After Grexit (remember, almost a year back, it provided me the provocation to look into the phenomenon of forming portmanteau words), the debate is on Brexit. Along with the American presidential elections, whose campaign idiom will certainly give us a whole lot of new words and expressions in due course, it is under the spotlight of the international press.
The Brexit discourse recently had an interesting episode when Tory cabinet minister Priti Patel, in a speech to launch the Women for Britain campaign, intended to imply that Emmeline Pankhurst, a pioneer among suffragettes, would have supported Britain’s exit from the EU for attaining, what she called, political freedom. Pankhurst’s great-granddaughter Helen Pankhurst was quick to rubbish Patel’s view, saying “it was unacceptable to use her ancestor’s achievements to promote Brexit” and that she did not believe the aims of the Brexit campaign were in the same spirit as the suffragette movement.
The woman suffragists first came to be identified as such during the mid 1880s and were the force behind what came to be known as the suffragette movement. The root word suffrage means the right to vote in political elections. While a woman suffragist was one who supported the right to vote for women, a suffragette was a female supporter of women enfranchisement, especially one of violent or militant type. During the period these campaigners gained popularity, until World War I, the expressions spun off many derivatives such as suffragettism, suffragetty and even a verb form suffragette.
They, however, lost their currency in course of time but not before giving rise to a lingo which tried to express the concept they stood for. So the early years of the 20th century saw the emergence of what was called women’s movement, promoting women’s rights beyond political ones. By mid-1960s, women’s liberation or women’s lib came to the fore.
Lib itself was a colloquial shortening of ‘liberation’ in the sense of ‘emancipation’. The usage developed in the beginning of the 1960s, particularly in the context of the struggle of blacks in the US for civil rights. This would then be attached to movements of different groups, first women’s lib and then others.
In the 1970s, libber was derived to mean a campaigner for a particular political freedom. Used on its own, it meant a woman liberationist.
Liberate, a verb, came around at the same time. It means to free from social conventions, especially male domination. It is mainly used as the past participial adjective.
A militant movement, Women’s Liberation (in capital initials) stood for freedom from subservient social status for women and against all kinds of sexisms. The shorter form, women’s lib, became prone to trivialization and in due course was jettisoned by supporters for more acceptable and time-tested feminism.
In the course of the evolution of modern English, gender-neutral expressions have been a legacy of the suffragette movement and its subsequent forms. About them, some other time.