Sister Suffragette: ‘Slave’ T-Shirts Highlight White Feminism’s Race Problem

Meryl Streep and her co-stars are clearly floating so high on white privilege, they probably don’t even realize—or care about—what they did wrong.

Meryl Streep and her Suffragette co-stars pose in controversial T-shirts for Time Out London.
Meryl Streep and her Suffragette co-stars pose in controversial T-shirts for Time Out London. Twitter

I wasn’t going to write about the white women wearing their white T-shirts to promote the white film about white feminism, but my black feminism wouldn’t allow me to ignore it.

Meryl Streep stars as British suffragette leader Emmeline Pankhurst in the film Suffragette, which is set to premiere in the United States later this month. The film chronicles the lives of Pankhurst and her “foot soldiers” as they fight for the right to rock the vote in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

To commemorate this magic moment in white feminism, Time Out London interviewed Streep and her co-stars, and they posed for the magazine’s cover wearing T-shirts with the following quote from a 1913 Pankhurst speech:

“I’d rather be a rebel than a slave.”

The backlash from some black feminists was immediate, and the expected pushback to that backlash from some white feminists soon followed. They claim that those of us who found the quote—and optics—racially charged needed to look at it in the context of Pankhurst’s larger message, which speaks to the necessity of rebellion within a patriarchal system. 

That could be viewed as a valid argument if the implication that black feminists had not grasped the quote’s intentions, thus rendering our criticism flawed, wasn’t the height of condescension.

Pankhurst’s full quote may be important, but within it lies both the freedom of choice and the choice to be free. The message that Streep and company are co-signing with their grinning faces and suffragette tees is that one cannot be both enslaved and a rebel; and tucked between those lines lies the erasure of a dual existence that black women have been forced to navigate in one form or another throughout history.

Pankhurst’s “Freedom or Death” speech, also given in 1913, proved that for her, all the women are white. Speaking before a crowd in Hartford, Conn., she implored the United States to view the plight of British suffragettes as urgent as that of black Americans:

You won the civil war by the sacrifice of human life when you decided to emancipate the Negro. You have left it to women in your land, the men of all civilized countries have left it to women, to work out their own salvation. …

Other people have said: “What right has Mrs. Pankhurst to come to America and ask for American dollars?” Well, I think I have the right that all oppressed people have to ask for practical sympathy of others freer than themselves.

Apparently, black Americans were “free” in 1913.

Pankhurst had the audacity to say this during a time when Jim Crow laws ruled the Deep South with an iron, white fist. She name-checked white feminists while ignoring the critical work of Sojourner Truth and Mary Ann Shadd Cary, among others. She failed to mention the tireless efforts of her black American contemporary Ida B. Wells-Barnett, who, while fighting against the legal lynching of black men and women, also founded the Alpha Suffrage Club of Chicago—the first black women’s suffrage organization in the country. Ironically, it was founded the very same year that Pankhurst gave her speech in Hartford.

During a time when black women in the United States were being trampled over by racist, white feminists to curry political favor with their white, male counterparts, Pankhurst traveled to Connecticut to ask not what she could do for black women in this country but what this country could (financially) do for white women in England.

Basically, she was the Patricia Arquette of the women’s suffrage movement in the United Kingdom, positioning white women as “the n–gers of the world” long before John Lennon and Yoko Ono penned the lyrics.