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How to Find Your Suffragist / Suffragette Ancestors: Suffragist or Suffragette?

Use this guide to connect your ancestors, their neighborhoods, and/or the places you live now to a revolutionary social movement! Not just for genealogy, this guide can be used by anyone who wants to uncover "ordinary" people who changed the world.

Understand these key suffrage terms for more effective research

SUFFRAGETTE OR SUFFRAGIST?

Was a "suffragette" different than a "suffragist"? Here's how the fiery British feminist Emmeline Parkhurst explained the distinction:

The suffragist -- well, she just wants the ballot and the suffragette . . . is going to get it.

In addition to being witty, Parkhurst's definition was a clever defense of the militant tactics that became associated with the term "suffragette." The word originated in Britain, and was intended as an insult to a group of feminists there who were engaging in decidedly "unladylike" actions to win the vote -- including burning mailboxes, smashing windows, and chaining themselves to railings at Buckingham Palace. Although meant to be a slur, radical feminists in Britain embraced the term and its bellicose connotations. Their aggressive approach was expressed in their motto: "Deeds, not Words."

 

Boston Globe article, Suffragettes, Suffragists, Suffragees

 

Americans disapproved of these tactics, and most feminists here rejected both the term "suffragette" and the radical tactics it denoted.

  • "We in this country are not suffragettes -- we are suffragists," declared feminist leader Carrie Chapman Catt. 
  • As the suffrage movement dragged on, some American feminists began calling for more assertive tactics (such as picketing the White House).
  • However, the American suffrage movement never became as violent as its British counterpart, and even the most radical American feminists generally called themselves suffragists.

However clear these distinctions may have been to suffragists, the terms "suffragist" and "suffragette" were often used interchangeably by journalists and the public, and even by feminists themselves. Both terms appear in newspapers, magazines, and pamphlets throughout the suffrage movement. So while it is helpful to understand the historical context, for research purposes you should search for both labels. Black women activists were less likely to call themselves either suffragists or suffragettes, as they were often associated with many other causes as well. For tips on locating African American suffragists, see the How Diverse Were Suffragists tab.

Image credit: Boston Globe, April 9, 1912, accessed through Newspapers.com (available on-site at all NYPL locations).

ACRONYM OVERLOAD!

AWSA, AERA, NWSA, NAWSA, NWP -- how is a family (or any!) historian supposed to keep track of all of the commonly-used suffrage acronyms?

It took women more than seventy years to win the right to vote, and in that time they formed, dissolved, divided, and merged into what can seem like a bewildering array of organizations.

As disagreement arose over policy and strategies, suffrage leaders splintered into factions. They formed multiple organizations, but gave them very similar -- and very long -- names. The result is a perfect storm of confusing abbreviations.

It's not necessary to memorize every twist and turn of the suffrage movement's internal politics, but researchers will run across abbreviations of suffrage organizations in many of the resources identified in this guide. To help you keep track of them, and use them in keyword searches, here's a list of the major national suffrage organizations. Each state also had numerous local suffrage organizations, including local chapters of the national organizations listed below. For tips on how to identify the local organizations your ancestors may have joined, consult the Find Their Local Organizations page.

  • American Equal Rights Association ("AERA"), 1866-1869
    • short-lived organization that split over the issue of whether to prioritize voting rights for black men following the Civil War, or to fight for voting rights for all Americans, regardless of race or sex
  • National Woman Suffrage Association ("NWSA"), 1869-1890
    • formed by suffragists who opposed prioritizing voting rights for black men (founding members were Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton)
    • favored a single national amendment to extend voting rights to women
  • American Woman Suffrage Association ("AWSA"), 1869-1890
    • formed by suffragists who supported prioritizing voting rights for black men (founded by Lucretia Mott) 
    • favored a state-by-state approach to voting rights for women
  • National American Woman Suffrage Association ("NAWSA"), 1890-1920
    • formed when the National Woman Suffrage Association and the American Woman Suffrage Association merged in 1890, ending a two-decade rift in the movement
  • National Council of Women Voters ("NCWV"), 1911-1920
    • a non-partisan coalition of women from states which had had already granted women voting rights (founded by Emma Smith DeVoe)
  • Congressional Union for Woman Suffrage ("CU"), later the National Woman's Party ("NWP"), 1913-present
    • ​splinter organization that favored more militant strategies than the National American Woman Suffrage Association (founded by Alice Paul)