Meryl Streep’s T Shirt, Emmeline Pankhurst’s Body, and Plural Narratives of Oppression


Quotation is a tricky business, and so – as I’m about to remind myself as I’m beginning a new term teaching – is interpretation of words written far in the past. Connotations and implications that were once so obvious they didn’t need spelling out, become dated and obscure within a surprisingly short time – and if you whittle a quotation down to a few pithy words, or a single bold statement, you’re basically leaving it standing out there shivering, wondering where all the comforting context went. And this is a particular problem with feminist quotations, which seem to be subject to a kind of massed, retrospective contempsplaining effect, as everyone rushes to tell long-dead feminist women what they really meant. For example, I’ve seen de Beavoir’s famous dictim, “one is not born, but rather becomes, a woman” interpreted as a powerful attack on the idea that women are oppressed due to their reproductive biology. And it makes me wince every time, because women’s words deserve to be read in context, not snipped down to the smallest space possible, like a photoshopped model’s unrecognisable body in Vogue.

I’m thinking, as you may have guessed, of the slogan printed on T Shirts, worn by Meryl Streep to promote her new film, The Suffragette. Streep, and the T Shirts, have been the subject of a feeding frenzy, with commentators piling on to express their shock and to point out that the word ‘slave’ is, erm, kinda liable to evoke racist connotations.

Which it is. If you’re looking for an explanation, I couldn’t put it better than Charline Jao, writing in The Mary Sue: “I personally subscribe to the idea that “slave” and “slavery” should not be used outside of referring to the structural violence of treating the body of another as commodity.”

However, there’s more to the unfortunate slogan than that. If you’re reading this in from outside the US, you may not know that ‘rebel’ in that context has a specific connotation, which is still fresh in a lot of people’s minds: ‘rebel’ Confederate flags, signifying allegiance with the defeated South in the Civil War, are still flown in some US states, and they’ve come to be associated with White Pride and entrenched racism. (Disclaimer: not my circus, not my monkeys, please don’t yell at me if nuances of this strike you as simplistic.)

In that context, the juxtaposition of ‘rebel’ with ‘slave’ suggests racial conflicts, and – don’t get me wrong – I’d wince to see someone wearing this T Shirt without realizing that’s one way it might be read. But that’s the problem with snappy, soundbite quotations: they don’t come with context. A fuller quotation gives a little more of what Pankhurst said, and I’ve seen it reproduced in several debates on this issue:

“I know that women, once convinced that they are doing what is right, that their rebellion is just, will go on, no matter what the difficulties, no matter what the dangers, so long as there is a woman alive to hold up the flag of rebellion. I would rather be a rebel than a slave.”

This does help: at least you can see here that Pankhurst is talking about women, specifically. But we really need the full context. Friends of mine immediately noticed that there’s a tendency to assume UK struggles for equality followed the same pattern as those of the US, both legally and polemically. Katharine Edgar points out that – broadly – in the UK the main discriminating factor within the category of women (and men) who were allowed to vote was economic. Until 1918 (men) and 1928 (women), people had to have a certain amount of wealth in property, in order to be allowed to vote. Obviously, this functioned as a form of covert racial discrimination, but not an absolute ideological racial barrier. Black men were able to vote before white women, and it’s even been claimed that the first black man to vote in England, Ignatius Sancho, was born in 1729, well over a century before the US Civil War.

Why does any of this matter? After all, the presence of a few individuals who evade widespread discrimination hardly suggests that the UK was some kind of haven of racial equality (and I wouldn’t want to argue that). And it seems clear to me that pretending the Suffragettes were some kind of time-travelling secular saints who floated free of all the bigotry of their era, is absurd.

But it’s also – I think – absurd to treat this as a problem with Pankhurst’s speech, rather than with the way her quotation reads, taken out of context and placed on a T Shirt in 2015.

When Pankhurst made her speech, slavery labelled as such was illegal in the UK, but, within that relative (very relative!) legal freedom, women’s bodies had been commodified within Pankhurst’s lifetime. Indeed, when she married in 1879, the legal act that would make it possible for married women to own property – that is, to be financially enfranchised – was still three years in the future. The famous campaigner Caroline Norton, who died just a couple of years before Pankhurst’s marriage, had managed to stir up public sympathy when her husband refused to divorce her and also claimed her earnings as his property, leaving her unable to earn a living and banning her from seeing her sons (which was also his legal right). Lower-profile women, naturally, lacked both the influential friends and the wealthy context of Norton, and faced stark choices between starvation, prostitution, or resigning themselves to the ownership of their husbands (with legalised marital rape). Slowly, women like Norton and Pankhurst were beginning to challenge the structural violence that treated them as non-persons, as individuals whose earning power and legal rights were controlled entirely by men.

There are two things that bother me about the way I’ve seen this controversy play out in the media and in discussions. One problem – which is common to an awful lot of feminist issues – is that we’re being encouraged to treat feminist foremothers as if they must be discredited, as if we should expect them to act as if they’re perfect citizens of 2015, not ordinary women living in their own times. Feminism, in other words, is everyone’s punchbag. The other problem is that, in judging Pankhurst according to the rhetoric of US racists, we act as if there’s only one possible narrative of equal rights, only one way in which human beings have understood intersecting oppressions. That’s damaging, because it imposes a false sense of inevitability onto history. It prevents us from looking at history and learning from it, because we’re too busy assuming that oppression – and fights against oppression – have only ever followed one sequence and one narrative, the same in the UK as the US and as everywhere else. That’s just a tiny step away from naturalising narratives of oppression, and imagining they could only happen in one way, as if we as a species are predestined to be oppressive bigots. And if we do that, then we’re erasing all the work the suffragettes did – that Pankhurst did – in insisting that oppression is not natural and is something we can fight on multiple fronts.

We need to make space to listen to far more of women’s history, far more of women’s feminist writings, not to shout them down or pin them to the narrow narrative of oppression that’s often all the history women and minorities are allowed to claim.

Update: This is a thought-provoking piece on the Suffragette movement and the racial dynamics of its members.