By Ruth Stonesifer, National 1st Vice President
What’s the deal with all this “white” stuff? That was the question I was asking myself in May 2004 as I sat in a hotel parking lot waiting to attend my first Department of PA meeting. I had received a letter about the annual event and realized that I needed to know more about my role now that I had begun my reluctant journey as a Gold Star Mother. The thing that stood out the most to me in this invitation, however, was that we were required to wear all WHITE!
Personally, I had given up wearing white about forty pounds ago. After some consternation (and let’s be truthful here, frank resistance) about being told what to wear, I spent two days of my life desperately shopping for a pair of white pants and a blouse that made my “big-boned gal” frame look several sizes smaller, despite a color that wouldn’t camouflage anything! I was going to be a good sport about it, at least for my first meeting, so I had continued to shop.
Always an hour early for every event in my life, I sat for 45 minutes in my car that day daring someone else to walk into the hotel dressed up in a similar ice cream suit. I was hoping in my heart that no one else would appear in white and I could quickly change into my black outfit, neatly folded on the back seat. But then I saw the first participant arrive. Yes, there was someone else “foolish” enough to dress in white before the official start of summer. Hoping that there was perhaps a Good Humor ice cream sellers’ convention taking place in the same hotel, I tried to delay the inevitable. I bargained with my fate - “I’ll wait for just one more before I get out and show myself to the world.” More arrived. I realized that my black outfit would have to stay neatly folded on the back seat. It was time to go in and be recognized as an official member of this AGSM organization that I had never wanted to be eligible to join.
It turned out to be a great meeting and I was honored to meet Molly Snyder, our Korean era mother, who has traveled down this path long before any of the rest of us. Long before we were aware of how proud we were to be Americans – a truth largely unrecognized until our own child’s death brought it home to us.
Over the years, most of my questions about AGSM traditions have been answered. But the question of why we wear white was one I never got a clear answer to, other than “We’ve always done that.” I heard other mothers energetically questioning it as well, but the answer never varied. We knew what we did, but not why we did it. So I decided to do some research. I contacted Holly Fenelon, who is writing a soon-to-be published history of our organization, and asked her about AGSM and its tradition of wearing white. She told me that the tradition dated back to the earliest days of AGSM:
The selection of white as an organizational color is probably directly related to issues that arose during The Great War or, as we know it today, World War I. By the end of the first year of American involvement, tens of thousands of the nation’s soldiers had died. President Woodrow Wilson was concerned that large numbers of women wearing the traditional black or dark-colored mourning clothes would have a negative effect on public morale, diminishing the nation’s will, and eventually its ability, to win the war.
The concept of “gold star mothers” was already an honored part of the national psyche by then. Service flags (sometimes called service banners) had been hung in windows since the nation had declared war, displaying blue stars for each family member serving in the military and a gold star covering one of the blue stars for each family member who died in military service. The gold stars on the service flags had led to the “gold star” honorific for the mothers of the lost soldiers.
In May 1918, a gold star mother from New York wrote to President Woodrow Wilson asking him to authorize a “badge of honor” to represent the loss of a child in the nation’s service so gold star mothers would “not dare to mourn, lest those seeing [us] and knowing of that supreme sacrifice, might think we felt it a precious life thrown away.”
Thinking that such a decision would best be made for women by women, President Wilson turned the matter over to the Woman’s Committee of the Council of National Defense for suggestions. He heartily endorsed their recommendation that traditional black mourning clothes be replaced with “a three-inch black band, upon which a gilt star may be placed for each member of the family whose life is lost in the service, and the band shall be worn on the left arm.”
In the new book there is a picture taken in 1925 of Chicago gold star mothers posed wearing gold star armbands. Two of the five mothers are still “old school,” dressed in black but wearing the new armband which can hardly be seen against the dark background. The other three are dressed in WHITE, their armbands boldly proclaiming their status and embracing both the emotion and the intent of Wilson’s suggestion. While the armbands symbolically acknowledge their sacrifice, their overall “message” is one of pride, not sadness.
