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.

15 thoughts on “Meryl Streep’s T Shirt, Emmeline Pankhurst’s Body, and Plural Narratives of Oppression

  1. This is an excellent piece that I’ve read in a long time dealing with a sensitive topic as this one! This world is beyond my understanding. Sometimes feminists are hailed, the other times are booed!

  2. I love your post. This is so important.

    I was trying to look up usable quotes when I was wanting to defend/explain being pro-choice, but most of the quotes by feminists, suffragists, historians, philosophers and the planned parenthood doctors were so cut and out of context, it seemed there was no one who was pro-choice without guilt or shame or excuses. And I realized almost every entry in the wikipedia/google search has been entered from the perspective of religious dogma or the western patriarchal perspectives. It’s been taken over and It’s not being explained by women who care about women. There was not one Asian view point like how in Japan birth control (condoms) are taboo and so they use abortion as the main way to deal with unwanted pregnancies (which seems traumatic physically and emotionally from my perspective, but not immoral). The “moral” questions are so specific culturally and geographically and quotes out of context can be used by anyone… I was reading a poem by a Catholic woman who was pro-life and she used Jonathan Swift as her satirical model. Did she not know he was not in favor of the Catholic Church as she used his “Modest Proposal”? She actually spun his whole work into her own perspective. And as I was reading about the suffragists and early feminists of the U.S. who felt abortion was used as a tool to control poor or minority women… I realized it was all going to be used against the modern woman/feminist. Out of context and not even in any dated order, the definitions of abortion were written in the language of backlash. I didn’t mind reading the perspectives and arguments, but they were largely set in place to undermine women’s progress. The need to understand the evolution of women in history (wider histories) and not lock us into single snap-shots that pass or fail, is the most important work of our historians. I’m glad you’re writing and documenting contemporary world problems with the historical works.

    You are a breath of fresh air.

    • Yes! I found this a problem with this post in another way. The history of feminism is written from a white US perspective, so searching for black feminists makes it look as if none existed in the UK or before c. 1970!

    • Oh, such a relief to have my computer back (my very brief comments yesterday were on a borrowed tablet and I am Not Good with them).

      Thank you, so much for your post. I didn’t know about the taboo on condoms in Japan. And we need to know this stuff! I wish we could teach everyone about at least one culture that’s completely strange to them (past or present), just so we could all get that sense of how complicated these things are.

      • Yes, we do need to know this stuff. I agree with your wish about teaching!

        Those statues in the Japanese courtyards of the temples that are small in size and arranged in rows that often have children’s clothing or knitted hats on them and small toys or flowers and candles or incense around them are actually for the aborted children. It’s a place to mourn and be reverent. Tourists take pictures of them not knowing…

        Thanks again for your article and helping this conversation. Your work is always enlightening. I’m glad you got your computer back! This bodes well for your readers too. 🙂

      • Oh, goodness – I had no idea of that! How fascinating and how sad. I must think about the implications there. I guess people must have very different ideas about emotions surrounding abortion, given all of this.

        And shocking to think of that becoming a tourist photo. Perfect example of cultural miscommunication.

        Thank you for sharing and making me think so much.

      • Culturally in the west we might think we are supposed to re-educate them to the advantages of birth-control/condoms for prevention to reduce the emotional or physical trauma and or normalcy of abortion for women… but it’s complicated. The gender relations in many instances are so defined as are the relations between servant class and elite. There is an entirely different form of Japanese dialect “formal” expected by “service workers”. There are entire train cars devoted solely to female riders who want to avoid the sexual harassment of the business class men (business men who are expected to drink to excess as part of the job) and they are still going on 1950’s history books written after the U.S. dropped the bomb on them to explain to them what happened (from the western-conquer perspective not their own). Older generations (husbands and wives) are often taking classes to get to know each other or even to be able to hold conversations because gender relations are so estranged, as men aren’t allowed a wider range of emotional expression (statistically). Often times women play the parts of men and cross dress for other women to go out on dates with because women who act like men are less “scary” and it’s not lesbian dating. It’s just someone to escort and act like a “gentlemen”. Boys and men in J-rock bands there often cross dress as women because the fan girls feel less threatened by them as females. They aren’t gay, just appeasing fans. There is a mixture of cute (ie. gothic-lolita fashion/ teddy bears with knives etc.) and cartoons and cutie-sexy-featured with violence everywhere as well.
        So to address feminism or sexism in Japan is sooooo complicated.
        It’s still also a place where people don’t have to lock their doors in so many places as no one steals. If you drop something everyone rushes to help pick it up. If you lose your umbrella on the train you’ll find it at the lost and found. they don’t have problems with guns…
        Anyhow, thanks for your reply and attention. I appreciate you allowing the expanded discussion. Hope I didn’t go on too long! 🙂

  3. It is interesting that you leave Black British Women out of the equation. You bring in black men, a valid argument that also highlights your glaring omission of black women. Also though enslavement was illegal at the time that does not mean that these women did not commune with and perpetuate white supremacy. You may not want folks enslaved but that is a far cry from seeing folks as equals. Pankhurst may have not (though I’m pretty sure that the American Civil War made a headline or two in Great Britain. Smh. This is disappointing because it continues mainstream [read: white] feminism’s largest [willful?] blind spot–that all the women are white.

    • Of course white women like Pankhurst perpetuated white supremacy. That was part of my point! As was the implication in the media that all black women are allowed as a narrative is the US narrative of slavery.

  4. A splendid essay. I am struck always by the oppressor’s skill at requiring us to refight the same battles, to retake the same ground. We cannot dismantle the master’s house if we are always stuck doing yardwork. Your thoughtful analysis helps me to move forward, and I thank you.

    • YY, exactly – my brilliant friend is currently working on this topic, and it is amazing how much what women have actually said has been forgotten or distorted, so it has to be reformulated. On the whole, men are granted far more leeway – we *expect* ‘great men’ to be imperfect and to reflect the prejudices of their time, much more than women.

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  7. It seems quite a few Americans themselves are in denial about the connotations that ‘rebel’ holds. When I raised this in the debate you reference Lucy, a few weeks ago, I had someones’ ‘American-ness’ used as evidence that my contention -that it is a loaded word- must be wrong because they felt it did not possess negative connotations. And then the argument that nobody listens to Southerners anymore came up, ignoring the fact that in parts of the South- Mississippi Delta for one- over 85% of the population is black and not white.

    Rebel is a very loaded word, from the most extreme interpretation of ‘Dixie’ to the more ‘benign’ A Team/Dukes of Hazzard usage. Same with ‘slave’ which, used out of context, becomes somewhat neutured. Of course, this may well suit the agenda of some of those using it in this manner.

    Re the Japanese statues. I have a similar problem with Dios De Los Muertos having grown up in Mexico. Seeing this spiritual and religious festival used as a glorified Halloween over here, i find objectional. I remember watching local people washing the entombed bodies of their babies and children on Nov 1st, whilst October 30th was the day to welcome the souls of children that died in childbirth before being baptized, (los ninos limbos) and October 31 is the day of the Angelitos, souls of children who have died in infancy, but have been baptized and are thus thought to be free of sin.

    And looking back upon this, why on earth should this be turned into little more than a chance to paint cookies with skull faces, especially without realising that those skull images are specific, not just random ghoulish images?

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