When the conversation gets around to women’s history, and the subject is women’s struggle to win the right to vote, you’ll often hear the term “suffragette.” Many people think that the term describes the women who defied the social norms of the early 1900s by protesting in the streets and lobbying politicians and presidents for the right to make their voices heard on election day. They’re right, but they’re wrong.
The term “suffragette” was, indeed, used to describe women like Christabel Pankhurst and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. But it was a derogatory term. The suffix “ette” connotes smallness. Those who opposed women’s rights, and who wanted to demean the efforts of the women activists, used the term “suffragette” as what we would now call a put-down.
The women activists called themselves “suffragists.” In an article on Truthout, Ellin Dannin answers the question: “Ette,” vs. “ist” Why make a big deal?
The suffix “-ette” means small things. Tacking “-ette” onto a word turns it into a diminutive – towelette, usherette, cigarette, novelette, statuette and so on. Those who fought for women’s suffrage – the right to vote – were part of a serious movement for civil rights, equality, and ending human bondage.
There was nothing “ette-ish” about the struggle for American women’s right to vote. The women and men who fought for women’s right to vote – the right of suffrage – from the dawn of the 19th century into the 20th century were courageous “-ists” – suffragists.
Women’s right to vote mattered, because the right to vote was – and still is – seen as the means to make all other rights possible. Suffragists wanted more than just ticking a ballot. Woman suffragists wanted women to have the right to attend school, to own property, to have a say in how their children were treated and to have a right to the integrity of their bodies.
Along the way, the suffragists won many battles; however, in a gross miscarriage of justice, the enemies of women’s equality seem to have won the naming rights.
We can change that. Although more than a century late, we can restore the name these activists chose for themselves – Suffragists.