What is Suffrage?

This year we mark the 100th anniversary of the woman suffrage amendment, and as it turns out, a lot of people don’t really know what “suffrage” means because it’s mostly fallen out of common usage. The term has nothing to do with suffering but instead derives from the Latin word “suffragium,” meaning the right or privilege to vote. In the United States, it is commonly associated with the 19th- and early 20th-century voting rights movements.

Petition for an amendment of the Constitution that prohibits the states from disfranchising any of citizens on the basis of sex, 1865. (National Archives Identifier 306684)

”Universal suffrage” was a term generally used to support the right to vote for all adults, regardless of race or gender. After 1870, when African American men secured the Federal right to vote with the 15th Amendment, the term “suffrage” became more commonly associated with the woman suffrage movement (ca. 1848–1920).

During the woman suffrage movement in the United States, “suffragists” were anyone—male or female—who supported extending the right to vote (suffrage) to women. Suffragists ran the gamut from those who simply advocated for women’s enfranchisement to those who actively engaged in efforts to convince state and Federal officials to give women the right to vote. In fact, many states allowed women to vote well before the Federal government did so in 1920. 

Delegation of officers of the National American Woman Suffrage Association, 1917. (National Archives Identifier 533767)

There were also women who were called suffragettes. The term “suffragettes” originated in Great Britain to mock women fighting for the right to vote (women in Britain were struggling for the right to vote at the same time as those in the U.S.). Some women in Britain embraced the term as a way of appropriating it from its pejorative use.

This was less true in the United States, where the term suffragette was often seen offensive or derogatory. It was used to describe those who embraced more militant tactics rather than the more passive suffragists who relied on education and petitioning government officials.

Today, however, many use the term with pride to describe “unruly” women like National Women’s Party founders Alice Paul and Lucy Burns—who marched, picketed and protested, were arrested, and went on hunger strikes to fight for their right to vote.

Suffragettes bonfire and posters at the White House, Washington, DC, 1917. (National Archives Identifier 533773)

There were also “anti-suffragists”—those who opposed extending voting rights to women. Anti-suffragists were both men and women who put forth arguments against woman suffrage, such as that most women did not want to vote, or women didn’t have the time or the mental capacity to form political opinions, or that women voting would threaten the family institution or womanhood itself.

Passers-by looking at a window display at the headquarters of National Association Opposed to Woman Suffrage, ca. 1919. (National Archives Identifier 7452466)

Ultimately, the pro-woman suffrage forces were successful when Congress passed the woman suffrage amendment on June 4, 1919, extending the vote to women in the U.S. It was ratified on August 18, 1920, becoming the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

The National Archives is celebrating the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment with the exhibit Rightfully Hers: American Women and the Vote, which runs in the Lawrence F. O’Brien Gallery of the National Archives in Washington, DC, from May 10, 2019, through January 3, 2021.

8 thoughts on “What is Suffrage?

  1. Interesting beautiful history of the humankind. Thanks for the opportunity of getting to learn about northamerican culture history.

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