Although the -ess suffix is the most familiar to us today, it’s not the only suffix we can use to feminize a word. For example, women fighting for the right to vote were sometimes called suffragettes.
As Bonnie Trenga noted in a recent episode on diminutives, other -ette words include kitchenette, majorette, and coquette.
Suffrage comes from a Latin word that means “to vote or to support with a vote,” and according to the Oxford English Dictionary, the meaning “the right to vote" first showed up in the U.S. Constitution, which reads “No state shall be deprived of its equal suffrage in the Senate.”
Suffragette’s first appearance was in the British newspaper The Daily Mail in 1906.
The feminine -ster suffix mainly survives in the word spinster to describe an unmarried woman (and which still sounds fusty enough to evoke Jane Austen or Downton Abbey), but spinster first simply meant a woman who spins as in spinning thread at a spinning wheel. Women during the same era could be called brewsters (female brewer), knitsters (female knitters), and seamsters (female sewers). Seamster lost a linguistic battle with seamstress, which, of course, we still have today.
Amelia Earhart was the most famous aviatrix, but English also once had admistratrixes, executrixes, mediatrixes (female mediators), and inheritrixes. And alas, although editrix is more delightful to say, a Google Ngram search shows that editress has always been more popular--but unless you’re joking, eschew them both and stick with editor today.
The list goes on, but citations for most of these gendered terms mostly disappear by the late 1800s. A 1903 citation for poetess, for example, is simply someone writing that the word is outmoded, and when writers today use words such as heroess, the sentences sound ironic or comical.
The terms that survived to more modern times, such as comedienne, stewardess, and sculptress, began to encounter resistance in the 1970s when social change caused writers, editors, and public figures to rethink the role of gendered language.
In an article in the journal American Speech, Charles F. Meyer, professor of applied linguistics at the University of Massachusetts at Boston, noted that in 2000 when he taught students about language changing to de-emphasize nouns that flag a person as female, instead of dealing with angry objections as he had in decades past, he is now greeted with yawns and “so whats.”
Just as nobody misses neighboress, today’s younger people don’t seem to miss waitress or stewardess either.