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Q&A: suffragette or suffragist?

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Liz Potter
Written by Liz Potter

Is there a difference between the terms suffragette and suffragist, or do they mean the same?

This week sees the centenary of the 1918 Representation of the People Act which finally extended the suffrage to British and Irish women over 30 who met certain criteria, as well as all men over 21. Full electoral equality was not extended to women until 1922 in Ireland and 1928 in the UK. The change in the law came about for many reasons, but was due in large part to long-term campaigns by women (and many men) to get women the right to vote.

The suffragists, and in particular the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies led by Millicent Fawcett*, came first and campaigned for the vote by legal and peaceful means from the late 1890s. Frustrated with the lack of progress, Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughters formed the Women’s Social and Political Union in 1903. The suffragettes have attracted more attention, both at the time and since, perhaps because their activities – ranging from destruction of property and hunger strikes to the disruption of the 1913 Derby – were more striking and newsworthy.

Both words come from the noun suffrage, meaning the right to vote. Suffragist is formed using the suffix -ist, which is used to indicate a believer in or supporter of a belief system or principle. Although it was used from the early 19th century to refer to someone who believed in extending the suffrage generally, from the 1880s suffragist was increasingly associated with the campaign to give women the vote. The term suffragette was coined by a Daily Mail journalist, Charles Hands, as a derogatory label for members of organizations such the WSPU.  The suffix -ette is used to create nouns that refer to something small (kitchenette) or to a woman doing a job previously or typically done  by men (usherette, majorette). The insult backfired as the term was adopted as a badge of honour by the women so labelled.

Neither word is very frequent in our corpus, though suffragette has the edge. My first encounter with both the word and the movement was in this somewhat unrealistic but unforgettable portrayal.

* In late news, Dame Millicent Fawcett has been voted the most influential woman of the last hundred years in an online poll conducted by BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.

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Liz Potter

Liz Potter


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