Lecture Notes: the code of the suffragists | Calendar | Chicago Reader

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Lecture Notes: the code of the suffragists

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It wasn't very long ago that the major political question for women wasn't who would win but who would vote. The question of whether women should get their hands dirty casting ballots was settled only 80 years ago--the space of a single lifetime. That's astoundingly recent, though we don't think much about it. Like the difficult part of childbirth, the 70-year struggle that got us into the voting booth--and the passion, strategy, and symbols that went with it--has pretty much dropped from memory.

Judy Rosenbloom thinks she knows why. An antique-jewelry dealer who stumbled on a few suffragist artifacts and found herself drawn into the history of the women's movement, Rosenbloom says, "So many people have said to me, 'They just don't teach this.' I've had people come and show me things that were their grandmother's. The grandmother said it was her right-to-vote jewelry and the family said, 'Oh well, you know grandma.'...They were passing down the jewelry, but losing the story of what it was."

Right-to-vote jewelry? Rosenbloom fingers a necklace with seven green teardrops set in gold wire, each topped with a small purple stone and a tiny pearl. The color combination--green, white, and violet--is no accident, she says: the colors are an acronym. This delicate fringe necklace, made in 1910 of peridot, Burmese rubies, and natural pearls, is the art nouveau equivalent of the antiestablishment T-shirts that would come along a half century later. A custom-made political statement, it says G.W.V.--"Give women the vote."

"Not many people know there was such a thing as suffragist jewelry," Rosenbloom says. "They don't recognize it, and no one has ever really pulled together information about it." She first heard about it from an English friend, and her interest picked up when she spotted an ad for suffragette jewelry by the English firm Mappin and Webb in a 1909 publication, "Votes for Women." "Mappin and Webb still exists, and I contacted them," she says. "They have no record of having made suffragette jewelry, although they certainly did. Now we're trying to go back, find more of the suffragette publications, and see what the ads turn up."

English and American suffragettes moved in sync, with the younger American movement taking cues from its English counterpart. When British leader Emmeline Pankhurst called for women to "wear their colors," the green, white, and violet turned up in England and America on pins and bracelets as well as clothing. For the English, "it was the first time there had been a movement that included women in all social classes," Rosenbloom explains, and the first time much jewelry was made for women outside the upper class. Stones might be tourmaline, peridot, amethyst, pink sapphire, diamond, or green garnet--then recently discovered and relatively rare. In America, gold was sometimes substituted for green.

Shape counted too. Chains and hearts were common symbols. Gold chain bracelets closed with heart-shaped padlocks represented women's status, as did the small gold bar pins with a chain motif that were worn on the lapel. A gold chain pattern on a wedding ring indicated that the groom supported his bride in her quest for the vote and recognized her as an equal. Gold link bracelets were made in the image of the gates of Parliament, where women chained themselves in protest, or the gates of prisons where they were held. Butterflies represented the transformation that would come when the battle was won.

English women got the vote in 1918, American women in 1920. After that, Rosenbloom says, fashion changed: "not overnight, but people gradually went to a look that was more modern and more geometric." The high ruffled necklines and long white dresses that had been the backdrop for suffragette colors gave way to short, straight flapper styles. When the National American Woman Suffrage Association became the League of Women Voters, says Rosenbloom, "People just put these pieces away and started wearing art deco."

Rosenbloom will lecture on suffragette and other message jewelry from the past at 10:30 AM Saturday, November 4, at her shop, the Treasure Chest, 1853 Second Street in Highland Park. It's free; call 847-681-1860 for reservations.

--Deanna Isaacs

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jim Newberry.

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