“Given” or “winning,” suffrage message frames often miss the point

“Given” or “winning,” suffrage message frames often miss the point

It’s the 90th anniversary of the 19th Amendment today, where women voting in the US finally became legal. A tweet by the Women’s Media Center asked if anyone else got irritated by the phrase, “Women were given the right to vote.” And then a number of people responded yes, they were irritated, because it wasn’t given to them, women won the right to vote.

Both of these frames are problematic. It’s challenging to articulate exactly why, but I’m going to give it my best shot–because language has evolved within the same power structures we seek to tear down, we don’t always have the words to describe the problem.

Human rights within both frames are treated as a commodity that is traded. This is based on our market understanding of what we do with commodities: we accumulate, we spend, we give, we win, we lose. But if we really believe that certain rights are inalienable to humans, we can’t and shouldn’t commodify them. By doing so we support a power structure where rights are doled out and taken away at the whims of the dominant paradigm.

It also, in a deeper metaphorical sense, suggests that women aren’t necessarily fully human– they must be given the right to vote, or they must fight and win it for themselves. It’s not assumed that women would naturally vote in the grand scheme of things. We think so now (mostly), but if we continue to use this language, we support the antiquated structures that keep women from being recognized fully as humans.

If you’re into this kind of thing, by the way, and have the patience for heavy academic text, I highly recommend Women, Fire & Dangerous Things by George Lakoff. There’s a section called “Anger, Lust & Rape” that is truly disturbingly insightful as to how unraveling language can reveal our darkest cultural secrets. I’ll see if I can get in touch with George and post the piece here.