I’ve been asked so often what the difference was between a suffragette and a suffragist that I usually give a brief explanation in my talks to the effect that before 1906 anyone who campaigned for the vote was called a suffragist. After 1906 the term “suffragette” came into being: it was coined by a Daily Mail journalist to describe members of the militant Women’s Social and Political Union founded by Mrs Pankhurst in 1903.
So a suffragette was a militant and a suffragist was a non-militant. That the campaigners themselves perceived the distinction is suggested by circumstances such as the militant Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) renaming their newspaper “The Suffragette” (in 1912). Meanwhile, the non-militant National Union Women of Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) proudly displayed a banner at its events proclaiming that they were “law-abiding suffragists”.
In reality the situation was more complicated than that. The term “suffragist” continued to be used to mean suffrage campaigners. It was also used interchangeably with “suffragette”. Newspapers described NUWSS members as “suffragettes”, or told hair-raising tales of “suffragists” heckling MPs or carrying out attacks on property. As one example out of many, a report of a speech by Augustine Birrell in Southampton given in The Times on 13 November 1907 described the ejected women hecklers as both suffragists and suffragettes.
This interchangeability had the effect of blurring the distinction between the constitutional campaigners of the NUWSS and the law-breaking campaigners of the WSPU. One consequence of this was that NUWSS women were as likely to be targeted by anti-suffrage mobs as the suffragettes – as many of them found during the non-militant Suffrage Pilgrimage organised by the NUWSS in 1913. After Birrell’s visit to Southampton, The Southampton Times reported that a constitutional campaigners’ meeting was broken up by students “unable or unwilling” to distinguish between them and militants.
The confusion had the further effect of alienating people from the suffrage cause. David Lloyd George articulated this view during a speech in Swindon in October 1913, when he said that the militants had “converted indifference into something like bitter hostility”. The result was that the public were prejudiced against all suffrage campaigners. Not surprisingly, this generated a great deal of resentment from the non-militant NUWSS towards the militant WSPU. For example, Winifred Coombe Tennant, President of the Neath District Women’s Suffrage Society, described women who interrupted Labour MP Arthur Henderson in the Albert Hall on 14 February 1914 as “idiots”. In her less exasperated moments, she characterised militancy as “pitiful misguided folly…a fine thing gone wrong”.
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Winifred Coombe Tennant decided that something must be done to put the record straight. In 1914 she wrote to the Morning Post about the use of the words. When the editor wrote back to her she decided to start a campaign to encourage a more precise usage. She drafted a statement calling for recognition of the distinction so that “the word ‘suffragettes’ [would] designate the militant section of the women’s suffrage movement and…the word ‘suffragists’ the law-abiding sections of the movement”. The statement pointed out that this had been accepted usage for some years, and also referred to the WSPU’s official adoption of the term suffragette in the title of their paper The Suffragette.
She obtained the signatures of a number of what she called “eminent men of letters and other prominent persons”, many of them Cambridge intellectuals with whom she was connected by a friendship network, as well as her interest in psychic research. Winifred was a medium in contact with, amongst others, Professor Henry Sidgwick who had died in 1900. (The signatories are listed below.)
Armed with these formidable endorsements, Winifred Coombe Tennant despatched the statement to the Morning Post and other newspapers with a covering letter pointing out that calling suffragists suffragettes and vice-versa “create[s] confusion and prejudice in the mind of the public.” She asked them to adopt the usage recommended by the signed statement. The Manchester Guardian published the letter and the statement on 23 April 1914 with the comment, “The distinction suggested has long been made by the Manchester Guardian”.
Despite Winifred Coombe Tennant’s efforts, the use of the words suffragist and suffragette to denote non-militant and militant campaigners remains confused to this day. In the excellent film, Make More Noise, for example, a caption announces “suffragettes” – and the subsequent image is of a group of NUWSS women – suffragists. I’ve read more than one history of the suffrage movement in which the author is in a muddle about suffragists and suffragettes (but to protect the guilty I’m not naming names!). I’ve even seen the term applied to a man by Martin Pugh who writes about a “(male) suffragette” in Profiles in Power: Lloyd George (London and New York: Longman, 1988, p. 61).
Perhaps it’s because “suffragette” is a made-up word that its meaning and usage have never really been settled. Many contemporaries objected to it on purely linguistic grounds. One commentator, the author Lady Bell, thought that the word was “barbarous…for if it means anything, according to the analogy of words formed in the same way, it should mean ‘a small suffrage’, and not a woman who wants to obtain it” (quoted in the Western Daily Press, 4 October 1907). Perhaps it’s just as well that Lady Bell’s definition didn’t fare any better than Winifred Coombe Tennant’s. Now that would have been confusing!
Winifred Coombe Tennant (1874–1956) was a suffragist, spiritualist, patron of the arts in Wales, a Liberal supporter and friend of David Lloyd George, and was closely connected with the national eisteddfod. Extracts from her diaries have been published as Between Two Worlds: The Diary of Winifred Coombe Tennant 1909-1924, ed Peter Lord, (Aberystwyth: Llyfrgell Genedlaethol Cymru (National Library of Wales), 2011). It’s a fascinating read. (Available at https://www.amazon.co.uk/Between-Two-Worlds-Winifred-1909-1924/dp/1862250863)
Signatories to Winifred Coombe Tennant's Statement
Lady Betty Balfour, sister of militant suffragette Lady Constance Lytton, a supporter of women’s suffrage with whose husband, the Cambridge-educated psychic researcher Gerald, Winifred was having an affair;
G Lowes Dickinson, a Fellow of King’s College, who promoted the formation of a League of Nations (and is said to have coined the phrase);
Desmond MacCarthy, a Cambridge-educated drama critic for the New Statesman, an editor, and member of the Bloomsbury circle;
Professor Gilbert Murray, Regius Professor of Greek at the University of Oxford, a supporter of the non-militant women’s suffrage campaign and member of the League of Nations Union;
Canon Parry, Senior Dean of Trinity College;
Mrs Eleanor Sidgwick, Gerald Balfour’s sister and widow of psychic researcher Professor Henry Sidgwick; he had helped found Newnham College and Mrs Sidgwick was its first vice-principal and second principal;
L Pearsall Smith, writer, from an American Quaker family though he subsequently lost his faith, educated at Harvard and later Oxford, studied language and was co-founder of the Society for Pure English in 1913;
Professor James Ward, Professor of Mental Philosophy, Cambridge, who was encouraged to pursue a Cambridge career by Professor Henry Sidgwick; Ward was an influential psychologist.