By Jesse James
With many preparing for the upcoming Canadian and American federal elections and the debut of the new film Suffragette soon to be released, the topic of voting is on the minds and lips of many.
But Suffragette, which follows the story of the early feminist movement and the British activists for which the film is also named, has been garnering its own substantial press as of late. Most of it circling around the poor choice of quote for these T-shirts:
I’ve seen a lot of controversy flying through my timeline over these. I’ve overheard the oblivious defense of them, too. I tried to ignore these statements because I didn’t want to get involved.
Not at first.
I was struggling as to whether or not it was my place to. But I’ve seen the silencing of viable voices taking place. Witnessing this, I don’t want to be another disinterested party who sits back while others deny them their voice. I’m going to do my best to address these things how I can. But know also that my voice should not be the only one you hear about this.
“But we have freedom of expression/speech.”
I hear them shouting in defense of the quote. Alright, fair enough. But you do know that those who have a problem with it have those same rights then, too, right?
“But they’re empowering!” others say.
Sure. I mean, I guess for some. The word rebel is trendy again, yes?
Many say that they don’t understand why the quote is a problem. Others claim the meaning and origin of the word has been misinterpreted and exaggerated to suit their cause. Yet for those who take time to hear these grievances, it is easy to see that they’re not.
This isn’t about just a T-shirt, after all; because these incidents don’t exist within a vacuum alone. They are not solitary events.
They are part of a larger problem—a sense of entitlement and a lack of accountability, a superiority complex based within institutional racism, ingrained within our society today.
So let’s examine this, starting with the quote.
“I’d rather be a rebel than a slave.”
That’s what the T-shirts read.
A quick google search shows that the quote in question is from one Emmeline Pankhurst, a political activist and leader of the British suffragette movement; one who, through tireless effort and widely criticized militant tactics—arson, vandalism and antagonistic opposition/assaults against police (to name a few)—was a driving force for women in winning their right to vote.
Getting the right for women to vote in Britain was no small feat. Even once they won it in 1918 with ‘The Representation of the People Act,’ it came with limitations and took time to enact equal weight into those votes.
So why is this a problem you ask? Sounds like she did a good thing, right?
For some. Absolutely! But it’s important to note who we are talking about. That’s where those limitations come in.
When the reform was enacted, only about 80% of women over 30 were eligible to vote. Take a guess who it was that was left out of that margin. This wasn’t a fight for all women equally, after all. And it was predominantly women of colour and those considered “working class” who were rendered ineligible in their right to vote.
Thus the suffragette majority was not so much about voting equality as it was a platform for white women who felt that their movement would be best represented if black, brown and working class faces were not included in their ranks. Built by stepping on the backs of people of colour, it remained exclusive of the lower class as well.
Both of which were—and still are—two highly marginalized groups of people who regularly get stomped over in the fight for human rights.
Now I’m not denying that these women did some good here. They fought hard in their struggle to secure voting rights for themselves, but they did it as women already of influence and social standing, unwilling to work with others who were without.
This is a prime example of those with privilege using it to their advantage—which is not necessarily bad, we all have our own struggles to work from within—but it is when you consider the deliberate or misgiven action of leaving behind those without privilege.
And then there’s that word.
Stop! What do these white wealthy women know about being slaves?
Let’s take a look at that quote again. The full line of which was this:
“I’d rather be a rebel than a slave. I’d rather die than submit.”
It’s easy to make such claims when losing one’s life is not a consequence that’s on the table, when you assume that the act of being enslaved is a choice.
But you know who this was a reality for? Actual slaves—human lives whose struggles they trivialized to make a point. The choice for whom to be a rebel was not a liberty easily afforded, and for most would literally mean the end of their lives.
But for these white women, this was not the case.
Yes, they faced prison time for continued violent offenses in their fight. Yet in comparison, we have repeatedly seen that people of colour who stand up for their rights risk a lot more than prison for speaking out. It was women of colour, those who sought to register to vote before the bans were lifted that were severely beaten and arrested, not white suffragettes who were committing violence and arson in the streets.
It is here we see that only the privileged are permitted to fight for their rights—all others that do will have their lives and freedoms forcibly taken from them.
While relating their struggles to slavery may have been a well-loved tactic in the suffragette days due to the strong mental images it evoked, it doesn’t mean the oppression of anything else equates to it. Neither does it make it okay for others to use.
Keep in mind that this was someone else’s lived history that they were exploiting for their own gain. And let’s not forget that women of colour and the working class were fighting for their own rights, too.
Sure, the Suffragettes went and gave speeches to crowds of predominantly people of colour (you know, giving them the old “lift yourself up from your bootstraps” rallying speech). They encouraged them to fight to free themselves from their own oppression—as if they hadn’t already been trying to. This is a lot easier said and done when you come from a loft of privilege already yourself.
But Pankhurst, like so many of the other Suffragettes, didn’t come from the same struggles, didn’t know first-hand what it was to go without. In her own words she says:
“I have not personally suffered from the deprivations, the bitterness and sorrow which bring so many men and women to a realisation of social injustice.”
