Woman or Women? A Clarification of Terms

Woman Suffrage or Women's Suffrage?

Chart from Google's Ngram tool showing use of woman suffrage vs. women's suffrage in books, 1800 to 2000.
Chart from Google's Ngram tool showing use of woman suffrage vs. women's suffrage in books, 1800 to 2000.

When writing about the right of women to vote and run for elections, which term is correct, "woman suffrage" or "women's suffrage"?  As the accompanying chart image shows, written use of the term "woman suffrage" used to be far more common, and recently "women's suffrage" has gained in usage.

Organizations which led the campaigns to gain the vote for women included the National Woman Suffrage Association, the American Woman Suffrage Association and the eventual merger of these two, the National American Woman Suffrage Association.

 The multivolume history of the movement, written by some of those who were central in it, was titled History of Woman Suffrage.  Clearly "woman suffrage" was the preferred term during the time that the vote was still in contention. A 1917 publication, called "The Blue Book," which was that year's update of progress of winning the vote, and a collection of talking points and history, was formally titled "Woman Suffrage."

("Suffrage" means the right to vote and hold office.  Expanding the suffrage has also included removing property qualifications, racial inclusion, lowering the age for voting.)

"Woman" as a singular inclusive was meant, in the 18th and 19th centuries, to be a term parallel to the philosophical, political and ethical use of the singular inclusive "man." Just as "man" is often used to personify and stand for all men in general (and often claimed to be inclusive of women as well), so "woman" was used to personify and stand for all women in general.

 Thus, woman suffrage was about including women as women in voting rights.

There's another subtlety in the difference between the terms. By personifying men or all people as "man" and women as "woman," substituting the singular for the plural, the authors also implied a sense of individuality, of individual rights and responsibilities.

Many of those who used these terms were also associated with the philosophical and political defense of individual liberty over traditional authority.

At the same time, use of "woman" implied a common bond or collectivity of all of that sex, just as "man" in "rights of man" managed to imply both individual rights and a collectivity of all men or, if one reads it inclusively, human beings.

Historian Nancy Cott says this of the use of "woman" rather than "women":

"Nineteenth-century women's consistent usage of the singular woman symbolized, in a word, the unity of the female sex. It proposed that all women have one cause, one movement." (in The Grounding of Modern Feminism)

Thus, "woman suffrage" was the term most used in the 19th century by those who worked to achieve the rights of women to vote. "Women's suffrage" was, at first, the term used by many of the opponents, and was used by British proponents more widely than among American proponents. In the early 20th century, as the concept of individual rights became more accepted and less radical, the terms became more interchangeable, even by the reformers themselves.  Today "woman suffrage" sounds more archaic, and "women's suffrage" is more common.

RelatedIs "Suffragette" a correct usage?  And if not, what do you use instead?