Holly also added a comment about the symbolism of white:
While black is a traditional color of mourning in Western cultures, I think the decision by AGSM to wear white, rather than black, was a strong statement of how the women wanted to be perceived as they participated in the organization's business. Yes, they mourned their lost children, but white made a symbolic statement that went beyond mourning, a statement of peace, sacrifice, innocence and goodness. Those were the things that their children had been and had died for - wearing white celebrated their children's contributions while the gold star acknowledged their sacrifice.
Another factor that may have influenced the selection of white as the formal color of AGSM is the Red Cross uniform worn by volunteers in the hospitals during World War I and afterwards. The uniform was starkly white and resembled a nun’s habit. It may be that the AGSM color choice was made in keeping with that tradition since, from its very beginnings, the members were hospital volunteers. This tie-in with the Red Cross uniforms seems to me one of the most logical explanations.
In the earlier history of the American Gold Star Manor written by Holly Fenelon and Mary Schmitz, it states that when the AGSM formed in 1928 “the members adopted white service uniforms as a psychologically positive way to honor the memory of their loved ones and to acknowledge their organizational kinship.” AGSM has always prided itself on not being a “weepy” group and their choice of white reflected that – their efforts have always been focused on what could be accomplished for others rather than commiserating with each other over their personal losses.
There are references throughout the organization’s history to the wearing of white:
1936: “Upon their silvery hair white flannel overseas caps, marked with a gold-thread star, sit in jaunty incongruity. Arms that once, in years gone by, cradled baby sons now pull about their shoulders long white flannel capes lined with pale gold satin.” (Describing attendees at the Detroit Convention)
1941: “There were more than 300 of them, graying now, dressed in white and each wearing one or more gold stars that testified to their priceless sacrifice on the altar of democracy 24 years ago.”
1945: A photograph of two white-clad, garrison-capped members of AGSM selling war bonds to the public appeared in the New York Times in November 1945.
1947: A request from national president Eleanor Boyd to the committee planning the 1947 convention: “There is one change that I would like to see you make if possible for the incoming officers. Have them wear long white dresses also. It gives a gracious womanliness and will impress your distinguished guests and most women look much better in long dresses than in short.”
1947: In response to members’ requests for “official dresses” rather than a uniform, national president Eleanor Boyd contracted with a manufacturer in Los Angeles to make both “a white costume street length for our mothers and also a white costume, floor length for institutions and installations, chorus work and for formal dinner or banquet wear.”
1948: “Wearing white and their distinctive white hats with gold lettering, they were familiar sights at parades and other events honoring veterans.”
1949: Responding to a question about when the traditional white outfit would be worn, including caps, Mrs. Boyd advised the members that “you do not wear them promiscuously at any time. Why? Because we want to keep the dignity and reverence due our sons and daughters who were gallant, honorable and true to all of us.”
As someone who spent 8 years of her life researching the Stonesifer/Voshell family tree, exploring the history of this tradition is fascinating to me. But that doesn’t solve the dilemma that many of the newer moms face when dealing with wearing what they view as the “dreaded white.” Here are a few more observations on that tradition.
We stand out in a crowd when we’re all wearing white. My first observation of this fact was at the candle light vigil at the Vietnam Wall during the Memorial Day weekend of 2004. Most of the Vietnam moms knew the drill and wore their casual whites with our AGSM organizational jacket. Around dusk, the “Carry the Flame” procession walked solemnly to the apex of the wall. Veterans and their families held glow-stick candles above us as they parted the way for the Gold Star Mothers. It was a very moving tribute. Then we walked to the other two monuments with the crowd making way for the moms in white. The mothers who had not dressed in white were gradually peeled away from the main group through no fault of their own; they were simply not recognized as being a part of the Gold Star Mother group. They had to fight their way back through the crowd to catch up to the moms in white because the crowd had closed ranks on them, thinking they were part of the onlookers. I could definitely see the advantage of wearing white after just that one event.
Often the first question from the general public upon seeing us dressed in white is: “Were you guys Army nurses in World War II or what?” While that particular war reference causes me pain since I was born after World War II, I think that my gray hair is proof of my tolerance for these uninformed, but good-hearted questions. Our “white” statement has drawn their attention; it offers me a chance to educate them on our mission.
