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Ministry of Education.

Exemplar B - Merit

Language Surrounding the Women's Suffrage Movement

The object of my research was to examine the language used by people involved in the suffragist movement, prior to women gaining the vote, to determine what language features were used by the leaders of this movement in their speeches and writings. I wanted also to examine the effects of these language techniques in order to determine how the language used in these contexts may have contributed to manipulating public thinking to promote the cause of equal rights for women. My research centred on the speech and writings of New Zealand's Kate Sheppard and the speeches of Americans, Elizabeth Stanton and Adelle Hazlett. 

A language feature widely used in this situation was allusion. In a speech delivered by Elizabeth Stanton, in a speech to the Women's Suffrage Convention in Washington in 1868, she makes frequent allusions to God and the Bible. eg " She (woman) must respect his (men's) statutes, though they strip her of every inalienable right, and conflict with that higher law written by the finger of God on her own soul." In a speech to the U.S. Congressional Committee in 1892, Stanton alludes extensively to Jesus' passion and death to draw the connection between Jesus' suffering and the suffering of women: " Deserted by man, in agony he cries, ‘My God! My God! Why hast thou forsaken me?'" Adelle Hazlett in 1871 makes reference to the bible and scripture in " The time cometh and is now.' References such as these would have helped to manipulate the audiences into believing that the suffragette movement had God on its side. 

Extensive use was made in this context of the rhetorical question. In a pamphlet produced by the Franchise Department of the Women's Christian Temperance Union in New Zealand in 1892, Kate Sheppard ten times uses the repeated question starter of " Is it right that your mother, your sister…..should be classed with criminals and lunatics…..? Is it right that while the loafer, the gambler, the drunkard, and even the wife-beater has a vote, earnest, educated and refined women are denied it?' Adelle Hazlett in her 1871 speech poses the questions: "Where is your so-called free republic? Where is your boasted equality?" She goes on to ask: "Does justice consist in holding one human being subject to another?" The rhetorical questions have the effect of challenging audiences to consider ideas which they may not previously have thought of. 

The use of war as a metaphor for women's struggle to gain the vote was also a significant language feature used here. In her speech Adelle Hazlett refers to her fellow women as ‘veteran soldiers for the right". Elizabeth Stanton urges women to "buckle on the armour that can resist the keenest weapon of the enemy." In an article in "The Prohibitionist" in1892, where she laments the narrow defeat in Parliament of the ‘Electoral Bill', Kate Sheppard says: "We have suffered numerous defeats, but each battle lost has given us a larger army.’ The use of the war metaphor gives a strength and importance to women's efforts to gain equality. 

Highly emotively charged words are used to exaggerate the negative characteristics of men. In her 1892 speech Elizabeth Stanton says "the male element is a destructive force, stern selfish, aggrandizing, loving war, violence, conquest, acquisition, breeding in the material and moral world alike, disorder, discord, disease and death.". To describe women, however, she uses emotive words with strongly positive connotations: " nature, like a loving mother…..that space, harmony and beauty may reign supreme…" In her 1892 pamphlet, Kate Sheppard asks " Is it right… that a mother……should be thought unworthy of a vote that is freely given to the blasphemer, the liar, the seducer, and the profligate? Quite obviously, these two contexts are directed at a female audience and would have the effect of convincing women that they are every bit man's equal or superior. 

Women's gaining of the vote in New Zealand in 1893 signalled the success of the suffragette movement. Clearly, the language used by these strong women in their fight for social justice could not help but be a factor in empowering women and convincing men of the ‘rightness' of their cause. 


  • Ballantine, Philippa Jane (April1 2002) "Kate Sheppard- Fighting the good fight", published on http://www.suite101. Retrieved on 6 August, 2003. 

  • Hazlett, Adelle (1871), Speech endorsing Women's Enfranchisement.
  • "NZ give vote to women" (8 Sept 1893), published on http://www.dailypast.com. Retrieved on 2 August, 2003 

  • Sheppard, Kate (1892), "Hope deferred", published in The Woman Question, Margaret Lovell-Smith (ed) : Publisher: NZ Women's Press Ltd, Page 8 

  • Sheppard, Kate (1892) "Is it right?", The Prohibitionist, 5 November 1892, published in The Woman Question, Margaret Lovell-Smith (ed. ) Publisher: NZ Women's Press Page 83 

  • Stanton, Elizabeth Cady (1868) "The male element is a destructive force", speech to Women's Suffrage Convention, Washington, published in Penguin Book of Historic Speeches, edited by Brian MacArthur, Publisher: Penguin Press 

  • Stanton Elizabeth Cady (1892), Speech to the U.S. Congressional Committee.

Published on: 08 Dec 2010