Don’t Call Them Suffragettes!

Sculpture of SuffragistsMarch and Women’s History Month are coming to a close. Talking about the history of women in the United States involves a term — suffragette — associated with a major achievement for women.

Although our Constitution was ratified June 21, 1788, women in America were not able to vote until passage of the 19th Amendment on August 18, 1920.

When a colleague of mine was creating a display for her workplace to recognize Women’s History Month and highlight the accomplishments of women in the U.S., she emailed me to inquire about the difference between suffragette and suffragist.

Suffrage does not equate to suffering.
There no doubt are some who believe that women in America — indeed, worldwide — have suffered in their struggle to overcome obstacles related to gender.

However, suffrage by definition has nothing to do with suffering; suffrage is defined as the right to vote in political elections.

A suffragist is someone who advocates for the extension of suffrage — the right to vote — especially to women. Some members of the movement preferred to take action by what they considered moral force and legal methods: peaceful-but-aggressive demonstrations, the display of banners, relentless lobbying and clever publicity stunts.

The term suffragette was coined for members of the movement who, rather than counting primarily on the moral imperative of suffrage for women, resorted to more-aggressive tactics that could involve physical force, violence and sometimes illegal activities.

Not all approve of the term suffragette. In “Please Don’t Call Them Suffragettes,” Gloria Shur Bilchik writes:

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 movement was building simultaneously in the United States and in Britain beginning in the mid-1800s. Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton were well-known leaders in the U.S.

Women’s History Month has no counterpart
Some of you might be thinking: Why do we need a Women’s History Month? After all, we don’t have a Men’s History Month, right?

It has to do with recognizing the achievements of women in all facets of life — science, community, government, literature, art, sports, medicine — so that girls and young women realize they have opportunities. Historically, women were not able to achieve stature in or even to pursue careers or positions in many of these fields.

Initiated in 1981 as Women’s History Week, the recognition was expanded to Women’s History Month in 1987.

See 11 women who are changing history … today.

I hope you took time during March to do something special for or to recognize an accomplished woman in your personal or professional life — or to encourage a daughter, niece or granddaughter to reach for the stars.

Please share this post with your colleagues — women and men.

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Kathy Watson

Kathy Watson has a love/hate relationship with grammar; she loves words and the punctuation that helps them make sense, yet she hates those pesky rules. A self-proclaimed ruthless editor, she prefers standard usage guidelines of The Associated Press Stylebook. Her easy-to-use Grammar for People Who Hate Rules helps people write and speak with authority and confidence. She encourages and welcomes questions and comments. (Email)