Honoring women’s history in March each year is a bad joke as long as those who struggled for women’s equality are called “suffragettes” – the name the enemies of women’s rights used to belittle their struggle.
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If it’s March, then it’s Women’s History Month, that time of the year when we hear the word “suffragette.” But irony of ironies, “suffragette” was the label used by those who were the enemies of women’s rights. They used the word “suffragette” to belittle those who worked for civil rights and equality.
There is a word for people who worked for American women’s rights to vote. These activists called themselves “suffragists.”
This year, to make matters more confusing, we are likely to hear the word “suffragette” more frequently because Meryl Streep is starring in a movie of that name. Streep is playing Emmeline Pankhurst, an English suffrage activist.
The British woman suffragists were an “in your face” militant group, essentially the Pussy Riot of their day. They smashed windows and engaged in arson and hunger strikes. One woman died after she threw herself under the king’s horse to protest his refusal to give women the right to vote.
The American suffragists were a tamer, more serious lot, many of whom were also active in the anti-slavery movement. Many of the suffragists were active in both causes and saw a deep connection with their causes.
Why Make a Big Deal?
Words matter, and some words are fighting words. They are part of the battleground we stand on.
The suffix “-ette” means small things. Tacking “-ette” onto a word turns it into a diminutive – towelette, usherette, cigarette, novelette, statuette and so on. Those who fought for women’s suffrage – the right to vote – were part of a serious movement for civil rights, equality, and ending human bondage.
There was nothing “ette-ish” about the struggle for American women’s right to vote. The women and men who fought for women’s right to vote – the right of suffrage – from the dawn of the 19th century into the 20th century were courageous “-ists” – suffragists.
Women’s right to vote mattered, because the right to vote was – and still is – seen as the means to make all other rights possible. Suffragists wanted more than just ticking a ballot. Woman suffragists wanted women to have the right to attend school, to own property, to have a say in how their children were treated and to have a right to the integrity of their bodies.
Along the way, the suffragists won many battles; however, in a gross miscarriage of justice, the enemies of women’s equality seem to have won the naming rights.
We can change that. Although more than a century late, we can restore the name these activists chose for themselves – Suffragists.
Much More than the Right to Vote Was at Stake in this Battle
In many ways, life for American women in the 19th century was similar to the lives of women today under the Taliban. Women were deprived of basic rights, including access to education. Women who owned property lost control of that property when they married. Husbands had the legal right to “correct” their wives with beatings. Women had no right to money they had earned and no rights to make decisions concerning their own children.
A proper woman had to be “strait-laced,” literally. Women’s clothing restricted their movement. Corsets made breathing and digestion difficult, and skirts had to be so long as to fully cover their legs. As a result, women’s skirts literally swept the streets.
The 1840s Were the 1960s
To understand the context in which the women’s suffrage movement existed, think about the American 1960s. Both were times of ferment and experimentation, in which authority was challenged; norms were violated and people struggled for equality, justice, true citizenship and shared democratic governance. In both eras, race and civil rights were major struggles. Women’s status, rights and autonomy were part of that turbulent period, but so were other liberation and civil rights movements. The nature of the ’60s movement changed as the conflict in Vietnam grew. In the mid-19th century, the Civil War put civil rights, such as universal suffrage, on hold.
Today, most of this history has been forgotten, and the women’s suffrage movement has been shrunken down to women’s activism and even to the activism of two women only, Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. There is no question that they played important roles, but so did many people who supported woman suffrage. Consider, for example, four important women suffragists – Lucy Stone, Henry Blackwell and Angelina and Sarah Grimké – and consider the many suffragists who also joined the struggle.
Lucy Stone and Henry Blackwell
Stone was a leader in calling for the first national woman’s rights convention at Worcester, Massachusetts, in 1850 and persuaded people who would later become leaders in the women’s suffrage movement – Anthony and Julia Ward Howe – to refuse to pay taxes to protest women’s lack of representation.
The range of progressive reforms that were supported by Stone (1818-1893) and her husband, Blackwell (1825-1909), track many modern concerns. At a time when women’s education was sadly neglected, Lucy Stone graduated from Oberlin College (one of the few colleges whose students were not limited to white men). Stone became the first Massachusetts woman to earn a college degree. Blackwell’s feminist views may have been influenced by his having two sisters who would become doctors – Elizabeth and Emily Blackwell.
Stone and Blackwell defied a number of social norms. During their marriage ceremony in 1855, Stone and Blackwell read a protest against the many inequalities between men and women. That protest was published in abolitionist newspapers. Stone did not change her name after they married. Stone was one of a small group of women, of whom Amelia Bloomer was the most famous, who rejected the heavy, restrictive clothing of the day in favor of clothing that permitted free movement.
As with many supporters of women’s rights in that era, Stone and Blackwell also fought for the abolition of slavery. After the end of the Civil War, they traveled to Kansas to campaign for a state ballot measure for universal suffrage. One of the most important contributions Blackwell and Stone made was publishing The Woman’s Journal (1870-1931) for 61 years.
Angelina and Sarah Grimké
The Grimké sisters, Angelina (1805-1879) and Sarah (1792-1873), came to women’s rights through their experiences of slavery while growing up in Charleston, South Carolina. Their father was a slave owner, and the two sisters’ direct exposure to slavery led them to become abolitionists and to move north to advocate against slavery there. Their ideas about slavery were radical and dangerous for their time and exposed them to physical danger from mobs and other attacks.
Both Grimké sisters converted to the Quaker Church. But at that time, not only did Quakers not support the Abolitionist cause, some Quakers even owned slaves.
Both sisters wrote on the evils of slavery and advocated equal rights for women. For example, in 1836, Angelina Grimké published her Appeal to Christian Women of the South, in which she argued, “There is nothing to fear from immediate Emancipation, but every thing from the continuance of slavery.” In 1838, Sarah Grimké published Letters on the Equality of the Sexes and the Condition of Women. Addressed to Mary S. Parker, President of the Boston Female Anti-Slavery Society.
Angelina was a compelling speaker, while Sarah Grimké’s strength was in developing philosophical ideas that were far ahead of their time. For example, she described the nature of marital rape at a time when social norms viewed husbands as having total control and indisputable rights to their wives’ bodies.
The Grimkés also extended their support for freedom and the rights of citizenship to become proponents of women’s suffrage at a time when such an idea was widely considered too radical to take seriously. Among other actions, after the Civil War, the Grimké sisters tested the gender-neutral language of the 15th Amendment by attempting to vote in the 1870 election; however, their votes and those of other women were rejected.
“-ettes” No Longer
As with all such struggles, the arc of history for American women has been and will continue to be long. Only if we continue the work of our predecessors in the fight for freedom will the long arc of the universe bend toward justice. Only if we recognize that this work is not a tiny thing, not an “ette” project to dabble in, can we all share equality and freedom.