March is women’s history month, so there’s no better time to talk about women who dared to change the world.
I’m fascinated by the word suffragette – have been since I first heard it in Mary Poppins and that David Bowie song. It comes from the Latin suffragium – right of voting. Suffrage appears in the U.S. Constitution, and suffragist once referred to any one involved with expanding voting rights. In the early 1900s, women were being named Jeanette and Antoinette, and the French diminutive ette was also tacked on to create suffragette.
I suppose it could have been viewed as a dismissive term, but it was embraced b y the movement. A popular newsletter was titled “The Suffragette.”
But back to the names. Many of the women involved has great name, those vintage gems now around a century old. Some are imports, and a few of these are truly unusual, but most would be right at home in 2013.
This means that, for the most part, they’re also a pretty subtle bunch. If you’re fond of antique appellations, this is a list that should appeal.
Ada – Most of the suffragettes were educated, middle class women. Ada Nield Chew was the exception. She left school at a young age to help run the family farm. Later in life, Chew founded a business and traveled the world. As a given name, Ada is more sweetly vintage than Ava – and far less common, too.
Adela – All of the Addie appellations have been on the rise in recent years, but Adela remains outside of the US Top 1000. Adela Pankhurst was the daughter of founding suffragette Emmeline, and went on to help establish the women’s suffrage movement in Australia.
Agnes – I added Agnes to the list based on Agnes Maude Roydon, famous not only as a suffragette, but as an advocate of women’s roles in the church. She earned a Doctor of Divinity in 1931 and advocated for the ordination of women. The only trouble with calling Agnes a suffragette name? Roydon much preferred – and almost exclusively used – her middle, Maude. Agnes didn’t make the Top 1000 in 2011, but with Jennifer Connelly and Paul Bettany giving the name to a daughter, that could change.
Alice – Australia’s Alice Henry was a journalist and active reformer, but it’s Alice Paul that comes to mind first. Alice Paul spearheaded the campaign to pass the 19th Amendment, and then spent another fifty years working on reform, including the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
Amelia – There’s pioneering aviatrix Amelia Earhart, but years before she flew, Amelia Bloomer wrote. Bloomer edited The Lily, an early newspaper for women. She also advocated for the adoption of trousers for women, sufficiently so that the pants bore her name – bloomers.
Angelina – You might think Jolie, but centuries earlier there was Angelina Grimké. With her sister Sarah, they campaigned for abolition and women’s rights in the earlier part of the nineteenth century.
Cady – 2004’s Mean Girls gave this name to the main character, played by Lindsay Lohan. It’s also the maiden name of prominent feminist leader Elizabeth Cady Stanton, known as one of the leading forces behind the women’s movement in the US back in the 1840s. Her Declaration of Sentiments was modeled on the Declaration of Independence. I’ve always assumed that the Mean Girls character was named after Stanton. Cady has never cracked the US Top 1000, but she’s been more common in our Katherine/Kaitlyn/Cadence age.
Christabel – Another of Emmeline’s daughters, Christabel started out in the suffrage movement, but ended her life active in American religion.
Clemence – Before there was Clementine, Clemence was the common feminine form of Clement. Clemence Houseman was a novelist in the late 1800s, and along with her brothers, active in the women’s suffrage movement.
Constance – Lady Constance Bulwer-Lytton was the daughter of an Earl, but she turned her back on privilege to become a crusading suffragette, enduring prison and hunger strikes.
Dora – Before there was Dora the Explorer, Dora Marsden was a literary-minded activist given to bold acts and an especially revolutionary view of society.
Edith – There were at least four notable Ediths involved with the women’s suffrage movement. Edith Cowan was the first woman elected to Australia’s Parliament. Edith Garrud learned jujitsu along with her husband, and taught classes to women, including self-defense techniques to her fellow suffragettes. Edith Pechey was among the first female doctors. Edith Rigby founded a school for working class girls employed in mills. That’s quite a quartet!
Emmeline – Emmeline Pankhurst was the grand dame of the Women’s Social and Political Union, and among the most famous and influential of activists. Her daughters became active in the movement, too.
Esther – Esther Roper was the daughter of a factory worker, and an early graduate of Owens College, now the University of Manchester, and a talented organizer.
Ida – Ida B. Wells was active in civil rights and women’s suffrage, an African-American journalist in a dangerous age. Wells reported on lynching, and is considered one of the founders of the NAACP. The B was for Bell, so Idabelle feels like another option.
