2020 is the centennial of the 19th Amendment to the US Constitution, which prohibits the states and the federal government from denying women the right to vote. The amendment was finally ratified by the required 36 states—Tennessee was the final one, after a hard-fought campaign—in August 1920, 42 years after it was first introduced in Congress.
Small groups of American women had been organizing and fighting for the right to vote since the 1830s. (Before the American Revolution, women in some colonies could vote.) In 1870, after African American men won the vote through the 15th Amendment, the word suffragist—which earlier in the century had been a generic term for any advocate for voting rights—began to be associated specifically with those who advocated for woman suffrage by peaceful, lawful means. The OED’s earliest citation for this usage, in a May 13, 1870, edition of the Boston Post, is typical of the mocking tone that would persist for decades in discussions of women’s rights: “A lady suffragist out West brands as slanderous the charge that strong-minded women have big feet.”
“Looking Backward,” an anti-suffrage illustration by Laura E. Foster. The steps lead away from love, marriage, and children and toward suffrage, strife, anxiety, and loneliness. Published in Life magazine, August 22, 1912. From the collections of the Library of Congress.
A different set of steps: “The Sky Is Now Her Limit,” created by Elmer Andrews Bushnell in 1920. The bottom rungs of the ladder are labeled “Slavery,” “House Drudgery,” and “Shop Work.” The top rungs are “Equal Suffrage,” “Wage Equity,” and “Presidency.” (Library of Congress, via The Atlantic)
But suffragist wasn’t the only option. In the UK, where women won full voting rights in 1928, the more commonly used term was suffragette, first used insultingly by a male British reporter in 1906. Some British women reclaimed the term, pronouncing it with a hard G to indicate that they were going to “get” the right to vote. In the US, suffragette, modified by a French diminutive, was seen as offensive; it also came to connote a more militant advocate willing to break the law. (Rather paradoxical when you consider that -ette is a feminine suffix.)
A poster for the 2015 film Suffragette, which centers on a group of British women, historical and fictional, who fought (often violently) for the right to vote in the 1910s.
In a section titled “Suffragists or Suffragettes?”, the Massachusetts suffrage-centennial site Suffrage100MA observes:
In the early 1900s, American and British publications, including The New York Times and Daily Mail, depicted “suffragettes” as unladylike and reckless. At the same time, they described “suffragists” as gentle and innocent, but vulnerable to joining their counterparts.
A demure suffragist and a battleaxe suffragette: 1912 illustration in the Boston Daily Globe.
And because English is nothing if not generous with its suffixing options, also-ran terms included suffrager (1835), suffragite (1839), and even suffragee (1909?).
“Uncle Sam, Suffragee,” a mocking 1909 postcard
Suffrage was originally a religious term: In the Middle Ages “suffrages” were intercessionary prayers for spiritual help. The modern sense of “the right, privilege, or responsibility of voting in political elections,” which began appearing in the mid-16th century, is closer in sense to the Latin source, suffrāgium, which meant a vote cast in an assembly, an expression of approval, the action of voting, or the right of voting. The original text of the US Constitution (1787) mentions suffrage only once, in Article V, which covers the amendment process: “... no State, without its Consent, shall be deprived of its equal Suffrage in the Senate.”
(The similar-looking word suffer is unrelated to suffrage; it comes from Latin sufferire, from sub “up, under” + ferre “to carry, bear.”)
For more information about this year’s commemorations and celebrations, see 2020Centennial. To see an outstanding collection of suffrage memorabilia—including sheet music, buttons, ribbons, toys, postcards, and china—see Kenneth Florey’s Women Suffrage Memorabilia site. And don’t miss “The Weird Familiarity of 100-Year-Old Feminism Memes,” Adrienne LaFrance’s excellent illustrated essay for The Atlantic, published in October 2016, which depicts inspirational propaganda, virulently hostile cartoons, and a peculiar subset of pro-suffrage ephemera featuring cats.