Commonly confused words: suffragette and suffragist

This is a fairly straightforward one. A suffragist is someone who supports the extension of voting rights: whether to working-class men, to women, to Indigenous people, to anyone who is excluded from the voting process. It generally also means by peaceful means, such as petitions and similar campaigns. Here are some suffragists who were ‘early adopters’ of the right of white women to vote in New Zealand, the first country in the world to grant (any) women the right to vote in 1893, and in South Australia, where white women gained the right to vote and (in a world-first) stand for parliament in 1894.

Kate Sheppard, whose campaigning was instrumental in gaining the vote for women in New Zealand

Charles Kingston, the premier of South Australia whose government extended the vote to white women in 1894

Other places were a lot slower to grant women the vote, notably the United Kingdom. Some English suffragists, led by a woman called Emmeline Pankhurst, starting adopting more radical tactics in the 1910s, including arson. They were called suffragettes, which was intended as a belittling insult. But in that intriguing way that the insulted will proudly claim an insulting term and rob it of its power, suffragette came to mean simply the radical wing of British female suffrage supporters, particularly those who belonged to Pankhurst’s organisation, the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU). Suffragette has also been used to describe some American activists.

Emmeline Pankhurst being arrested during a demonstration

The suffragettes were not afraid to use force, and force was also used against them, including the force-feeding of jailed suffragettes who engaged in hunger strikes.

A suffragette is knocked down by police during a protest

Jailed suffragettes on hunger strikes were feed by tubes forced through their nose


Married women over the age of 30 gained the vote in the United Kingdom in 1918; this was extended to all adult women in 1928.

It may also be possible that the suffragettes invented cat memes.


International Women’s Day is 8 March.

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Images: Kate Sheppard by H. H. Clifford, Canterbury Museum and Wikipedia; Charles Kingston, by The Swiss Studios, Melbourne – held by the National Library of Australia and online in Wikipedia; all other images in the collection of the Museum of London

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