Michelle Obama’s VOTE necklace is the latest jewelry to send a political message

Angelena Iglesia

The “VOTE” necklace is just the most recent link in a long chain of politically charged statement jewelry that has helped shape history. Traditionally perceived as being decorative, expensive and feminine — even patriarchal — jewelry may seem like an unlikely canvas for expressing dissent. Yet women have long used […]

The “VOTE” necklace is just the most recent link in a long chain of politically charged statement jewelry that has helped shape history. Traditionally perceived as being decorative, expensive and feminine — even patriarchal — jewelry may seem like an unlikely canvas for expressing dissent. Yet women have long used their jewelry choices as a form of political messaging.

Jewelry has always been political in the broad sense. Historically, engagement and wedding rings symbolized a man’s ownership of his wife. (It was only in the mid-20th century that “double ring” wedding ceremonies became popular in the United States; male engagement rings have yet to catch on.) Before women could own property or open bank accounts, their jewels functioned as de facto life insurance policies, retirement savings and, sometimes, emergency funds in case of divorce.

And jewelry comes preloaded with symbolism, projecting messages that reflect on the wearer. Gold can be gaudy and greed-inducing (as in “gold digger”), but it can also suggest purity and stability (as in “the gold standard” or “a heart of gold.”) Diamonds, once coveted luxury items, are today just as likely to be disdained for their unethical origins and marketing. A strand of pearls conjures up innocence as well as wisdom, and a certain strain of WASP-y womanhood.

The first piece of modern political jewelry may have been the antislavery medallion designed by English ceramist Josiah Wedgwood in 1787. Women of fashion wore the cameo — depicting an enslaved man in chains kneeling under the words “AM I NOT A MAN AND A BROTHER” — in hatpins, brooches and necklaces to show their support for abolition. The popularity of the accessory, which piggybacked on the already trendy neoclassical aesthetic in jewelry, hastened public acceptance of the cause, and vice versa; England abolished slavery in 1833.

Likewise, the suffragists strove to conform to fashion rather than upend it, presenting themselves as respectable women instead of radicals. They incorporated their movement’s colors, slogans and symbols into socially acceptable trappings of femininity like ribbons, hats, teapots and jewelry. President Trump may have just pardoned Susan B. Anthony, but she and her fellow suffragists had so little interest in being pardoned that they wore jewelry advertising that they had been jailed for civil disobedience.

In 1909, British suffragist Sylvia Pankhurst designed the Holloway Prison brooch, depicting the portcullis of the House of Commons superimposed with a broad arrow — designating crown property — enameled in green, white and purple. It was awarded to suffragists who had done time in London’s women’s prison. Along with its American equivalent — the “Jailed for Freedom” pin designed by artist and activist Nina Allender, in the shape of a cell door — the brooch transformed the instruments of oppression into literal badges of honor.

As the women’s liberation movement of the 1970s drove women into politics in unprecedented numbers, jewelry mitigated persistent tensions surrounding power and gender. In the 1980s and 90s, formidable figures like Margaret Thatcher, Katharine Graham, Ann Richards and Barbara Bush rebranded their pearl necklaces as “power pearls.” Like the suffragists before them, these women found that they could accomplish more — especially in conservative circles — if they masked their strength and ambition behind a blandly inoffensive feminine facade.

Madeleine Albright amassed a collection of pins during her years as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, and deployed them strategically when dealing with world leaders as America’s first female secretary of state. “The right symbol at the correct time can add warmth or needed edge to a relationship,” Albright mused in her 2009 memoir “Read My Pins: Stories from a Diplomat’s Jewel Box.” As she struggled to bring peace to the Middle East, “although I often wore the dove, I found cause — when displeased with the pace of negotiations — to substitute a turtle, a snail, or, when truly aggravated, a crab.” For a meeting with Yasser Arafat in Gaza City in 1999, Albright wore a pin in the shape of a bee. “I spent many hours wrangling with the Palestinian leader,” she remembered. “My pin reflected my mood.”

Royal watchers and jewelry bloggers accused the studiously apolitical Queen Elizabeth II of waging a comparable campaign of “brooch warfare” when President Trump visited London in 2018. Though she was the perfect hostess, the monarch silently registered her displeasure by sporting a floral pin the Obamas had given her during their own state visit in 2011. Just a few months earlier, the Queen’s cousin, the Duchess of Kent had waged a brooch battle of her own, wearing a racist “blackamoor” brooch — an exoticized European depiction of an African man — to a Christmas lunch at Buckingham Palace attended by Prince Harry’s African American fiancee, Meghan Markle. She was forced to apologize after being called out in the media.

In 2019, Ruth Bader Ginsburg chose Stella & Dot’s Pegasus bib necklace for the Supreme Court’s first portrait with newly appointed Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh. Ginsburg fan Susan Hyman, who sent her the spiky metallic collar, told Town & Country it reminded her of “something a warrior princess like Wonder Woman would wear as armor into battle. It projects strength, confidence, and fearlessness.” At a time when the Court was under intense scrutiny, the necklace was equal parts shield and sword.

When Speaker Nancy Pelosi ripped up President Trump’s 2019 State of the Union speech on live television, she was dressed for the moment in a pantsuit of suffragist white with an aggressive-looking three and a half inch golden spike pinned to the left lapel — a miniature version of the Mace of the Republic, the official symbol of the House of Representatives. Ann Hand, the wife of Lyndon Johnson’s Chief of Protocol, designed the brooch for her bipartisan line of Americana jewelry when Pelosi became the first female Speaker of the House in 2007. By wearing it, Pelosi reminded Trump — and perhaps herself — that he was on her turf. (The brooch got a re-wear during the impeachment hearings, silhouetted against a somber black dress.)

For women who don’t have the freedom or opportunity to express their opinions publicly, jewelry can speak louder than words. Markle’s jewelry choices have been analyzed with cabalistic fervor, such as the gold and topaz pendant by London ethical jewelry line Edge of Ember that she wore in a recent charity video. It was in the shape of an evil eye, a protective talisman — possibly intended as a deterrent to the ravenous tabloid press.

Jewelry may be small, but it does a lot of heavy lifting. It’s more impactful than other types of clothing in face-to-face conversation, selfies, television close-ups or, indeed, Zoom meetings. It might well represent a bigger financial investment than anything else a woman is wearing. And, in a world of talking heads, it’s a powerful form of personal branding. Gabrielle Giffords has been wearing the same silver rose brooch since she was an Arizona state legislator; she wore it again for her powerful appearance at the DNC. Kamala D. Harris is rarely seen without pearls; Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has her hoop earrings. Superficially, the consistency makes them recognizable; subconsciously, it inspires trust.

As first lady, Obama was particularly thoughtful about her jewelry choices. As with her clothes, she mixed inexpensive pieces, vintage finds and serious bling, highlighting the work of young American designers. She showed off her personality with playful oversized brooches and bangles and modernized more traditional pieces by combining them imaginatively — clipping brooches onto pearl necklaces, for example. When a tree fell on the White House lawn in 2011, she commissioned New York jeweler Kara Ross to turn it into wooden cuff bracelets, which she distributed as diplomatic gifts.

“Without intending it, I found that jewelry had become part of my personal diplomatic arsenal,” Albright wrote. Crucially, it’s a weapon that gives women in politics an advantage over their male counterparts, who are limited to the odd American flag (or “MATH”) pin. A silent statement, it can’t be readily challenged or debated. And it’s one that speaks directly to other women, who may be quicker to appreciate the symbolism (and stylishness) of jewelry choices. Jewelry allows women to wear their politics not just on their sleeves, but on their necks, earlobes, fingers and lapels.

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