By Lynda Mugglestone
In 1903, the motto “Deeds not Words” was adopted by Emmeline Pankhurst as the slogan of the new Women’s Social and Political Union. This aimed above all to secure women the vote, but it marked a deliberate departure in the methods to be used. Over fifty years of peaceful campaigning had brought no change to women’s rights in this respect; drastic action was, Emmeline decided, now called for. The “deeds” encouraged by the WSPU, such as stone-throwing, arson, window-breaking, and parliamentary deputations, would all be widely reported over the ensuing years. In the collective memory, it was however not deeds but words — and one word, suffragette, in particular — which came to epitomise this period and its aims.
-ette and the conflicts of meaning
Suffragette neatly evokes the conflicted history of this time. If some women (and men) campaigned for the female right to vote, others campaigned against it. Even among those who supported female suffrage, there could be marked divides. First used, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, in the Daily Mail in 1906, suffragette was not only new but a deliberate (and deliberately negative) coinage, intended to divide the suffragists, whose campaigns remained peaceful, from those who, as Pankhurst urged, should henceforth adopt more ‘militant’ methods. Suffragette, as a compound of suffrage (“The casting of a vote, voting; the exercise of a right to vote,” as the Oxford English Dictionary would confirm) plus the suffix -ette, was by no means complimentary. On one hand, -ette was a diminutive and was often seen as trivialising in intent, as well as distinctly patronizing; a lecturette (first used in 1867) was “a short lecture,” a meteorette “a small shooting star.” Both were very different from their non-diminutive counterparts.
-Ette had moreover another meaning which had become familiar in recent years. This, as in leatherette, first used in 1880 and cashmerette, used in 1886, signalled the idea of imperfect imitation, as well as inauthenticity. As a result, just as leatherette was a fake version of leather, so too, by implication, were the suffragettes ‘fake’ — and profoundly improper — versions of the suffragists. Densely polysemous, -ette was also starting to emerge as a specifically female suffix, a use which can be seen in forms such as poetette. Defined as “A young or minor poet; (sometimes esp.) a young female poet” in the Oxford English Dictionary, this already indicates the transitions at work, as the diminutive shades into the specifically female — a semantic development which was undoubtedly aided by the prominence of suffragette itself. Here too, notions of true and false, norm and other, intervene. ‘True’ women, as anti-suffrage writers regularly stressed, would never engage in militant activities of this kind. “Woman—or suffragette?” the writer Marie Corelli demanded in 1907. One could not, at least in anti-suffrage rhetoric of this kind, be both.
Lashing the wind
Trying to control meaning, as Samuel Johnson long ago affirmed in his Dictionary of 1755, is, however, rather like trying “to lash the wind.” One might feel better, but little result will be achieved. Suffragette, in fact, offers a precise illustration of Johnson’s point. Intended as a term of derision, it was nevertheless swiftly appropriated by the suffragettes themselves. Rather than a mark of stigmatization, it became a positive badge of identity — of shared aims and aspirations. A magazine was launched, named The Suffragette (copies of which were often left at sites of militant activity). In 1911, Sylvia Pankhurst published a history of the campaign so far. She called it The Suffragette: the History of the Women’s Militant Suffrage Movement, 1905-1910. Even the pronunciation could be hijacked for positive ends. Writing in the Observer in 1906, Lady Hugh Bell stressed the genuine appropriacy of the word. The dismissive -ette could, she argued, be converted into -gette, conveying not powerlessness but the “jet of enthusiasm” which united action for the vote across the land. It was also “feminine enough,” she noted — “a fine flowing word.” The Pankhursts suggested another version by which -gette was to be pronounced ‘get’ — succinctly indicating the suffragettes’ determination to ‘get the vote’ on equal terms with men.
Acts of definition
Whether dictionaries can ever capture this complexity of meaning is an interesting question. “A female supporter of the cause of women’s political enfranchisement, esp. one of a violent or ‘militant’ type,” wrote Charles Onions, defining this word in the Oxford English Dictionary in 1915. A single pronunciation appears in the accompanying transcription. One suspects that, had the Pankhursts been asked to define this word, it would have been very different. As the opening of Pankhurst’s The Suffragette extolled: “the adventurous and resourceful daring of the young suffragettes who, by climbing up on roofs, by sliding down through skylights, by hiding under platforms, constantly succeeded in asking their endless questions, has never been excelled.” “Instantly the crowd roared, “Votes for Women!”—”Three cheers for the Suffragettes!”” Emmeline Pankhurst’s 1914 My Own Story records, here describing events in 1907. Words, then as now, can mean different things to different people. Point of view can influence the act of meaning, in dictionaries as well as outside them. Were the suffragettes brave, or foolhardy? Courageous or ‘violent’? Women or suffragettes — or, of course, both?
Lynda Mugglestone is Professor of History of English at the University of Oxford and Fellow and Tutor in English at Pembroke College. She edited the newly revised and updated Oxford History of English. She is the author of Dictionaries: A Very Short Introduction and Talking Proper: The Rise of Accent as Social Symbol. She is the editor of Johnson’s Pendulum (with Freya Johnston) and Lexicography and the OED: Pioneers in the Untrodden Forest. She has contributed to The Oxford History of English Lexicography and The Oxford Handbook of the Victorian Novel.