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We Need to Talk about Those Suffragette ‘Slave’ Shirts

The British suffragettes are celebrated for being bad-ass revolutionaries who used uncompromising tactics to demand the right to vote. They tied themselves to buildings. They smashed artwork and windows. They grabbed the patriarchy by its powdered wig and demanded that it treat them as human beings or suffer the consequences. They were militant, fierce and unapologetic.

And, unfortunately, as the promotional material for the new film Suffragette is reminding us, they, like white feminism in general, could often be racially blinkered.

In promotional photos for the film (click here to see them), stars Carey Mulligan, Anne-Marie Duff, Romola Garai and Meryl Streep are shown in shirts declaring, “I’d rather be a rebel than a slave.”

That’s a quote from a speech by Emmeline Pankhurst, the most prominent suffragette leader, played by Streep in the film. And, as you’ve probably noticed, it compares the plight of women—most directly, the plight of a white woman—to the plight of slaves.

The words are especially laden in an American context. In the first place, of course, when you put “rebel” next to “slave” in the United States, you end up talking about the Confederacy. The shirt can be read as saying that Streep and the others would rather fight for the South than be slaves.

That’s not what they intended, obviously, but it resonates very uncomfortably with the actual history of feminism in the U.S. Though feminists and abolitionists worked together in the run-up to the Civil War, after the war feminists such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton argued against the 15th Amendment on the explicitly racist grounds that black men were not as fit for the vote as white women.

Later, feminist leader Frances Willard followed through on that white supremacist heritage by appealing directly to racism in her temperance crusade. “’Better whiskey and more of it’ is the rallying cry of great, dark-faced mobs. The safety of [white] women, of childhood, of the home, is menaced in a thousand localities,“ she declared.

The British feminist experience with race was somewhat different—but it was still fraught. As Vron Ware, author of Beyond the Pale: White Women, Racism and History, said in a Playboy interview, "The British movement for women’s rights that emerged in the second half of the 19th century was closely aligned with the imperialist project of bringing ‘civilization’ to colonized territories.”

People in the colonies were characterized as inferior, or in need of civilizing, because of what was seen as their poor treatment of women. At the same time, white women in Britain were figured as a civilizing force, and as a result could sometimes obtain jobs or opportunities in the colonies that were unavailable at home.

Pankhurst herself was not immune to this conflation of the goals of feminism and the goals of white supremacy. She showed as much when she declared that women in Britain suffered in “the most appalling slavery, compared with which negro slavery falls into insignificance.”

When Pankhurst said she did not want to be a slave, the Atlantic slave trade was very much in mind—and the comparison, whereby white women’s fate was presented as more important than the suffering of black people, was intended.

As Vron Ware told me by email, “Emmeline Pankhurst turned out to be a disappointment for militant feminism. In August 1914 the Women’s Social and Political Union, the organization she founded, accepted £2,000 from the British government to organize a pro-war rally, which was attended by 30,000 people. I’d much rather wear a T-shirt with a quote from her anti-war and anti-fascist daughter, Sylvia Pankhurst, who said things like: ‘I am going to fight capitalism even if it kills me.’”

Obviously, Meryl Streep and the movie creators didn’t mean to say that feminism is just for white women. To them the message on the shirt had nothing to do, directly, with black people.

But they could be oblivious only because white women are so thoroughly the default that other’s stories or perspectives aren’t even considered.

"The fact that the movie has chosen to erase the Indian and black women in the British suffragette movement just makes the marketing choices even more offensive,” writer Mikki Kendall told me by email. Researcher and activist Zoé Samudzi concluded on Twitter, “White folks are as careless in their slave analogizing now as they were in the early 20th century. That’s reassuring.”

Noah Berlatsky edits the comics and culture site the Hooded Utilitarian and is the author of Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics 1941-1948.

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