‘This Is Not a Boring History of Nagging Spinsters’


Elaine Weiss, journalist and author: The term was made up by a journalist in The Daily Mail in London. It was 1906, and he was making fun of the more militant suffragists in the U.K. — and so he used the diminutive “-ette” to belittle them. But then they turned around, as often happens in a movement, and they decided to own it. They said, “OK, you’re going to call us suffragettes? We’re going to call ourselves suffragettes.” But that was in Britain. The American press began using it too, just because it was cute, and expressed the disdain most American newspapers held for the movement. It’s easier to say, I have to admit it.

Ware: I tried to write to Hillary Clinton a few years back to tell her that she was using it incorrectly. I wrote this nice, long letter and I said, “I’m a Wellesley graduate,” and so on. I never heard anything back. That was really infuriating to me, because she has brought a lot of attention to the suffrage movement. And yet she calls them “suffragettes.”

Kate Clarke Lemay, historian and curator: I find it maddening that only two women’s names, Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, are consistently taught in core history classes. Suffrage was a movement of thousands of women — including African-American women, who are often left completely out of the record. In fact, Anthony wasn’t even at the Seneca Falls convention in 1848, which so many still think of as the starting point of the movement. (The reason people think this, by the way, is because Stanton and Anthony called it as much when they later started writing a six-volume history of the suffrage movement. Because there was so little recorded history from that time, it was taken as fact.)

[Tune in live: On July 21, deputy politics editor Rachel Dry will host a conversation on the unfinished work of the suffrage movement]

Sally Roesch Wagner, historian: A lot of my work centers on the influence of Haudenosaunee, or Iroquois, women on the movement. These are Indigenous women who, for a thousand years, had political voice in their sovereign nations — and continue to. The Haudenosaunee clan mothers decide the chiefs to represent their clan. They advise them and have the responsibility to remove them if they don’t live up to their responsibilities. One absolute rule is that a chief can’t have abused a woman or child. That sounds pretty good as a test of suitability for office, doesn’t it? The early suffragists knew Indigenous women had authority over their lives in their nations that U.S. women didn’t: rights to their bodies, their possessions and their children, safety and political voice. Having this model showed some suffragists that equality was possible.

Adele Logan Alexander, historian: Can I add something about time? Clearly this year’s centennial is a significant landmark, but it’s not the only date we should be thinking of. The federal Voting Rights Act, which became law in 1965, was incredibly important too, because the passage of that legislation supposedly guaranteed the franchise to African-American women — since even after ratification of the 19th Amendment, stifling Jim Crow regulations throughout the South had kept the vote from women, as much as they did for Black men.

Lemay: I think the way we talk about suffrage needs attention. It is so often described in a way that makes it seem kind of dowdy and dour — whereas in fact it is exciting and radical. Women staged one of the longest social reform movements in the history of the United States. This is not a boring history of nagging spinsters; it is a badass history of revolution staged by political geniuses. I think that because they were women, people have hesitated to credit them as such.

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