes
for Women, co-editor Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence explained the symbolism of the colours.
“Purple, as everyone knows, is the royal colour. It stands for the royal blood that flows in the veins of every suffragette, the instinct of freedom and dignity … White stands for purity in private and public life … Green is the colour of hope and the emblem of spring.”
TRIUMPHANT TRICOLORE This illustration graced the song sheet for popular suffrage anthem The March of the Women, penned by Ethel Smyth in 1911