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Suffragist or Suffragette? Or perhaps Suffragista?

Letter from Larae W. Essman

Language – November 2003 – Colorado Central Magazine


In the August 2003 issue of Colorado Central (pg. 27), Ed Quillen used the word suffragettes, a word that triggers a grim visage and a rude exclamation on my part. It is true that both words denote an advocate for the extension of political voting rights to women, but suffragette is never used to describe male suffragists.

According to the American Heritage Dictionary, 3rd Edition, -ette implies small, diminutive. Think kitchenette, farmette, usherette, majorette, dinette, and see Linda Hasselstrom’s “There’s no ‘ette’ in Ranch” (Colorado Central, July ’03, pg. 2). The dictionary’s usage note further indicates that -ette, used as a suffix to refer to women, “betrays a patronizing attitude.”

A bit of background: Elizabeth Cady Stanton began the struggle for suffrage at a convention in July of 1848. Ms. Stanton, who, while raising seven children, would lead the first women’s rights movement for fifty years, stood before the public and uttered these words:

“We have every qualification required by the Constitution, necessary to the legal voter, but the one of sex. We are moral, virtuous, and intelligent and in all respects quite equal to the proud white man himself, and yet by your laws we are classed with idiots, lunatics, and Negroes; and though we do not feel honored by the place assigned to us, yet, in fact, our legal position is lower than that of either; for the Negro can be raised to the dignity of a voter if he possesses himself of $250; the lunatic can vote in his moments of sanity, and the idiot, too, if he be a male one, and not more than nine-tenths a fool.” (Elizabeth Cady Stanton by Mary Ann Oakley, pg. 60)

Aside from the current political incorrectness of her words, you can almost hear the sharp intake of breath by the anti-suffrage men and women of her day. If you remember the struggle over the Equal Rights Amendment, you have some idea of the intensity of the opposition. Proponents of the ERA did not have an advocate or orator quite as powerful as Ms. Stanton, a woman who would not fit anyone’s image of ‘small’ or ‘diminutive’ mentally or physically.

She, and other dedicated women, withstood years of disappointment, ridicule, setbacks and heartbreaks before some women were granted the right to vote in a few territories and states, which included Colorado in 1893. But the majority of women could not vote until the 19th Amendment to the Constitution was ratified in 1920, one hundred years ago and eighteen years after Ms. Stanton’s death.

MR. QUILLEN ADVISED that suffragette was a term that women used themselves. I agree that they did. Many women choose to use wimpy words to try to ensure that men and less enthusiastic women feel more comfortable, less at risk. And a man might use suffragette to describe the ‘little woman’s’ activity.

Mr. Quillen also wrote me that he “never thought of ‘suffragette’ as a pejorative term” and I’m sure he speaks for most, but whether the intent is benign or not, the term is a diminishment, a belittling. Louise Erdrich in her magnificent book The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse (Harper-Collins, 2001, pg. 308) uses the suffix for that very effect. The devil, in the form of a black dog, appears to Agnes Dewitt, who has been serving the Ojibwe people for decades as the Catholic Priest, Father Damien, says to her/him: “Wie geht’s? How’s my little priestette?” A put down? A diminishment? It is and a great one at that.

I would like to see suffragette dropped from our vocabulary. I am convinced that the difference does matter, that we shape our world by the words we use. I also believe women need to drop all personal signs and symbols of ‘ette-ness’ but at the same time I recognize that we probably should be grateful that we have never been termed male-ettes.

Larae W. Essman

Estes Park