Women in White: Democrats make a statement at SOTU

Inez Milholland Boissevain at a suffrage parade in 1913.

Democratic congresswomen stood out in white at this year’s State of the Union, emulating the suffragettes.

BY TESS TUITOEK ’21

In 1913, labor lawyer Inez Milholland Boissevain, a suffragist and World War I correspondent, rode down Pennsylvania Avenue on a white horse sporting a white cape to lead a suffrage parade in the nation’s capital. More than a hundred years later, women in Congress wore their own version of white armor to the State of the Union Address to make a bold and effective fashion statement. Led by the House Democratic Women’s Working Group, Democratic Congresswomen were encouraged to wear white to pay tribute to the suffragettes that came before them. Chair of the House Democratic Women’s Working Group, Representative Lois Frankel (D-FL) told CNN, “Wearing suffragette white is a respectful message of solidarity with women across the country, and a declaration that we will not go back on our hard-earned rights.” Democrats also aimed to call attention to women’s rights neglected by the Trump administration, including affordable childcare, access to healthcare, the economic security of women and their families and reproductive rights for women in America. “It’s symbolic and it shows [that] the nature of the House and politics is changing very much,” said Sara Saramiento ’21. “It’s looking at the past and recognizing and acknowledging the first people to be changemakers in that context and siding with that.”

Newly elected representative for New York’s 14th Congressional District Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) put her own spin on the all-white look by taking a page out of Boissevain’s book and wearing a white cape with her outfit. Ocasio-Cortez also wore white to her swearing-in to Congress earlier this year together with her newly elected colleague, Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN). Ocasio-Cortez is the youngest woman ever elected to Congress at 29 while Omar is one of the first two Muslim women elected to Congress. “From the suffragettes to Shirley Chisholm, I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for the mothers of the movement,” said Ocasio-Cortez. Shirley Chisholm was the first African American woman to be elected to Congress and a former Mount Holyoke professor. Chisholm also wore white to her swearing-in to Congress in 1968. Other political leaders who have donned the white armor as a political statement include Hillary Clinton, the first female presidential candidate nominated by a major party, who wore her famous white pantsuit to the 2016 Democratic National Convention as well as during President Donald Trump’s inauguration in 2017.

With a record number of women serving in Congress today, all from different communities and backgrounds, it has been a long journey since the beginning of the suffrage movement in the 19th century. For the original suffragettes, the choice of white was a publicity strategy for the movement. White represented purity and looked nonthreatening, making it more difficult to criticize their appearances, according to Rebecca Boggs Roberts, author of “Suffragists in Washington, D.C.: The 1913 Parade and the Fight for the Vote.” The white dresses had the added benefit of helping these women stand out and attract photo coverage in the newspapers. The women of today used white apparel to draw attention to themselves too — Democratic women painted a striking picture against the mostly dark-clad, white and male members of Congress on the Republican side of the chamber.

Fashion has been used as a tool throughout the Trump administration to tackle misrepresentation and the mishandling of women’s issues, from the pussyhats at the Women’s March to donning all black in solidarity with the #MeToo movement at last year’s State of the Union.

Many Mount Holyoke students recognize the significance of these political fashion statements. “Women are the minority in Congress and official spaces and so it’s important to show other people that they matter and their voices matter,” said Guyania Sarazin ’21. “Everyone coming together that way despite their differences shows that you can’t silence women.”

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