What is the difference between a “suffragist” and a “suffragette”?

Randolph Hollingsworth's picture

As the Kentucky Woman Suffrage Project steams ahead, we hear this frequently asked question: 

What is the difference between a “suffragist” and a “suffragette”?

A suffragist is someone who advocated for extending political suffrage -- the right to vote in elections -- for women. Since in the U.S. the individual states determine who may vote, it took a federal amendment to express this right. The 15th Amendment, ratified in 1870, stated that African American men had the right to vote. It took another one (activists were hoping it would be the 16th) in 1920 -- the 19th Amendment -- to extend women’s right to vote in those states that had not already allowed it.

The women's suffrage movement had its detractors who would use the -ette suffix to mock women who seemed to break all the social norms about womanly behavior. Readers of Kentucky suffragists' materials will rarely - if ever - see the term "suffragette" used as a way to describe themselves. The press was filled with the violent protests by women (called suffragettes) in Great Britain at the time. In fact, by 1914 the radical Women’s Social and Political Union named their newspaper The Suffragette as a way to take on the demeaning word in their own way.

Many American women -- including nearly all those here in clubs affiliated with the Kentucky Equal Rights Association (KERA) -- rejected the more militant behaviors of British activists. In addition, KERA formally denounced the public protests at the White House led by the National Woman’s Party during World War I. Here in the U.S. the word “suffragette” was often used in newspapers or in political debates as a way to mock women activists. In Kentucky, its use would raise the hackles of leaders who feared that women might take a more aggressive approach to civil rights protests. Suffragists here most often posed their arguments in terms that showed women - with attributes unique to them as women - were crucial to improving American democracy.

 

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