What Does Suffrage Mean?

Women's History Glossary

Poster promoting universal suffrage, 1893, United Kingdom
Poster by Henri Meyer promoting universal suffrage, 1893, United Kingdom. Art Media/Print Collector/Getty Images

Definition of "suffrage"

"Suffrage" is used today to mean the right to vote in elections, sometimes also including the right to run for and hold elected public office.  It is commonly used in phrases like "woman suffrage" or "women's suffrage" or "universal suffrage."

Derivation and History

The word "suffrage" comes from the Latin suffragium meaning "to support." It already had the connotation of voting in classical Latin, and may have been used as well for a special tablet on which one recorded a vote.

It likely came into English through French. In Middle English, the word took on ecclesiastical meanings, as well, of intercessory prayers. In the 14th and 15th centuries in English, it was also used to mean "support."

By the 16th and 17th centuries, "suffrage" was in common use in English to mean a vote in favor of a proposal (as in a representative body like Parliament) or of a person in an election. The meaning then broadened to apply to a vote for or against candidates and proposals.

Then the meaning broadened to mean the ability to vote by individuals or groups.

In Blackstone's commentary on English laws (1765), he includes a reference: "In all democracies .. it is of the utmost importance to regulate by whom, and in what manner, the suffrages are to be given."

The Enlightenment, with emphasis on equality of all persons and "consent of the governed," paved the way for the idea that the suffrage, or ability to vote, should be extended beyond a small elite group.

Wider, or even universal suffrage, became a popular demand. "No taxation without representation" called for those who were taxed to also be able to vote for their representatives in government.

Universal male suffrage was a call in political circles in Europe and America by the first half of the 19th century, and then some (see Seneca Falls Woman's Rights Convention) began to extend that demand to women as well as woman suffrage became a key social reform issue through 1920.

Active suffrage refers to the right to vote.  The phrase passive suffrage is used to refer to the right to run for and hold public office.  Women were, in a few cases, elected to public office (or appointed) before they won the right to active suffrage.

Suffragist was used to denote someone working to extend suffrage to new groups.  Suffragette was sometimes used for women working for woman suffrage.

Pronunciation: SUF-rij (short u)

Also Known As: vote, franchise

Alternate Spellings: souffrage, sofrage in Middle English; sufferage, suff'rage

Examples: "Should the females of New York be placed on a level of equality with males before the law? If so, let us petition for this impartial justice for women. In order to insure this equal justice should the females of New York, like the males, have a voice in appointing the law makers and the law administrators? If so, let us petition for Woman's Right to Suffrage." - Frederick Douglass, 1853

Similar Terms

The word "franchise" or the phrase "political franchise" is also often used for the right to vote and the right to run for office.

Denied Suffrage Rights

Citizenship and residency are usually considered in deciding who has the right to vote in a country or state.

  Age qualifications are justified by the argument that minors may not sign contracts.

In the past, those without property were often ineligible to vote. Since married women could not sign contracts or dispose of their own property, it was considered appropriate to deny women the vote. 

Some countries and U.S. states exclude from suffrage those who have been convicted of a felony, with various conditions. Sometimes the right is restored upon completion of prison terms or parole conditions, and sometimes restoration depends on the crime not being a violent crime.

Race has been directly or indirectly a grounds for exclusion from voting rights. (Though women got the vote in the United States in 1920, many African American women were still excluded from voting because of laws that discriminated racially.) Literacy tests and poll taxes have also been used to exclude from suffrage.

Religion in both the United States and Great Britain sometimes was grounds for exclusion from voting. Catholics, sometimes Jews or Quakers, were excluded from suffrage.

Quotes About Suffrage

“[T]here never will be complete equality until women themselves help to make laws and elect lawmakers.” - Susan B. Anthony

“Why is a woman to be treated differently? Woman suffrage will succeed, despite this miserable guerilla opposition.” - Victoria Woodhull

"Be militant in your own way! Those of you who can break windows, break them. Those of you who can still further attack the secret idol of property...do so. And my last word is to the Government: I incite this meeting to rebellion. Take me if you dare!" - Emmeline Pankhurst