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Suffrage and Language

By the summer of 1920, 35 American states had ratified the 19th Amendment to the US Constitution, which would grant women throughout the country the right to vote. One additional state's approval was needed to reach the three-fourths legal threshold, and on August 18, 1920, after an intensely fought campaign, Tennessee became that state. It had taken 42 years from the amendment's original introduction in Congress in 1878–42 years of marches, speeches, lobbying, and advertising.

Those four-plus decades also introduced Americans to a new vocabulary of voting rights. Here/s a centennial look back at our linguistic debt to the 19th Amendment and its advocates.

Suffrage. It may look like it shares an etymology with suffer, but the words are unrelated — although some anti-suffrage writers and illustrators mockingly connected them. 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," 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. As for suffer, it comes from Latin sufferire, from sub "up, under" + ferre "to carry, bear."

A 1909 election-day postcard depicting the consequences of women’s suffrage. A "feminized" husband sits beneath a framed motto: "What is a suffragette without a suffering household?" Postcards like this one were popular between 1893 and 1918 — the equivalent of today's internet memes. Via the Palczewski Suffrage Postcard Archive at the University of Northern Iowa.

Suffragist or suffragette? Both terms were used on both sides of the Atlantic, but with different overtones. Suffragist is the older word, having originated as a general label for anyone advocating for enfranchisement (see franchise, below). After 1870 and the passage of the 15th Amendment, which gave African American men (but not women) the right to vote, suffragist came to signify more narrowly a women's-suffrage advocate. It was sometimes shortened to "Suff." Suffragette was coined in 1906 by a British journalist: The French -ette suffix can signify something small (a cigarette is a small cigar, a kitchenette is a small kitchen) or something feminine (majorette, brunette, dudette  — originally a female patron of a dude ranch, now a humorous term for any woman). Suffragette was intended to belittle, but British right-to-vote advocates quickly reclaimed it, pronouncing the word with a hard G and saying it meant they were "out to get" the vote. In the US, suffragist was the favored term. The Massachusetts centennial site Suffrage100MA notes that in the US suffragettes were characterized as "unladylike and reckless," while suffragists were "gentle and innocent, but vulnerable to joining their counterparts."

Maidenly suffragist vs. harridan suffragette. 1912 cartoon in the Boston Daily Globe.

Suffragist and suffragette weren't the only terms available. Before they won wide acceptance, Americans also used suffrager (1835), suffragite (1839), and even suffragee (1909?).

Franchise. Have you ever wondered why the word franchise can apply equally to the neighborhood Burger King, the local baseball team, the latest installment of a superhero film, and the right to vote? Look to the word's French source, franchese, which meant freedom, immunity, or privilege. Franchese crossed the English Channel with the 11th-century Norman invasion and gained many new meanings, including, by the 18th century, the right or privilege of voting in an election. The sporting sense of franchise — the authorization of a team to play in a professional league, or the team itself — is North American, from the 1880s. The entertainment sense of franchise — "a unifying concept for creating or marketing a series of products" — goes back to at least 1936, when it referred to, among other things, Warner Brothers' popular "G-Man" films. The verb to franchise ("to grant a commercial franchise") first appeared in print in a 1940 Wall Street Journal article; it is not to be confused with the verb to enfranchise, which since the late 19th century has meant "to be granted the right to vote."

Symbolism and branding. One reason the suffrage movements in both the UK and the US were so visible was because of what we'd now call their sophisticated brand strategy. In both countries, suffragists wore white clothing, head to toe, at public events as both a symbol of purity and a way to stand out from the crowd. Other colors associated with the women's-suffrage movement were purple, symbolizing loyalty, and yellow, symbolizing hope. In the US, "Suffs" often carried yellow roses, while their opponents — men and women alike — carried red roses; their battle was sometimes called "the war of the roses," a reference to the English civil wars of the 15th century. Suffragists also used clever merchandising tactics to gain followers. In both the UK and the US, suffragists held tea parties and sold specially branded tea and tea seats at fairs and rallies. Corporations also publicized their support for women's suffrage: Knox Gelatine (which was run by the widow of the company's founder) and the Shredded Wheat Company created ads in the early 1900s that connected the political right to vote with "voting" for their products.

Equality Tea sold by the Women's Suffrage Party of California in 1911, the year that state granted women the right to vote.

He or she? Pronouns played a surprising role in the right-to-vote fight. For centuries, grammar guides had insisted that the masculine pronouns he, him, and his were "inclusive" or "generic" — that is, they referred to women as well as to men. This assumption "has even been enshrined in British and American law," writes Dennis Baron in his new book, What's Your Pronoun?, adding that "both the UK Act of Interpretation (1850) and the US Dictionary Act (1871) declared that, in the law, words referring to men also include women." But only when it was convenient to do so and when "the context shows that such words were intended to be used in a more limited sense," as the Dictionary Act put it. Suffragists seized on this contradiction to argue for their rights. "If you insist on this version of the letter of the law, we shall insist that you be consistent," the pioneering suffragist Susan B. Anthony argued in 1873: Government should "exempt women from taxation for the support of the government, and from penalties for the violation of laws." In the end, Baron writes, women in both the UK and the US "won the vote without any explicit legal concession that he includes she." The 19th Amendment includes no pronouns at all — only the neutral word "citizens."

That wasn't quite the last chapter for the "inclusive masculine" in government, though. In 2010, when she became the first woman to serve as California's attorney general, Kamala Harris — now a US senator — "noticed gender bias literally written into the law — statutes referring to the attorney general as 'he/his,'" BuzzfeedNews reported in October 2019. "As a fun exercise, we found them and had them changed," Harris told the reporter.


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Nancy Friedman is the chief wordworker at verbal-branding consultancy Wordworking, and the author of a fine blog on naming, branding and more called Fritinancy. Nancy has named a venture-capital firm, a laser hair-removal device, a mobile-money service, and many other companies and products. A former journalist, she still writes or ghostwrites articles, speeches, white papers, and books. Click here to read more articles by Nancy Friedman.

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Comments from our users:

Tuesday February 18th, 1:05 PM
Comment by: Don H. (Brentwood, CA)Top 10 Commenter
That was good! Thanks!

You might have included a note about how "their" is replacing "he/she." The violation of agreement in number between subject and predicate is becoming acceptable, because paragraphs containing numerous he/she references seem awkward and clumsy. I frequently use the substitution these days.
Wednesday February 19th, 9:00 AM
Comment by: David C. (Marietta, GA)
Very informative article. "Suffrage and Language" is an apt title. It appears we vote for language by our usage--and since the ballot is public rather than hidden, an incorrect vote still comes with the risk of harassment. Language changes. Human nature, less so.

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