Long-suffering suffragettes still in white

Political ‘women in white’ at the US president’s address to Congress prompt thoughts on the link between ‘suffering’ and ‘suffrage.’

Kevin Lamarque/Reuters
House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (l.) and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (r.) listen to President Trump's address to a joint session of Congress on Feb. 28, 2017.

A number of “women in white” were noted in attendance at the recent US presidential address before Congress. Torn between trust-me blue and can’t-miss-me red, many women in Congress opted for white instead. The color honors the suffragettes who campaigned for women’s right to vote in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. They often did so wearing white. 

“White has connotations in the west of purity and virtue, this idea of being the good guy,” as Valerie Steele, director of the Museum at FIT (Fashion Institute of Technology) in New York, told The Guardian last summer. 

She was commenting on the white pantsuit Hillary Clinton wore at the Democratic National Convention. 

These most recent political women in white were Democrats, but the original suffragettes often found Republican men more sympathetic to their cause.

In any case, having “suffragettes” in the news affords an excuse to research a question that’s nagged at me for years: What’s the connection between suffrage and suffering? Does it really hurt to vote?

Suffer came into English from the Anglo-Norman suffrir, says the Oxford English Dictionary. The word’s Latin roots are sub, whose many meanings include “under,” and ferre, meaning “to bear.”

Suffer refers to enduring pain or other kinds of distress, or to tolerating or allowing or putting up with something or someone – as in “long-suffering,” an old-fashioned term for what we now generally call “patience.” 

And suffrage? The Online Etymology Dictionary notes, “The meaning ‘political right to vote’ in English is first found in the U.S. Constitution, 1787.” 

When suffrage came into English, in the late 14th century, it referred not to voting but to intercessory prayers or pleas on behalf of another. But there was an electoral angle here.

The Latin verb suffragari meant to lend support or to vote for someone. It seems scholars are pretty sure that Latin verb led to our modern suffrage. But they aren’t sure of its etymology. 

There are two theories. One is that the latter half of suffragari comes from fragor, meaning “crash, din, shouts (as of approval),” according to the Online Etymology Dictionary. This works if you think of suffrage as taking place in a rowdy convention hall.

The other theory, the dictionary says, is that the second part of the word is the Latin frangere, to break, as in breaking off little bits of tile to use as ballots.

By the 1820s, a suffragist was one seeking to expand the franchise for men and women in Britain, or the voting rights of free blacks in the United States. 

By 1885, suffragists here were especially interested in votes for women, too. But suffragette emerged around 1906 to mean specifically women interested in gaining the vote themselves – as they did in time for the 1920 presidential election. 

So the connection between suffering and suffrage isn’t much beyond that hardworking Latin “sub.” It shouldn’t hurt to vote. But it took some long-suffering suffragettes to win the right to do so. 

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