Irene – Canada’s Famous Five challenged their country’s Supreme Court to define “persons” in 1927. The five were after the opportunity to be appointed to the Senate, but the Court ruled against them. Irene Parlby was among them.
Isala – The first Belgian woman to graduate from medical school was Isala Van Diest, educated in Switzerland and admitted to practice only after a royal decree made it so. I can’t confirm the origins of her unusual name – she was born Anne Catherine Albertine Isala Van Diest. She was a co-founder of the Belgian League for Women’s Rights.
Josephine – Josephine Henry was a writer and candidate for state-wide office in Kentucky. On the other side of the ocean, Josephine Butler advocated for women’s rights, and was especially concerned with the plight of poor women, including those who turned to prostitution.
Katharine – Hollywood icon Katharine Hepburn shared her name with her mom. The elder Katharine was a leader of the American suffrage movement, and the co-founder of what would grow into Planned Parenthood.
Leonora – Leonora Cohen was a close associate of Emmeline Pankhurst.
Louisa – Louisa Anderson was the niece of activist Millicent Fawcett and daughter of Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, the first female physician and surgeon in Britain, as well as the first female dean of a school of medicine. Louisa followed in their footsteps, breaking new ground to establish military hospitals in France staffed entirely by women.
Lucy – Lucy Stone earned a college degree back in 1847, when such a feat was rare for women.
Lydia – Lydia Taft was a widow with a considerable estate and an underage son when her town – Uxbridge, Massachusetts – was set to vote on support for the French and Indian War. As “the widow Josiah Taft” she became the first woman to legally cast a vote in colonial America. Strictly speaking, Taft was no suffragette – but she undeniably occupies a place in women’s history.
Mabel – Mabel Capper was born into a suffragette family, and became an activist in her own right.
Madeleine – Madeleine Pelletier was the first French female psychiatrist, a radical feminist known for wearing men’s suits.
Mathilde – She might not be a household name in the US, but in Denmark, the Danish Women’s Society awards the Mathilde Prize to a writer who advances the ideals of equality. The prize is given in honor of Mathilde Fibiger, a mid-nineteenth century author known for her work advocating women’s rights, Clara Raphael, Twelve Letters.
Marguerite – Actress turned writer Marguerite Durand was a stylish member of a certain strata of Parisian society at the turn of the century. She was well-dressed, kept a pet tiger, and advocated for many women’s causes.
Maud – Maude Roydon is one notable suffragette – see Agnes, above. There’s also Maud Wood Park, who campaigned for the nineteenth amendment on college campuses.
May – May Preston Slosson was the first woman in the US to earn a PhD in philosophy. She graduated from Cornell and spent many years in Wyoming, where women’s rights came much sooner. When she returned with her family to the East Coast, she became active in the suffrage movement.
Millicent – Millicent Fawcett worked to advance women’s educational opportunities.
Minnie – Minnie Fisher Cunningham advocated for the passage of the nineteenth amendment, persuading President Woodrow Wilson to release a pro-suffrage statement. Years later, Cunningham ran for Governor of Texas, though she lost to the incumbent.
Olive – Need another reason to love Olive? Olive Wharry was one of the more militant of the British suffragettes, resorting to window-smashing and even arson to make her point. She served time in prison. It makes Olive sound less like a sweet old lady name and more like something that could be worn by a modern girl.
Richmal – Along with Isala, Richmal is one of the most uncommon names on the list. Richmal Crompton is remembered for her William books, about a young Dennis the Menace-like figure. I hesitate to include her on this list, as her involvement with suffrage was limited to her college years. But her name is too good to resist. It appears to be a feminine form of Richard that never quite took off.
Susan – She’s the face of the American suffrage movement. Along with Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony is one of the best known activists in the US. She even appeared on a coin. If Susan feels sweet, the determined Anthony gives her some muscle.
Sylvia – Another of Emmeline Pankhurst’s daughters, Sylvia was born Estelle Sylvia. She moved from suffrage to anti-war demonstrations to ever more left politics.
Tennessee – I’d always assumed that Tennie Claflin’s given name was something other than Tennessee. But what do you know? That’s actually the birth name of Tennessee Celeste Claflin. She and her suffragette sister were the first women to operate a Wall Street Brokerage firm. She also led a delegation of women to demand the vote from the US Senate.
Victoria – Sister to Tennessee, Victoria California Calflin Woodhull was the first female candidate for President of the United States.
Vida – An Australian activist, Vida Goldstein was introduced to the cause by her mother. She’d later become active in pacifism and other movements.
What do you think of this collection of suffragette names? Are you a fan of vintage? Are there any that surprise you?