How the Term ‘Suffragette’ Evolved from Its Sexist Roots

How the Term ‘Suffragette’ Evolved from Its Sexist Roots

From Harper's BAZAAR

The term suffragette was the early-20th-century version of nasty woman.

Now widely used to define a woman who fought for her right to vote, suffragette was originally hurled as a sexist insult. It was first coined in January 1906 by a British Daily Mail reporter while covering the Women's Social and Political Union and their militant demonstrations demanding the right to vote. (The fights for suffrage in Great Britain and the United States overlapped.) Belittling and mocking the demonstrators' efforts, the male reporter used the feminized and twee play on the word suffragist, which denotes a person advocating to expand voting rights.

The label implied that the movement for women's suffrage was "not genuine" or "to be ridiculed," historian Nancy Rohr wrote, per TIME. "The movement was something less than the real thing, as a small kitchen became a kitchenette." Across the pond, The New York Times reportedly mocked the protesters in 1906 by describing a "suffragette" as "a woman who ought to have more sense," as TIME pointed out.

But just as women co-opted the phrase nasty woman in 2016, British women reclaimed suffragette for the movement and for their brand. The WSPU named their magazine The Suffragette in 1912. They further embraced the term by pronouncing it with a hard g, like "suffra-get," reflecting their mission to get the right to vote.

In 1914, the publication included a note, writing, "We have all heard of the girl who asked what was the difference between a Suffragist and a Suffragette, as she pronounced it, and the answer made to her that the 'Suffragist jist wants the vote, while the Suffragette means to get it.'"

Photo credit: FPG - Getty Images
Photo credit: FPG - Getty Images

In the United States, however, the term was more often used by anti-suffragists rather than the activists themselves. "'Suffragette' is a fraught term. American suffragists never used it, only their detractors," historian Susan Ware recently told The New York Times, reflecting on the centennial of the 19th amendment, which granted some women the right to vote.

Journalist and author Elaine Weiss added to the Times, "The American press began using it too, just because it was cute, and expressed the disdain most American newspapers held for the movement."

The word is still used, to this day, as a blanket term for (mostly white) women who fought for the right to vote, often without accounting for who did or didn't prescribe to it. Ware said she even tried correcting Hillary Clinton for her use of the word.

Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, both an American and a member of British royalty, recently reflected on the history of the term during a rare interview appearance. As someone who's struggled with the media, she offered a poignant takeaway from the whole discourse: how documenting history through a patriarchal lens influences and shapes "everything that we see."

"The American women as part of the suffrage movement didn't want to be called suffragettes, and yet this term coined by one man in 1906 has stuck as part of a movement," she said in an interview with The 19th. "And I think when you look at that through that lens, at the power of one person's influence in the media to be able to shape an entire movement or way of thinking or even an ideology or an identification, if women had their voice heard as equally, how different that would have been."

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