Each March in the U.S. and elsewhere, we honor the role women have played in society with Women’s History Month.
“Feminists in the 1970s critiqued the exclusion and lack of recognition of women’s contributions to our society and campaigned for the inclusion of women in our history school curriculum, as well as in other places, like representations of our national history, statuary, public documents (stamps and currency), and portraiture,” Sharon Barnes, Ph.D., associate professor and chair of the Department of Women’s and Gender Studies at The University of Toledo, tells TODAY.com.
Then a group of women in Santa Rosa, California, took matters into their own hands and celebrated their efforts with a Women’s History Week celebration in 1978. The movement quickly spread around the country and just a few years later, women sought national recognition.
Sure enough, President Jimmy Carter issued the first Presidential Proclamation declaring the Week of March 8th 1980 as National Women’s History Week. The weekly observance continued until 1987 when Congress designated March as Women's History Month.
Since then, the month of March has gone purple, green and white in honor of the women who've paved the way — and continue to do so today. “The use of the colors purple, green, and white to represent women’s history seem have their roots in the suffrage movement in England. They were the colors of the Women’s Suffrage and Political Union (WSPU) from the early 1900s and were brought to the U.S. by American suffragists who worked with them," Barnes says.
Jennifer York, MS, RN, a doctoral candidate who heads the wellness design division at design firm Stephanie Parisi Studio, tells TODAY.com that the colors were adopted for the first celebration in 1978, then became a nationwide symbol in the years to follow.
Ahead, we dive even deeper into the meaning behind the three (well, four) Women's History Month colors.
Women’s History Month’s colors and their meaning
Historically, white was included as part of Women’s History Month’s palette because it represents purity and equality. The concept of purity was "especially important to contradict the smear tactics of the anti-suffragists, who portrayed suffragists as loose or immoral women," according to Barnes. However, the symbolic meaning of purity has lost its original value because of its current controversial associations with current depictions of white marking equality, truth and freedom.
“Since the movement’s origins, the color white has been used in association with equality and was used by women’s rights activists,” York says. “As an example, in 1978 to support the Equal Rights amendment, 200,000 women dressed in white marched on Washington D.C. wearing white with sashes in purple and green.”
White is said to calm and comfort us, as well as have an uplifting effect, shares York. “Throughout history, including the women’s movement, white has been worn during important rituals. This color leaves our minds open to possibility and serves to uplift our thoughts and mood.”
Ah, visions of verdant mountains and fertile valleys. “The color green symbolizes hope, new beginnings and growth,” York says.
Generally speaking, the color green represents nature. “There are deep meanings associated with it as it brings one a feeling of being closer to nature thereby soothing stress and boosting our moods.,” York says. “It is thought that it has ancient positive roots due to this association of nature’s cycle of new growth, rebirth and harmony, and the hope of these new beginnings.”
As for purple, Barnes points to a blog post by Stephanie Hall in the Library of Congress about symbolism in the Women’s Suffrage Movement.
"In England purple symbolized royalty, loyalty to the cause, and women’s quest for freedom," Hall writes. In the U.S., however, purple lacks the royal nod.
"Purple is recognized internationally as the color of women and gender equality,” York says, adding that it stands for justice and dignity, and signifies visionary thinking.
Something else to note: York point out that purple is a beautiful mixture of red and blue, which physiologically may have a calming and inspiring effect on body and mind.
What about gold?
This metallic hue deserves mention, too. “Gold was also a popular color for American suffragists. It emerged from their losing battle for suffrage in the state of Kansas in 1867, when they adopted the sunflower, Kansas’ state flower, as their symbol,” Barnes says. “The gold of the sunflower was seen as ‘a beacon of hope’ and was adopted by American suffragists along with the purple and white from the UK movement.”
So, if you like glitz, feel free to accessorize with gold — in addition to purple, white, and green — during the month.
The psychology of color
Colors can influence human behavior and feelings. “Colors come to have symbolic and cultural meanings over time,” York says, elaborating that their meanings can be very individual, culturally determined or have universal application. “They affect us both consciously and unconsciously," she adds.
In the case of Women’s History Month, “this combination of the uplifting mood of white, calming and inspiring effects of purple, and the feelings of harmony and rebirth elicited by the color green create a dynamic and balanced representation."
Celebrate women all day, every day
Throughout the month of March, TODAY.com is celebrating women across generations who have made history and continue to move the conversation forward by breaking stigmas, sparking dialogue and inspiring the next generation.