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Reclaiming feminism: Getting the gist of language of protest

"Better is Wisdom than Weapons of War": Non-Militant Suffragists in Hyde Park. President of the National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies: Mrs Henry Fawcett addresses the great meeting. 2 April 1913 - Credit: �

The term suffragette was originally created to mock and belittle women, says linguist Deborah Cameron, and has only recently been reclaimed.

Until someone corrected the error, the recently-unveiled statue of Millicent Fawcett in Parliament Square was known to users of Google Maps as ‘the suffragette statue’.

In fact Fawcett was not a suffragette, but a suffragist: her organisation, the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies, was committed to changing the law through peaceful protest.

The word suffragette, coined in 1906 by a writer for the Daily Mail, referred specifically to members of the Women’s Social and Political Union, a militant breakaway group founded by Emmeline Pankhurst in 1903. Their motto was ‘deeds not words’, and their tactics included brick-throwing, fire-setting and assaulting the police. Suffragette was a derisive label, deliberately designed to mock and belittle them.

For that purpose the -ette ending must have seemed like an apt choice. -Ette is a grammatically feminine diminutive suffix in French, but words containing it had been borrowed into English from the 17th century onwards.

Some of these loanwords were labels for women, like brunette, coquette and soubrette. In others, -ette had a straightforwardly diminutive meaning – a cigarette, for instance, was a smaller version of a cigar. But by the early 1900s English-speakers had also become familiar with a newer sense of -ette, derived from its use in words like silkette, satinette and leatherette.

These were names for the artificial versions of expensive materials that had been developed in the 19th century, and through them -ette had become associated with the idea of a cheap or inferior imitation. Suffragette played on these connotations, suggesting that the campaign was of little consequence, and that the women involved were ‘unnatural’, aping men.

But this strategy backfired. In an early example of what is now called ‘reclaiming’, the women of the WSPU embraced the term that had been coined as an insult and turned it into a badge of pride. Some suggested that the word should be pronounced with a hard ‘g’ sound, to emphasise the campaigners’ determination to ‘get’ the vote on equal terms. Today its connotations are largely positive, and – as the Google Maps example shows – it has eclipsed suffragist as the commonest generic label for British women involved in the struggle.

But in this respect suffragette was exceptional: other -ette words continued to be used to ridicule women and feminism. In 1916, when a group of women who opposed the First World War set out to attend a peace conference in Europe, they were derisively dubbed peacettes. The Daily Express reported that ‘All Tilbury is laughing at the Peacettes, the misguided Englishwomen who, baggage in hand, are waiting for a boat to take them to Holland, where they are anxious to talk peace with German fraus over a teapot’.

The war also produced coinages like munitionette and farmerette. These terms were not intended to insult the women who were contributing to the war effort by working in munitions factories or on the land, but they did underline the idea that those women were interlopers, temporarily occupying roles that naturally belonged to men.

They also reflected the perennial anxiety that a woman who stepped out of her allotted, separate sphere would be bound to lose her feminine charm. Later -ette words, like undergraduette, send a similar message: the -ette suffix functions like a linguistic pat on the head, a morphological analogue of those 1970s underwear adverts whose strapline was ‘Underneath, they’re all Lovable’.

Feminists in the 1970s disliked feminine suffixes in general, and -ette was a particular bugbear. While other variants, like the -ess of manageress and the -ine of heroine, were criticised for treating men as the norm and drawing unnecessary attention to a woman’s sex, -ette added insult to injury by evoking a kind of femininity – young, cute and ‘bubbly’, sexually attractive without being threatening – that feminists found especially demeaning. What did it say, for instance, that when a well-known motoring organisation started to employ women in the 1960s it chose to refer to them as patrolettes?

By the 1980s, no reputable organisation would have dreamt of using such a blatantly sexist term. Old-fashioned and faintly ludicrous, -ette seemed destined to follow -trix into the drawer labelled ‘quaint archaisms’. But in the last few years there have been signs that it is being rehabilitated. A lifestyle blog addressing the interests of tech-savvy or ‘geeky’ women calls itself Gadgette (‘Have you ever been talked down to about tech? Offered the pink version of a laptop, or asked to flash your breasts to try a new smartwatch? We have’).

And an award-winning social enterprise which encourages girls to pursue careers in science and technology (‘STEM’ subjects), founded in 2012 by the computer scientist Anne-Marie Imafidon, is called Stemettes. I’m pretty sure the women behind these initiatives do not think of Gadgette as the linguistic equivalent of a pink laptop, or take Stemette to imply that women can’t be real scientists. If they’re referencing the negative connotations of -ette at all, they’re doing it ironically or mockingly.

As a feminist who came of age in the 1970s, I confess I’m disconcerted by the unexpected revival of -ette words. But reclaiming -ette for feminism is exactly what the suffragettes did. And in a year when we’re commemorating their political struggle, perhaps we should celebrate their linguistic legacy too.

Deborah Cameron is a professor of language and communication at Oxford University

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