#FeministCorner – Red lipstick as a symbol of freedom and empowerment throughout History, from the American suffragettes to a Portuguese presidential candidate

With Laura Figueiredo Marques

“Cae, please tell me you are writing about the red lipstick movement in Portugal right now! I was doing a bit of research, and it was used by the first suffragettes! What an incredible parallelism!!! First, it became a hallmark of the feminine vote, and now it is the badge of a female presidential candidate!!! It writes itself!” – texts Laura in excitement.

And there we were. Fueled by our feminist blood speeding up in our vessels, with outbursts of enthusiasm every time a new Portuguese personality posted a selfie with red lipstick accompanied by a fierceful caption in defense of our democracy, of our freedom of speech and thought and, ultimately, of a woman who dared to run for a role that was never in our country played by anyone who did not have a penis. Laura furiously researching, my fingers aggressively hammering the keyboard, in an attempt to give life to a piece of text that could make the patriarchy shiver, even if just a little.

January 2021, Portugal

To all my international readers that have no idea of what was happening in this small province of Spain that locals insist on calling Portugal and get really mad when are addressed to in spanish, here is some context.

Presidential elections. Seven candidates, one certainty: the current president’s re-election (with 60% of the votes, actually). The remaining six candidates were competing, not for the keys of Belém Palace (a pink building with lovely gardens that officially homes the Portuguese president for their 5 years in charge), but for individual (one could say minor, but I would not dare to) causes.

The strongest of these brave leftovers, a socialist woman, face of a fight against political corruption, ended up being the main opponent against the far-right candidate that wanted to make “adjustments” to our Constitution, that translated in a direct and strong attack to our democracy. This evil-minded candidate is the head of a fascist party, whose main ideas go against the law (even though their head graduated from law-school and has currently a seat in the Parliament), that represents a clear threat to democracy, but which is populist enough to please a terrifying increasing number of voters in the entire country (For more information on this political party go have a look at my post “Enough is enough, but Portuguese ENOUGH (CHEGA) is too much!”).

This was also the candidate who unintentionally started the red lipstick movement that inspired this feminist text you are reading. How so? By insulting another female presidential candidate, referring to her red lips in a derogatory way. The left-wing candidate that was insulted worked on making her lips redder and brighter, while a wave of solidarity emerged from the deepest core of common-sense and humanity in everyone’s heart, with people from every quadrant of the gender, age, and political spectrums uploading selfies on their social media proudly exhibiting their lips painted in red, in all tones of red, all kinds of lips were suddenly sending a kiss to those who wanted to take down our democracy as we knew it.

Cae on election day
Laura on election day

For the most cunning readers that are wondering about the last three candidates, their results (ranging from about 2 to 5 per cent of votes) justify my forgetfulness. A good-looking communist, an obnoxious neo-liberal and a…sweet, naïve man of the land. Definitely figurants in this whole tragicomedy. Now, back to our History class on red lipstick.

1 – the President re-elected; 2- the socialist candidate and main opponent to the far-right; 3 – the dangerous fascist; 4 – the red-lipstick left-winger wearer; 5 – the good looking communist; 6 – the sweet man of the land; 7 – the obnoxious neo-liberal

Early times

If we go back to ancient Egypt, we will find red lipstick on the lips of the elite. In Ancient Greece, it was used by prostitutes. Up until lipstick was popularized in the early 20th century, red lips were often associated with morally dubious women: impolite, sexually amoral, even heretical.

1912, New York (USA)

In 1912 thousands of supporters of the suffrage movement marched past the New York salon of Elizabeth Arden. The cosmetics brand founder, who had just opened her business two years earlier, was a supporter of women’s rights, and she aligned herself with the cause by handing out tubes of bright red lipstick to the marching women.

Suffrage leaders Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Charlotte Perkins Gilman loved red lipstick for its ability to shock men, and protesters donned the bold color en masse, adopting it as a sign of rebellion and liberation. As these women fought for their rights, red lipstick became a part of their uniform. The bold and dauntless red was feminine, yet daring and powerful. It became symbolic of strength during a time when men were trying to strip that away from women.

World War II (1939-1945)

During World War II, red lips had their bold second act of defiance, since Adolf Hitler famously hated it. In Allied countries, wearing red lipstick became a sign of patriotism and a statement against fascism. When taxes made lipstick prohibitively expensive in the UK, women stained their lips with beet juice instead.

2015, Macedonia

A Macedonian woman, Jasmin Golubovska, kissed an officer’s riot shield during an anti-government protest, leaving a red kiss mark in a poignant moment of rebellion. The moment was immortalized by an image that became viral on social media all over the world.

2018, Nicaragua

In 2018 in Nicaragua, women and men wore red lipstick and uploaded photos of themselves to social media to show their support for the release of anti-government protesters. They were reacting to activist Marlen Chow, who defied her interrogators by applying red lipstick and answering the guardsmen, when asked which organisation she was from, that she came from ‘The organisation of women with red lips (pico rojo)”.

Red Lipstick used by women with positions of power

Margaret Thatcher (the “Iron Lady”)

British politician and stateswoman who served as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom from 1979 to 1990 and Leader of the Conservative Party from 1975 to 1990.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC)

American politician serving as the U.S. representative for New York’s 14th congressional district since 2019.

Marisa Matias

Portuguese sociologist and Member of the European Parliament, elected for the first time in 2009 and re-elected in 2014. As you might be guessing already, Marisa was the presidential candidate victim of the sexist comment that inspired the most recent “red lipstick movement” on the timeline of this make-up article’s strong, powerful History.

May us be strong and proud red-lipstick wearers in an attempt to fight patriarchy one step at a time.

Hoping this reaches at least the feminist next corner,


p.s. – A huge thanks to Laura for helping me with another article, and for being such an inspirational red-lipstick wearer.

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