I admire Meryl Streep. She has made my Best Actresses of All Time list quite often in my life. She made it when I saw Sophie’s Choice; Death Becomes Her (added this one later); The Devil Wears Prada; and for The Iron Lady, too.
Streep’s latest, Suffragette, however, will not be getting my monetary support nor verbal admiration. Maybe it will be one of those films that I come to consume later through Netflix, or perhaps when I visit home to watch a decent bootleg rendition. (On the real though, my family will most likely go with a bootleg of M. Night Shyamalan’s The Visit since it dabbles in horror.)
“But, you’re a feminist and it’s a women’s rights movie!”
I can hear the push back now for my admittance to not wanting to see the film. Many may think I would and should go out to support a film that tells the struggle of voting rights by women in Britain. After all, I do name myself a feminist, and the film has been marketed so far as a championing narrative of human rights and gender equality. Streep and others have even contextualized the importance of the historic biopic to talk about current day inequities that women face in the film industry.
Admittedly, I was intrigued by the film when I saw an online poster and realized that Meryl Streep starred in the cast. Streep has a kind of Midas touch for me in a film. But, I was still only about twenty percent likely to go out and spend my money on it when I saw the advertisement.
Then, this happened:
The above image comes from an ad campaign for the film featured in London’s Time Out magazine. The image represents all the reasons why I did not want to see Suffragette in the first place. And damn, did this image really sink my twenty percent in a matter of seconds.
Feminist “Origin” Stories as (White) Women’s Voting Rights Movements
Suffragette is not alone in perpetuating a linear narrative of feminist movement history. The main reason why I was only twenty percent likely to go see the film was in part due to how I have been taught feminist history inside and outside academic spaces. More often than not, feminist movements’ “beginning” agitators start with the political campaigns led by white (often-middle class) women in the western hemisphere in the twentieth century.
I have always had a fraught relationship to this kind of origin narrative of “women’s rights” and feminism because there remains an absence of the political activities of women of color. Why do we often start with voting rights as the political birth moment of feminism and women’s movements? Why not start with the political agitation of slave women or women like Ida B. Wells who led a transnational campaign to end U.S. lynching?
These questions began during my undergraduate course Histories of Feminist Thought which structured feminist history in a chronological order. The beginning point of our curriculum commenced with The Book of the City of Ladies by Italian French author, Christine de Pizan, published in 1405. I recall our class discussing Pizan’s arguments for women’s education, their gifts of virtue, and their capacity for governance. I remember feeling a bit thrilled to find such an old text that argued for “feminism” when it had not been named yet, but something about the lineage of feminism beginning in Europe dismayed me. “Where were black women or any other woman for that matter?,” I quietly thought.
That course continued this trend of producing a limited “feminist canon.” We read Wollstonecraft, Mills, Stanton, Anthony, Grimke, Goldman, Sanger, Woolf, Beauvoir, etc. There were a few glimpses of color, and when we did show up, I always felt that black women were a kind of oddity that stood outside the canon of feminism and “women’s history.” The feeling persists even though scholars have documented the contributions by black women to voting rights campaigns despite their exclusion from the majority of these political spaces (i.e. Seneca Falls) because of their considered detriment to the cause (read: white men were less likely to extend the vote to white women with “others” in the mix. See Angela Davis’ Women, Race, and Class for a historical coverage of the U.S. suffrage and abolition movements and the fissures between each.)
This sense of difference became public one class period when we read selections from Ida B. Wells’ Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases and The Red Record. I recall a kind of silence in class when asked if any of us considered Well’s work a “feminist” one. I had my response formulated from the night before. My response to that question required a lot of personal mental gymnastics since up to that point, “feminism” seemed to only consider the plights of (white) “wives” and (white) “mothers.” Unlike my good friend, a white gay male, who shared in class that it was the most decidedly feminist works we had read that semester, I had not come so easily to that conclusion about Well’s political writings and activities.
I recall questioning, as I read Wells’ work, “This text is about the wrongful treatment and murders of black men. How is this feminist?” I feel a bit embarrassed now to admit this, but at the time it was a heavy question for myself to consider. Who was the subject of feminist thought and concern? All the texts we had read prior did not point to concerns beyond white women’s oppression under the institutions of marriage and motherhood. I remember feeling frustrated, angry, and alone that I had to mentally fight to include the lynchings of African American men as a feminist issue. It felt like I lacked access to a language that could assist me in making the connection between lynching and feminist analysis.
