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.”