And that is a problem here; her understanding of these issues was severely divorced because of this.
I have no doubt that these women believed in the causes for which they fought, but they did so irresponsibly; coming from a place of arrogance, unaware of the challenges and disadvantages that others had to face beyond their own.
They couldn’t relate thus they didn’t include these marginalized voices in their movement, instead they sought to keep them out.
But this wasn’t exclusive to the British Suffragettes only; Canada and the U.S. have their own history of doing this, too.
It wasn’t until 1947 that Native Americans got the vote in the U.S. and yet still, the Voting Rights Act—which forbid states from imposing discriminatory restrictions on voting based on race—was not passed until 1965, with much opposition and social struggle carrying on.
Meanwhile Canada did not see the votes of women of colour in federal elections until the 1940’s, with the Federal Elections Act determining that race exclusion from voting would no longer be permitted in 1948. Even still, Indigenous people didn’t receive their vote until 1960 for most provinces except Alberta and Quebec; the former of which wasn’t until 1965 and the latter, 1969.
Compare that to the War Times Election Act which was passed in 1917—an act that enabled all women considered “British subjects” of 21 years in age to vote on behalf of their male relatives who took part in the war, and ‘The Dominion Election Act’ of 1920 which allowed all Canadian men and women the right to vote (First Nations people who did not give up their status and others who were part of a visible minority not included). And it is clear that we are fruit from the same tree.
Again, I’m not saying that Pankhurst and these white Suffragettes didn’t do great things for the women they fought for; they did. But knowing that they stood for the rights of some does not change that their actions are still skewed by the limitations of which women they were fighting for.
As we can see, it certainly wasn’t for all of them. And that history still stands.
Thus having solely white women—and women of wealth, one who denounces feminism in favour of the balance of humanism no less (self-identify how you wish, but the two theories are not of the same sense)—toting a shirt with a quote from someone who led a movement which stepped over, silenced, and advocated against the lower class and women of colour who were also fighting for their rights…
Well, for those who know that history, it should be understandable why it is offensive given the context.
Add too, the insensitivity that this image comes at such a time of severe racial tension that has been exploding the world over, but especially throughout all of Europe, Canada and the States.
It may mean something different to many reading it today unknowing of that, but it is hard to divorce from its political origins. Even still, that is precisely what they have done in marketing it and claiming detachment.
I’m not suggesting that the movement for women’s rights should be undercut or considered a small feat because of their exclusionary tact, don’t get me wrong. There is a lot to celebrate and appreciate from what they accomplished there.
As someone who didn’t live it, I can’t imagine how difficult these women’s fight may have been. That being said, people have a right to feel however it is they do about their own histories, too. Right now they’re telling us they’re angry for our misuse of theirs. It is their right to be and we should hear them in that.
But so comes another case of white guilt and our “good intentions” trumping the feelings of everyone else. I’m sure this will be justified and explained away so that those who are angry about it will be made out to look like they have no reasoning. It already has begun to be.
Like women haven’t historically gotten that enough.
But you know what? As modern women, it is not our place—especially those of us that are white women today— to erase other’s history simply because it would be more convenient for us to do so. And we don’t get to decide how their narrative should be either.
History is something that happened already in the past.
None of the words we claim about it in the present changes the intention or action of what has already been done. This is part of their history, part of their fight for their rights. Something that is still ongoing today. It isn’t some distant past for them.
It is not our place to tell others how they should be reacting.
We with privilege—and yes, I am including myself in this—our voices have already been collectively heard.
They were heard in the denial and silencing, and in the arrogance of choosing as a white person to use that quote. We used our space to make the damn T-shirts already.
Any other quote would have worked. As a leader, Pankhurst said a lot of things. But that was the message that those with privilege decided to put out.
Now it is time that we hear from someone else.
We need to collectively stop acting as if we are the only ones worth listening to. We can’t keep hiding behind the idea of “Freedom of speech” when we don’t stop to listen to anyone else.
It may be uncomfortable to sit through, but hey—it’s called being accountable.
Learn it. Live by it. Get used to it.
We would be wise to all just sit down now, shut up a moment, and let these other voices be heard.
Jesse James: (pronouns: they/them)25 year old Jesse James is a storyteller and creatrix of many things—an equal blend of mystical, myth & science. Owner of Artemisian Artes and member/founder of The Creating Conscious Arts Collective, they use their voice to promote holistic wellness and inclusive activism/advocacy for the many causes they care about: poverty, disability, full-spectrum equity, anti-oppression movements, trans issues, environmentalism, as well as the violence/politics of Birth (to name a few). A lover of nature and of people; of adventure, and of raw reality—passionate about life and love itself. They adore working with herbs in making natural remedies, and concocting delicious kitchen alchemy is a second nature after breath. They worship the earth, thrive on art, and on forming meaningful connections with others. Their mission is to make that around them more beautiful, or at the very least, to help others see things that already were, in that way. You can find them on Facebook.
Article Photo: Mary Rozzi/Time Out London
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