With their intriguing little faces, pansies have always been one of my favorite flowers.
So I was delighted to hear, sometime in my teens, that the pansy once had been adopted as a symbol of freethought, since "pansy" comes from "pensee," the French word for "thought." I even worked the flowers into a portrait of Bertrand Russell that I painted for a high school art assignment, a painting which somehow found its way from my parents' attic into the Elizabeth H. Elliott Library at Freethought Hall, Madison.
Imagine my disappointment when a freethought scholar, seeing the painting, informed me that the story of the pansy as an emblem of freethought was bogus. Of course, freethinkers are free we can adopt whatever symbols we like — but I felt a sense of loss that this history might be false.
So I was particularly delighted, when doing research into freethought history for my anthology of women freethinkers, Women Without Superstition, to happen upon verification of the pansy's freethought status.
In reading a biography, Hypatia Bradlaugh Bonner: The Story of Her Life, of this noted British freethought writer and editor, I came across a reference to the 1920 International Freethought Congress. Arthur Bonner recorded how elated his wife Hypatia was to find the streets of Prague full of hundreds of persons wearing the Congress badge and the pansy, a symbol of freethought.
That was confirmation enough for me to choose the pansy as the cover illustration for the dust jacket of Women Without Superstition.
In March, I was invited to speak at the Special Collections Library of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, which put on a lovely exhibit this spring, "Challenging Religious Dogma: A History of Free Thought." The librarians there treated me like a queen and helped me find some rare materials. Somehow the symbolism of the pansy came up in conversation with one of the exhibit's knowledgeable creators, Julie Herrada, Assistant Curator of the Labadie Collection. She immediately recalled seeing the pansy on the back of an old brochure of the American Secular Union which was encased in glass as part of the display.
"Could I see it?" I asked, practically salivating with anticipation.
Julie obligingly fetched the keys and took the yellowing brochure, more than a century old, from its wall case and turned it over to me. (There is something thrilling about being able to examine something that is part of a "Don't Touch" historic display.)
The undated pamphlet had a flag on the front. The pansy was on the back, with the words: "The 'Pansy' Symbol of Freedom of Thought (From the French word 'pensŽe' meaning 'thought.')"
On the inside back cover was a long explanation of the history under the title "The Pansy Badge":
"There is . . . need of a badge which shall express at first glance, without complexity of detail, that basic principle of freedom of thought for which Liberals of all isms are contending. This need seems to have been met by the Freethinkers of France, Belgium, Spain and Sweden, who have adopted the pansy as their badge (French pensee, meaning thought). We join with them in recommending this flower as a simple and inexpensive badge of Freethought.
"Let every patriot who is a Freethinker in this sense, adopt the pansy as his badge, to be worn at all times, as a silent and unobtrusive testimony of his principles. In this way we shall recognize our brethren in the cause, and the enthusiasm will spread; until, before long, the uplifted standard of the pansy, beneath the sheltering folds of the United States flag, shall everywhere thrill men's hearts as the symbol of religious liberty and freedom of conscience."
I would estimate that the pamphlet dated from the late 1880's to early 1890's, based on the fact that the American Secular Union was originally known as the National Liberal League, becoming the ASU in 1885, and that the brochure contained an introduction by Ida C. Craddock, Corresponding Secretary, who was very active in freethought in the early 1890's. (Craddock is not one of the 50 women whose writings are featured in my anthology, but she is included in my section of additional biographies of some 40 other women. She became more interested in mysticism and in marriage reform than in freethought in the following decade, which brought her to the attention of Anthony Comstock. Tragically, she slit her wrists in 1902 rather than serve a second prison sentence under Comstock, thus becoming one of at least 15 people Comstock bragged he had driven to suicide. Freethought historian George Macdonald recorded, "She and Comstock were the Beauty and the Beast.")
So it seems likely that the pansy was introduced to American freethinkers through the ASU circa 1890. I haven't traced the history of the freethought pansy beyond this. But the erudite Edward Weber, Curator at Labadie, reminded me of one of the pansy's more famous literary passages, the desperate soliloquy by Ophelia, in which she utters the famous line: "And there is pansies, that's for thoughts."
What better symbol of freethought than this humble but beautiful flower-with-a-face, symbolizing not just "thought" but our natural — our only — world.
So this summer, why not plant a pansy in your garden for freethought? (Remember, they do "sulk" terribly in hot weather.)
P.S. And if you're looking for more gardening projects with freethought significance, try the sun-loving perennial Shasta Daisy, cultivated by the great freethought botanist Luther Burbank, who considered children "human plants," believing that "with the highest and healthiest and best environments possible," all children could "be the Shasta Daisies of the human family."
By the way, when we told our own "human plant," 7-year-old Sabrina, that pansy means "thought," she exclaimed: "My middle name is 'pansy'!" Her middle name, "Delata," means "thought" in Delaware, the language of her father's ancestral tribe.
Reprinted with permission. Originally appeared in the June/July 1997 edition of Freethought Today
Annie Laurie Gaylor was executive editor of Freethought Today and co-President of the Freedom From Religion Foundation. Gaylor has authored three books, including Women Without Superstition: No Gods, No Masters and Woe to the Women: The Bible Tells Me So. In 2010 she received the Humanist Heroine award of the Feminist Caucus of the American Humanist Association.
Page updated 12/22/2020.