After hours of writing and serious critical thinking, I came to conceptualize Wells’ work as an indictment of the controlling sexual myths of African Americans and how notions of white womanhood and white male paternalism interacted to produce white male violence against black male bodies. Analyses of power, gender, race, and sexuality were screaming directly in my face in Wells’ work, and somehow I was very close to missing it in a feminist history course.
This particular shaping of “feminist issues” and “women’s history” in curricula, activist organizations, and popular culture is powerful to say the least. If “women’s history” and “feminism” continue to foreground narratives of white women’s struggle against the legal and cultural boundaries of domesticity, our collective visions and definitions of women and feminism will remain narrow and exclusionary.
Why White Women Were Not Slaves and Why Black Slaves Were Not Women
The structural way we think about “women’s history” brings me back to Suffragette‘s ad campaign. As I look upon these white women wearing bright promo T-shirts donning the phrase “I’d rather be a rebel than a slave,” I cringe with anger.
The phrase comes from a speech by women’s rights activist Emmeline Pankhurst (played by Meryl Streep) in 1913. Many say that the T-shirt promo takes the phrase out of its historic context, and that’s why it is wrong, but I disagree.
The phrase was wrong then, and it is still wrong now.
This is not an argument over who can refer to slavery or use the word slave. This is just a matter of historic fact. White women suffragists were not slaves by law, and black female slaves were not considered women. To be a woman meant to be human, and black slaves were not human. We were considered chattel—non-human property.
Pankhurst was not unique in equating white women suffragists’ status and oppression to that of slaves. Many white women suffragists, such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton, invoked the imagery of slavery to compare to the institution of marriage. Doing so was quite shocking and inflaming then. White suffragists and suffragettes definitely used the slogan to rally their cause for enfranchisement.
Despite its political utility, this historic conflation should not have been made. The institutions of marriage and slavery were not the same, and each encompassed disparate experiences. The comparison egregiously erases slavery’s process of diminishing blacks’ humanity and the brutal violence that slave persons had to endure and experience under their status as property. It also downplays the social privileges tied to marriage—a conferral of humanity and respectability to name a few.
I sometimes wonder if Pankhurst had other options for a rallying slogan. Maybe the phrase “I’d rather be a rebel than a woman” was a viable consideration since woman connoted docility and gentility. To me, it seems like many white suffragists were rebelling against the constraints and expectations of white womanhood, but many wanted to keep their status. Of course, I cannot go back and change history, but I wish media campaigners of Suffragette could have thought otherwise.
So Where Can We Go From Here?
It can be quite infuriating to witness this phrase play out again in 2015. So much so, that many of us will get into debates about whose conditions were actually worse off than the other.
I am sure I will hear that white married women were functionally property under law as well. That under the institution of marriage, marital rape was not yet recognized, and that white women did not have legal access to their children if separated from their husbands. To counter, I might hear that white women had privileges accrued to them by notions of humanity and virtue; that they did not experience the physical and emotional hardships of being considered slave labor; and that they were still considered at risk of rape unlike black slave women who were considered lascivious animals.
This is a dangerous place to be for women (feminists and non-feminists alike). Debating who had it worse then or now and whose oppression should come first can do us more harm than good if we wish to build a broad feminist movement or any large coalitional movement for social justice.
No matter what, we need to stop making conflations between our conditions and recognize connections between various systems of privilege and oppression. For example, we have to ask how notions of “good” women interplay with ideas of “bad” women, and how each are a function of powerful systems of thought. How do various divisions (race, class, gender, sexuality, etc.) work together keep certain men and women from experiencing opportunities that may remain open to a privileged few?
Next, we have to expand our understanding and definitions of “women’s history” and “women’s empowerment.” I envision a culture in which the story of Harriet Tubman’s Combahee River Raid gets mass marketed as a “women’s empowerment” and “women’s history” flick as well as an incredible moment in black history. At the heart of this desire is a vision of multiple representations of feminist struggle and history. Such a vision seeks to break down the very dominant subject of feminist thought and history—the white woman—perhaps even woman itself.
For now I will be continuing to finish Madame Bovary on Netflix this evening. Bovary’s oppression is real and I wish it could have turned out better for all parties involved. As for Suffragette, I can only take so many historic pieces focused on white women’s struggle no matter how well it pulls at my heart strings—no matter if Meryl Streep stars in it.