Suffragette, Slavery, and the Appropriation of Suffering

Controversy erupted recently over a photo shoot in which the stars of the movie, Suffragette, wore t-shirts that said, “I’d rather be a rebel than a slave.” A group of white women wearing a shirt with a message comparing themselves to slaves was a problem to begin with, but people familiar with the fact that southern defenders of slavery in the US are known as Rebels only made things worse.

Defenders of the movie, the photo shoot, and the quote said the outrage was based on a misunderstanding of the quote, which comes from a speech by the British suffragette, Emmeline Pankhurst, rallying women to free themselves from the oppression of patriarchy. In the United States, abolitionists and suffragettes were sometimes, though not nearly always, the same people. The comparison of slavery to women’s oppression was noted by many, including former slave Frederick Douglas, who wrote, “In respect to political rights, we hold woman to be justly entitled to all we claim for man. We go farther, and express our conviction that all political rights which it is expedient for man to exercise, it is equally so for women.”

In the UK, people are less sensitive to comments about slavery and rebels. Some have suggested that the UK did not have slaves and that the quote is therefore not offensive. Time Out London, which published the photos, said in a statement: “Time Out published the original feature online and in print in the UK a week ago. The context of the photoshoot and the feature were absolutely clear to readers who read the piece. It has been read by at least half a million people in the UK and we have received no complaints.”

The UK does have a history with slavery, though. Unlike the US, Britain did not have a large workforce of slaves, but that doesn’t mean the UK had no involvement in slavery. Slavery was abolished in the UK in 1833 by the Slavery Abolition Act, which ended slavery throughout the British Empire with the exception of territories under control of the East India Company, Ceylon, and the island of Saint Helena. The exceptions were eliminated in 1843. In the US, President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863.

Having been neither a woman nor a slave, I hesitate to comment on the controversy of the use of the Emmeline Pankhurst quote, but it turns out that philosopher Elizabeth Spelman made an insightful and relevant commentary on the issue in her 1997 book, Fruits of Sorrow: Framing Our Attention to Suffering. In the first place, she points out that phrases such as “women and minorities” excludes and ignores the existence of minority women. Comparisons to slavery are a case in point. She says,  “Consider the talk about women being treated like slaves. Whenever we talk that way we are not only making clear that the ‘women’ we’re referring to aren’t themselves slaves; we’re making it impossible to talk about how the women who weren’t slaves treated those who were.” When a white woman suffragette declared her preference for rebellion over slavery, was she honoring the suffering of slave women or, indeed, setting herself apart from them?

Drawing on the work of Jean Fagan Yellins, Spelman continues, “The female slave is made to disappear from view. Although presumably it was the female slave’s experience that originally was the focus of concern, the other women’s experiences were made the focus.” Somehow, white women made use of the suffering of slaves without experiencing the actual realities of slavery, even if the oppression of white women was intolerable, it was not an experience shared with actual slave women.

When this relationship between white suffragettes and slaves is exposed an analyzed, of course white women will want to deny their privilege and insist that they were only honoring their sisters. They can say this with great honesty, because they are not aware of their privileged status. Further, Spelman says, “The deeper privilege goes, the less self-conscious people are of the extent to which their being who they are, in their own eyes as well as the eyes of others, is dependent upon the exploitation or degradation or disadvantage of others.”

When privilege is pointed out, it makes us uncomfortable. As a result, our reaction is motivated by shame. Self-awareness is necessary to effect change, but it is also painful. Spelman says, “Seeing oneself as deeply disfigured by privilege, and desiring to do something about it, may be impossible without feeling shame.” The shame provokes a defensive reaction, but it can also help to facilitate healing and solidarity–in some cases, anyway.

With the Emmeline Pankhurst quote used by the magazine, we can see the defensive reaction. Many people defended the quote as being taken out of context, as being somehow separate from slavery because it was British, or being a victim of PC culture gone mad. In the end, though, the outrage at the use of the quote helped spark a conversation about the suffragette movement, Britain’s role in slavery, and sensitivity to women whose experiences lie outside the realm of so-called “white feminism.”