My response is always calm and encouraging to those curious about why we are all dressed in white: “Actually we are mothers of sons and daughters who gave their lives in the service of this great Nation.” As they recoil from their obvious gaffe and wish they were about three miles away from this conversation, I usually smile and continue with, “Thank you for asking about our organization, we volunteer for the veterans in honor and memory of our sons and daughters.” As I walk away I smile softly and think to myself, "It could be worse, thank heavens we don’t have to wear the capes anymore."
Holly also offered me some thoughts on the power of white:
There is also a certain power to the wearing of white - your example of the crowd parting for the gold star mothers in 2004 is a wonderful anecdote, as is the fact that gold star mothers who hadn't worn white were separated unintentionally from the group for they were not recognized as part of it. The issue of organizational kinship and recognition is an important and powerful one.
This has turned into a fascinating question. I'm beginning to think that AGSM's original decision to wear white as an organizational color was inspired. It set the members apart in any crowd, recognizable and powerful as a unit; it reflected the active celebration of the lives of their children through service rather than the crippling sadness reflected by traditional black mourning which actually served to distance the mourner from other people; white symbolized peace, the one thing that gold star mothers of every generation have prayed for; and white reflected both the sacrifices of their children and the grace, purity and innocence of those who had died so young to create a world of freedom.
However, the question remains - how does this relate to the Convention and the discomfort many of the newer mothers felt about the dress code? To be fair, it was stated in the Convention Call in our Newsletter that the wearing of white was the suggested attire, not a requirement as it was for my first Department convention. This wording always appeals to my sense of fairness – as a group we can be accommodating and flexible.
Do I wear the white suit at every event where I represent the AGSM? No, I evaluate each event before making my decision. Sometimes I’m right with the program; other times I wish I had shown up dressed like the rest of the Gold Star Mothers, but failed to get the white memo. One thing I have learned is that the veterans recognize us in WHITE. And it is really easy to spot the group of Gold Stars Moms you need to join amid a sea of humanity.
Things have loosened up a bit since my first convention. Or, possibly, I have simply made my own personal decision as to what I will or will not do. I was so proud of the Gold Star Moms in Kansas recently when a new member showed up not dressed in white and was encouraged to participate in the Memorial Service regardless of what she wore. Most on the current National Executive Board feel that, no one should be turned away because of what they have on. (In the Bulletin IX February 28, 1947, Eleanor Boyd, the National President, wrote about the wearing apparel for the upcoming convention,” You may wear white to the meetings if you care to. It is not absolutely necessary”…then goes on to some other details but ends with …."we want no one to be barred from coming or participating after they arrive because of clothes.” (And we thought we were revolutionaries.)
I agree there is a special beauty and dignity to the ceremony when we all march to the altar in our long white gowns to pay our respects to our fallen heroes and members of our organization who have passed from our ranks. But more important to me is that the new mothers feel welcomed and comfortable as part of our beloved 81-year-old organization. I don’t want to drive the newer mothers into other organizations over a tradition that hasn’t been fully understood for decades. Nothing should be allowed to prevent them from blossoming into fully active Gold Stars dedicated to volunteering for the veterans, the active duty personnel and the families of the military community.
I hope that we are seen as Holly has suggested:
Think what you will, but I'll bet you any amount that not one person who sees gold star mothers going about their business individually or collectively in white thinks about whether that's a younger person's color or unseasonable or unflattering. No, they are thinking "Wow! Look at those amazing women!" because you are recognizable in your white as part of a unit that has a long, honorable and respected tradition of service, patriotism and sacrifice.
I don’t hide in my car anymore. I know that I am not alone in this overwhelming grief I feel for my son. It is helped by the intense pride I feel belonging to the group of amazing women who wear the gold star, dress in white and do phenomenal volunteer work for our veterans.
We were all decked out in our winter white pants suits so there was no mistaking us for not belonging to the same organization. After the breakfast a gentleman approached us as we headed to board the buses for the Memorial Amphitheater. He said that he was standing with a group of Veterans who saw us approach the building earlier that morning and stated they all stopped talking to marvel at the stunning group of women approaching to the building.
This may be the first time I have ever been associated with a group who were described as stunning but I have to admit we did look very official. Just take a look at the matching outfits our Banner and Flag guards wear as they carry our Banner representing our organization and the American Flag. They do us proud and I will cherish that morning’s fleeting description of Stunning the rest of my life.
The following resolution was approved at the 1986 National Convention: