Suffragettes – The Birth of White Feminism?

There is soon to be a new film to be released, called ‘Suffragette’, and as I’m sure many people are aware, it’s been faced with a large amount of criticism for various reasons.

I have a slight issue with political movements such as the suffragettes to be used for means of capitalist profit, and also the danger it creates of people inferring that the struggle of women is over, and they are now equal. In addition to these more generic concerns, is that of the complete erasure of black women in the film and the problematic racism of the Pankhurst’s that unsettled me extremely.

The suffragette movement was significant, and I feel it should in no way be ignored, and having a fully female director and cast is quite exciting. However, there is nothing as quick to dampen this excitement than the white feminist agenda that has supported this film and its promotion.

What has caused the biggest stir, in an already contentious issue, was the promotional t-shirts the cast were pictured wearing. The slogan ‘I’d rather be a rebel than a slave’ was plastered over the t-shirts below Meryl Streep’s beaming smile, as a quote from an Emmeline Pankhurst speech. The suffragettes often problematically used the rhetoric of being slaves to rally support and disenfranchisement with women. Although they weren’t equal and were fighting for a worthy cause, they were in no way near the oppression of slavery. Many people have brought up the fact many black women had no choice to become a rebel rather than a slave – women whose slavery was benefiting the white women who were fighting for the vote as suffragettes.

Despite this, an article by Radhika Sanghani reports in the Telegraph that there were significant suffragette women of colour, in particular an Indian princess – Sophia – who was the god daughter to Queen Victoria. She played an essential part in the suffragette movement and was seen to be hugely vital to Emmeline, who she worked closely with. The suffragettes were seen to on some level accept women of colour, but the issue arises again in the fact that Emmeline Pankhurst went on in later life to support colonialism and became increasingly conservative in her racial politics. This creates a form of confusion in the subtle but evident racism of the UK suffrage compared to the US or Australian movements with more clear cut racial tensions and segregation.

Despite it being less direct, it can’t be ignored that the white women who fought for the vote were also women who were benefiting from colonialism and the continuation of racism and slavery in other countries. Maori women gaining the vote in 1893 angered many white suffragettes; angry in the notion that women of colour in one of the British colonies had the vote before the white women of Britain obtained it. This shows the superiority and white privilege many of the suffragettes still clung to despite fighting for a movement of equality.

Therefore, filmically depicting this hugely problematic white feminist movement, while managing to be so wildly insensitive in promotion, and erasing all women of colour from the script, is nothing short of white feminism. The film needs to critique the downfalls of the movement as well as the successes of it. Emmeline Pankhurst was not a saint, and women of colour were part of the movement. It is the white feminist director’s choice to not emphasise these women – but erase them completely – that is merely testament to the continued flawed feminism which is still upheld today.

The premiere for ‘Suffragette’ was interrupted by the group ‘Sisters Uncut’ lying across the red carpet and refusing to move. They were protesting against austerity cuts affecting women’s services and the affected victims of domestic violence. It was the shockingly stark contrast between the activism of real women of all races against ‘humanist’ Streep and the achingly white cast members looking on that really confirms all that is wrong with this film.

The suffragette movement was the real birth of feminism, but a flawed and deeply racist first wave of feminism. In 2015 we have hugely significant works of women of colour who theoretically prove the importance of race in feminism, with Bell Hooks creating the notion intersectionality and the power of interconnecting struggles between race, gender, and sexuality.

This film had the ability to bare the flaws of first wave feminism, or equally to emphasise the downtrodden but significant role of of non-white women in this movement. However, white privilege prevailed to show the problematic nature of white feminism that still conquers over real feminism. Without intersectionality and the acceptance of all women, it purely isn’t feminism. It is a disappointing handling of something that could’ve been so positive, but white women forgot their privilege and ironically replayed the same inequalities of the suffragette movement – to ignore the significance and power of feminist women of colour.

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