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The Incredible Symbolism Of That Sea Of White At The State Of The Union

The biggest show of all at President Trump’s second State of the Union address was neither the speech itself nor the honored guests but the massive and indomitable sea of white. Of the 102 women serving in the House of Representatives, 89 of them are Democrats, most of whom wore white.  And when so many women are wearing white after Labor Day, we can’t help but notice.

White was the chosen color of the 19th-century suffragettes who knew that in order to be noticed, they first had to be seen. Since then, women in politics have often chosen to wear white as a way of paying homage to those who paved their way. Along with white, the American suffragette attire included purple, in solidarity with the suffragettes in Britain, and gold to represent the sunflower, the state flower of Kansas, which was one of the earliest states to consider granting women the right to vote.

June 4, 2019, marks 100 years since Congress passed the Nineteenth Amendment, guaranteeing women the right to vote. Though the suffragette movement officially began in 1848 at the first Seneca Falls Convention, women had been fighting for the right to vote since the inception of the United States.

Abigail Adams urged her husband, John Adams, to grant women the right to vote in the early drafts of the Constitution, warning him in a letter dated March 31, 1776 that, “if particular care and attention is not paid to the ladies, we are determined to foment a rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any laws in which we have no voice or representation.”

As John Adams replied on April 14, 1776, he refused to be swayed by the “despotism of the petticoat,” and did not heed her advice.

Now, as the 100 year anniversary draws near, evidence is surfacing that the woman‘s rights movement, though founded by staunch abolitionists, was predominantly concerned with white women‘s rights, leaving black women especially in the south to fend for themselves.

Amy Siskind, author of The List: A Week-by-Week Reckoning of Trump’s First Year, and President of the New Agenda which sponsors National Girlfriends Networking Day annually on the June 4 anniversary, acknowledges the historic importance of women wearing white and also the vast change that “seeing 100 women in a room wearing all white, and not only women, but women of all different ethnicities, backgrounds and religion” signals.

Overall, there are 111 new members to Congress, 42 of whom are women, and 24 are people of color.  This unprecedented show of diversity is one-sided:  The Republican freshman class welcomed only four women, and only one person of color.

Not only do the two parties seem to be moving in opposite directions, according to Siskind, but it is in some of the most traditional Republican strongholds in the Midwest that women gained the greatest foothold in the midterm elections. In states like Kansas, Iowa and Oklahoma, women won “against incumbent white men and the Republican party.”

Whereas Siskind attributes this wave directly to Trump’s divisive rhetoric and policies, State of California Assemblymember Sydney Kamlager-Dove says that it is also due to people realizing how powerful and important their votes are. “It shows that politicians don’t have to be part of some closeted, secret club,” says Kamlager-Dove. “It’s critical that women have strong voices in the issues that are important to us.”

Kamlager-Dove herself wore white when she was sworn in as California State Assemblymember last year, a color that, to her, says, “I’m here to work, not to play,” adding: “You can be sexy and feminine and powerful and all about the business at the same time.”

But with the Senate still in Republican control and President Trump still wielding the power of the executive branch, was this massive show of white little more than, well, show?

Not according to Congresswoman Karen Bass. Despite Trump’s SOTU demand that, “If there is going to be peace and legislation, there cannot be war and investigation,” the House has “absolute power – which is why he is having such a reaction to it, the power to provide oversight and to investigate.”

The color white connotes summer, leisure and travel. When fall comes, white is exchanged for the darker colors of getting down to business. And it makes seasonal sense too. White does not survive a trek to the office through cold, wet streets.

What’s so interesting about the dazzling white display of the female Democratic congressional contingent was that it signaled just the opposite. For women who have historically had to seek the permission of men just to be heard, who have been arrested and beaten for simply demanding the right to vote, and who have for too long been in the minority, white sends the message – loud and clear – that it’s time to get down to business. And the fact that the sea of white was accented by the occasional blue hijab or multicolored kente cloth just served as a reminder that every person’s voice must be heard and represented.