Knowing our history helps us to make better use of it in the present.

Some thoughts on Kirsten West Savali’s ‘Sister Suffragette: “Slave” T-Shirts Highlight White Feminism’ s Race Problem”

Suffragette 2015

Kirsten West Savali’s excellent and thought-provoking article points out the way in which PR for the film Suffragette has glibly used the slogan ‘I’d rather be a rebel than a slave’without considering its racist origins and contemporary resonances. It discusses Emmeline Pankhurst’s visit to the United States in 1913, when she called upon her audience to free women just as they had already freed ‘the Negro’ – thus making a shallow and opportunistic comparison between the oppression of (white) women and the enslavement of people of colour, while also ignoring the continued exploitation and oppression of Black people in the United States under the Jim Crow laws.

More could be said about the racism of Emmeline Pankhurst’s feminism. Her and her daughter Christabel’s politics had been shifting to the right in the years leading up to the First World War, a process that culminated in 1918 with their founding the Women’s Party – a viciously patriotic and anti-immigrant platform. These are aspects of the suffrage movement which are indeed conveniently ignored, not just in the film but in much of the commemoration of the suffrage movement, and Savali’s article offers an important corrective and insight into some of the problems of an unquestioning valorisation of Pankhurst as a fighter for women’s freedom.

Kirsten West Savali focuses on the United States rather than the United Kingdom. I think it is also worthwhile exploring the British context more specifically, noting the ways in which it differed from the history of North American suffrage activism. As a historian who is also involved in feminism and organising for radical social change, I think that histories can be useful for present-day struggle. But also that they are open to appropriation and abuse. The film Suffragette, and the way in which has been received and promoted, probably offers some examples of both. In order to navigate this, it is necessary to delve more deeply into the function and nature of race and racism in British feminism during this period.

As Angela Davis and many others have recounted, the women’s suffrage movement in the United States made a conscious decision to renounce the struggle against slavery and the emancipation of Black people (in their early years the two movements had been closely intertwined), in the hope that this would make their demands for rights for white women more palatable to the status quo. The British suffrage movement, however, never experienced such an explicit moment of betrayal and rapture. In contrast to the United States, the primary site in which the racism of the British state and society in the nineteenth and early twentieth century played out was not the metropole (Britain), but in its Empire. Britain certainly had a Black population in this period (as historian Caroline Bressey has documented), but it remained a tiny fraction of the metropolitan population and is not comparable to the history of people of colour in North America. Britain committed exploitation, segregation, violence against and genocide of people of colour “somewhere else” – in the territories it colonised in the Indian subcontinent and parts of Africa. The only sizeable wave of ‘colonial’ migration into Britain at this time was from Ireland, whose population was both ‘white’ and highly racialized.

This had significant implications for how the race politics of British feminism played out, meaning that the movement followed a somewhat different path from what occurred in the United States. Historians Antoinette Burton and Claire Midgley, among others, have written about the dominance of imperialist ideas in the British women’s movement. White British women frequently argued for political rights for themselves, on the grounds that this would better enable them to play their part in Empire and/or ‘rescue’ their ‘sisters’ in the colonised territories from oppression at the hands of more ‘backward’ societies. A destructive legacy that has weighed heavy on British feminism, and continues to shape much of the present-day political landscape.

Princess Sophia Duleep Singh

Princess Sophia Duleep Singh

Yet there was also space in Britain for current of anti-imperialist and anti-racist feminism to develop – exemplified by women such as Harriet Law, Annie Besant and Catherine Impey (see Caroline Bressey’s recent book on Impey), who were also active supporters of women’s suffrage. There was also, around the time at which the film Suffragette is set, a group of upper-class Indian feminists in Britain, including Princess Sophia Duleep Singh, who threw themselves into the campaign for the vote (see Anita Anand’s biography and ongoing research by Sumita Mukherjee). And there were various interconnections between Irish struggles against colonial rule, the Irish suffrage movement and English suffrage organisations. This alternative tradition of feminist politics was certainly a minority one, but it does complicate any attempts to dismiss the history of this movement as ‘white feminism’ concerned solely with the rights of white women and excluding people of colour.

The women’s suffrage movement in Britain in the early decades of the twentieth century was exceptionally politically diverse, involving conservatives, liberals, socialists, anarchists, Catholics, Protestants, Jews and atheists, as well as imperialists and anti-imperialist – who frequently disagreed and debated with each other over the best way to win the vote and what they would do with it once they had it. sylvia_usa250Even members of the Pankhurst family took politically divergent paths. Rejecting the increasing conservatism and racism of her mother and her sister, Sylvia Pankhurst pursued a socialist feminist course, organising with working-class women in London’s East End, and was also active and outspoken opponent of racism, imperialism and fascism throughout the whole of her life.

So how does delving into such history inform the ongoing debates on Suffragette, and Feminist Fightback’s decision to use it as a spring board for discussing feminist activism today? The intention is not to say that British feminism was any less racist than North American feminism, nor to try to absolve ourselves from the overriding legacies of a women’s movement that has frequently been dominated by the needs of white middle-class women. Rather, by looking more closely at the politics of feminism and race in a historically and geographically specific context – one structured primarily by Empire and a predominantly white metropole – we see how understanding the history of racism within the women’s movement solely in terms ‘inclusion’ vs ‘exclusion’ is inadequate unless we also examine the political content of different strands of suffrage activism. Which political traditions might we want to draw from and which traditions should we reject? To what degree did some activists develop an anti-racist feminism within the shadow of Empire and among a predominantly white British population? How much did overarching imperialist and racist discourses limit the thinking even of those white feminists who professed solidarity with their colonised ‘sisters’. And how do these discourses continue to structure feminist thinking today?

We hope on Thursday at Genesis Cinema to invite a politicised viewing and post-screening discussion of a film (and a period in history) in which there is much to critique as well as much to be inspired by and learn from – and the two processes are not necessarily counter-posed. So far, the PR surrounding Suffragette has been used to quite radically different political ends. The photoshoot of its leading actresses wearing ‘rebel/ slave’ T-shirts is one example, but Sisters’ Uncut’s protest at its premier, raising awareness about cuts to domestic violence services, is another.  Knowing our history helps us to make better use of it in the present.

Laura Schwartz (Oct 2016)