The White Ribbon has been the badge of the Woman's Christian Temperance Union founded by Frances Willard since its founding in 1873. The WCTU is the oldest continuing non-sectarian women's organization worldwide. The white ribbon bow was selected to symbolize purity. The WCTU traditionally uses the bow rather than the more modern "remembrance" loop.
One of the most notable usages of the white ribbon in recent times is as the symbol of violence against women, safe motherhood, and other related causes. It also has a long tradition in state fairs and similar farming and horticultural competitions in the United States and Canada.
The anti-violence against women movement
After the École Polytechnique massacre on December 6, 1989, where 14 women were killed by an anti-feminist, a movement appeared in Canada of wearing the white ribbon to signify opposition to violence against women.
The White Ribbon Campaign (WRC) appeared in 1991 in relation to this movement. Started by activists, such as Michael Kaufman and Toronto politicians like current New Democratic Party leader Jack Layton, it has now spread to over 57 countries around the world. It is now an international effort of men and boys working to end violence against women. Its basic principle is the importance of men and boys to speak out against all forms of violence against women. In Canada, the campaign is run from November 25 (the International Day for the Eradication of Violence Against Women) until December 6, Canada's National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence Against Women. Other countries support 16 Days of Action from November 25 until December 10 but campaigns can occur at any time of the year.
This campaign has been said by Canadian journalist Barbara Kay to be one that is "systematically sexist" against men and should be gradually phased out.
Quebec peace movement
In the beginning of 2003, a custom, largely influenced by the Échec à la guerre collective, emerged in Quebec of wearing the white ribbon to show a belief in the need for peace (mostly in opposition to the then-impending war in Iraq). The roots of the choice of the white ribbon are probably the traditional association of white with peace and the White Ribbon Campaign.
U.S. county and state fairs
At county and state fairs in the United States, a white ribbon often denotes a third-place finish in a contest.
In some judging competitions — particularly in 4-H and FFA livestock and horticultural competitions — it can be given to a project that is particularly deficient or inferior. Superior projects and exhibits are awarded blue or red ribbons.
Thomas S. Monson, current president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, quotes, in a 1991 speech, prison warden Kenyon J. Scudder from a 1961 Reader's Digest article, to tell a story of a man whose family uses the white ribbon as a sign of forgiveness, and cites the story as the precursor to the tradition of the yellow ribbon for welcome home and forgiveness:
"A friend of his happened to be sitting in a railroad coach next to a young man who was obviously depressed. Finally the young man revealed that he was a paroled convict returning from a distant prison. His imprisonment had brought shame to his family, and they had neither visited him nor written often. He hoped, however, that this was only because they were too poor to travel and too uneducated to write. He hoped, despite the evidence that they had forgiven him.
To make it easy for them, however, he had written to them asking that they put up a signal for him when the train passed their little farm on the outskirts of town. If his family had forgiven him, they were to put up a white ribbon in the big apple tree which stood near the tracks. If they didn’t want him to return, they were to do nothing, and he would remain on the train as it traveled onward.
As the train neared his hometown, the suspense became so great that he couldn’t bear to look out of his window. He exclaimed, "In just five minutes the engineer will sound the whistle indicating our approach to the long bend which opens into the valley I know as home. Will you watch for the apple tree at the side of the track?" His companion said he would; they exchanged places. The minutes seemed like hours, but then there came the shrill sound of the train whistle. The young man asked, "Can you see the tree? Is there a white ribbon?"
Came the reply, "I see the tree. I see not one white ribbon, but many. There is a white ribbon on every branch. Son, someone surely does love you."
Other uses/combined with other colors
White ribbons are used to signify support for self-harmers (from people who are not self-harmers themselves), while white and orange ribbons represent self-harmers who are trying to quit or have succeeded in doing so already.
White ribbons are used for teen pregnancy prevention awareness.
White ribbons have also been used to protest child pornography. The white is supposed to signify the protection of innocence and purity.