Words Matter in the Battle for Rights in America

After three generations spanning seven decades, tremendous personal sacrifices and financial investments, the 19th Amendment was added to the U.S. Constitution 99 years ago this month.

Wisconsin was one of the first states to ratify the Amendment in 1919 (officially ratified on Aug. 18, 1920) and so the anniversary celebrations to commemorate the historic event have already begun. The spirit of the era was optimism; women were finally guaranteed the right to vote and believed they would have a new voice in Congress.

Public Relations and marketing were major parts of the suffrage movement, with carefully chosen words at its core. We need to remember the implications of word usage because words matter. Even chosen carefully, we must be aware of the unconscious biases, historical context, implied racism, or other inferences associated with the words we choose. Because of the Suffrage Movement, PR and marketing became the norm in political campaigns.

While the words “suffragist” and “suffragette” are often used interchangeably, they really aren’t. One is desirable, and the other is offensive and dismissive, used most often to mock those involved in the suffrage movement.

“Suffragette” was a British term used to reference the women fighting for suffrage. The suffix “ette” is used in reference to something small. Thus, this term marginalized the women and their cause. In the U.S., it was a negative label used only by those that wanted to forever deny women the right to vote.

While the 19th was a positive step forward for women, it wasn’t until other Amendments and Acts were ratified and passed decades later that all women were protected and able to actively participate in the electoral process.

The Women’s Fund of Greater Milwaukee is committed to advancing equity for women. We do this by creating community conversations, providing scholarships for women age 35 and older who are pursuing their first bachelor’s degree, and making grants to area non-profits that are addressing systemic issues affecting women. We know money and philanthropy have power, and the Women’s Fund leverages the gifts made to it, to move the needle and create an inclusive world-class community where women and girls realize their full potential, and everyone thrives. To learn more, go to https://womensfundmke.org.

Lisa Attonito
Executive Director
Women’s Fund of Greater Milwaukee