While promoting their new film Suffragette, Meryl Streep, Cary Mulligan, Romola Garai, and Anne-Marie Duff (all White appearing womyn) posed for Time Out wearing T-shirts emblazoned with the following quote: “I’d rather be a rebel than a slave.” This is a quote originally spoken by Emmeline Pankhurst, the British political activist Streep plays in the film. Taken in the context of the film, the quote is meant to inspire women to fight for their right to vote. However, even when looking historically into what was actually occurring between white suffragettes and women of color at that time using this quote is beyond problematic – not to mention snipping out the quote portion they chose and putting it on the white female cast members. Seeing this immediately made my skin crawl I felt so disgusted by what my eyes were beholding and my brain was trying to process. “But you’ve never been a slave!” is what my mouth wanted to scream, instead of staying wide open.
My awe was compounded by the fact that of knowing exactly how many people it takes to be involved in a project like this – how many opportunities there were for even one person to take a stand and say, “This is truly fucked up,” that never happened. From the original shirt designer to the magazine and photographer to the actresses themselves, anyone on set that day, and even tracing all the way back to the structure of the movie Suffragette, which is leaving me with the impression that the entire movie is whitewashed and will potentially leave the important role of Black women and women of color in the original women’s rights movement. As an aside, I find it fascinating that the majority of articles covering this story thus far have seemed to place Meryl Streep in some sort of sainthood role in general in the media, when really red flags should have been raised the moment Meryl openly rejected the word Feminist in favor of “Humanist.”
I resonated with one viewer’s response I found: “I can’t believe no one doing publicity for the film realized how problematic this would be. It would be one thing to have the quote in context, within the film, coming out of Emmeline Pankhurst’s mouth. That’s acceptable, because that’s part of the historical record for the film. But it’s quite another to build a movie campaign – for a movie that has already been whitewashed, about a historical campaign that had racial problems – around this problematic quote/concept.” The only point I disagree with here is the disbelief – sadly, I fully believe Hollywood is capable of such things (especially coming of the heels of their whitewashed version of the Stonewall account in the Gay Rights Movement, and I also believe that the original message of Emmaline Pankhurst was also whitewashed – as women of color were readily not included in this movement.
For transparency, here is the quote in its entirety, coming from a speech Pankhurst delivered in 1913:
“I know that women, once convinced that they are doing what is right, that their rebellion is just, will go on, no matter what the difficulties, no matter what the dangers, so long as there is a woman alive to hold up the flag of rebellion. I would rather be a rebel than a slave.”
I also found a very important discussion of historical connotation on themarysue.com that I found integral to include here when looking at original British activist work:
“British feminism is heavily rooted in abolition movements, and it was through female activism in anti-slavery that British women first started entering the public sphere. However, despite the crucial role these women played in the abolition movement, they had some clear blind spots that Streep and the stars of Suffragette seem to share.
To get an idea of that history, this famous Wedgwood engraving, introduced by Elizabeth Margaret Chandler, and its male counterpart (“Am I Not A Man And A Brother?”) was used in dishes, hairpins, and many other items for creating a political space that called for abolition.“
Now, look at this second version:
“These engravings illustrate a clear power dynamic in which the black subject has to declare and prove not only her humanity, but also her womanhood. In addition, the “sister” holds not only religious connotations, but also implies a freedom dependent upon both a connection with the white woman and the white woman’s validation. Simply put, freedom for the enslaved woman is not the same as freedom for the white, British woman. It was defined differently, and relied on different conditions. It seems very obvious, or it should be obvious, that enslaved women dealt with oppression and sexism very differently. You don’t need to pick up The History of Mary Prince to know that, but maybe we should send the Suffragette actresses a copy.”
In the end, not only does this current day Suffragette movie whitewash, but it seems like the suffragette movement as a whole did the same, and that is the birthplace of the very White Feminism we seek to combat today. Again, we will say that Intersectional Feminism is the only way. Please leave us your thoughts in the comment section below…