Tea Party Fights Corporate Abuse

The East India Company, chartered in 1600, was the first corporation in the modern sense. Members would invest capital, management would conduct the operations, and investors would receive repayment in proportion to their investments. For the first time, investors and mangers were separate persons. At this time, it was unclear who would be responsible for wrongs committed by the corporation.

As this and similar ventures developed, investors were increasingly separated from the actions of the corporations, and limited liability (investors could only lose the amount they invested in the corporation) became the norm by the end of the nineteenth century. This also made corporate immortality possible as corporations could outlive their owners.

The British East India Company (BEIC) rapidly gained economic power and exerted global influence. It formed the largest standing army in the world at the time, gained control of India and the surrounding islands, controlled the opium trade in China, and managed slave trading out of Madagascar. One-third of British parliament members held stock in BEIC, 10 percent of British tax revenues came from tax on BEIC tea, and the King depended on loans from the company. In exchange for these benefits to the British government, BEIC was granted many favors, including monopoly rights.

The company conscripted thousands of British for forced labor in Jamestown, a colony set up in America by BEIC. Eighty percent of these laborers died before completing their seven-year tenure. Because of its rapid expansion and competition from small colonial business, though, BEIC was almost bankrupt. It was able to overcome this setback with more favors from the British government, which expanded its monopoly and led to the 1773 Tea Act, lifting tariffs on tea and enabling BEIC to flood the market with cheap tea and destroy its competition.

This was the catalyst for the Boston Tea Party. During the Boston Tea Party, protestors dumped more than 90,000 pounds of tea into the harbor, which was then closed for more than a year and a half. This led to the battles of Lexington and Concord; as a result, America’s founders vowed to protect the United States from corporate power and corruption.

The Boston Tea Party is an enduring symbol of America’s popular resistance to the collusion of corporations and government against the interests of the people.

Information for this blog came from:

1. Christopher D. Stone, Where the Law Ends: The Social Control of Corporate Behavior (New York: Harper & Row, 1976).

2. Shelley K. White, “Corporations, Public Health, and the Historical Landscape that Defines Our Challenge,” in The Bottom Line or Public Health: Tactics Corporations Use to Influence Health and Health Policy, and What We Can Do to Counter Them, ed. William H. Wiist (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2010).

When should corporations be treated as people?

I recently attended a conference on business ethics, and one of the presenters asked what human rights corporations had. When some scoffed at the notions that a corporation could have any human rights at all, the presenter asked whether corporations did not have the right to buy property. Indeed, the earliest laws regarding corporations dealt with just such problems.

Lawyer Christopher Stone described some of the history of corporations in his 1976 book, Where the Law Ends: The Social Control of Corporate Behavior. The earliest corporations arose from the need of some organization, such as the church, to own property. It did not make sense to say that the abbot owned the property, could buy or sell it, and pass it on to his heirs. Rather, the property belonged to the church, and the congregants were responsible for it. When the abbot died, the church would still control the property.

And property was the primary function of the early proto-corporations. As you may know, some people, especially libertarians, assert that all human rights are property rights (see Murray Rothbard). If all human rights are, indeed, reducible to property rights, then the corporations, having the right to hold property, also are entitled to all the rights any human might reasonably demand. This is what free-market thinkers mean when they say corporations are people without the slightest pause.

The earliest commercial corporations were entities such as trade guilds. Although these guilds operated as one organization, when harm was done, individuals, not the guild, were held responsible. If you got bad meat from a butcher, you would blame the butcher, not the butcher’s guild. Stone points out that this system had its own drawbacks. It may be that a guild created a culture or corruption or failed to create a culture of safety. In this case, you may want to hold the corporation responsible rather than seeking out individuals.

You may demand that the corporation lose its charter, which was once the threat the public had against corporations. To withdraw a business charter would be the death penalty for a business. If such things still happened, perhaps we could better handle the equation of corporate rights with human rights, although it still does not sound right. But just imagine how life would be different if corporations could effectively be sentenced to death for wrongdoing. Well, they can, but it will take a great deal of political will to reinstate the death penalty for corporations.