Saturday 7 November 2015

On the "I'd Rather Be a Rebel" Controversy

Many viewers of the film Suffragette may be unaware of the hurt and upset among people of colour caused by the sight of the four female stars wearing t-shirts emblazoned with the quotation from Emmeline Pankhurst.

Why has that photo caused such outrage?

The original quotation spoke to the condition of women in the late nineteenth early 20th Century. Middle and upper class women might live in gilded cages, but they were bought and sold in matrimony for profit and prestige and were then expected to ‘do their duty’ and produce children. They were not allowed to work, had only recently been allowed to own any property (and in some places still could not), had no escape from their marriages and no say over the laws that bound them.

Working class women, meanwhile, might be forced to marry men with whom they had had what today would probably be considered non-consensual sex, must put up with whatever treatment their husbands meted out to them while working their fingers to the bone till they died of exhaustion or in childbirth – and likewise had no say over the laws that bound them.

Rebelling against those conditions was not something that could be undertaken lightly. Many of those who did rebel under Mrs Pankhurst’s banner paid a terrible price. Cat-and-mouse jail sentences in appalling conditions. Crude force feeding in a way that would now be classified as torture. (Read here about the treatment of Alice Paul and her colleagues in Virginia’s Occoquan Workhouse jail, news of which turned the tide of American opinion on women’s suffrage.)

Their lives were no better than...

And there’s the rub. What comparison do we make here?

I would suggest that what Mrs Pankhurst was doing - what many people still do when they use the word ‘slave’ - is conflating indentured servitude with chattel slavery. If you haven’t grown up with a visceral understanding of the depths of evil represented by chattel slavery, I suggest you start by reading Toni Morrison’s Beloved.

Daniel Jose Older said recently, in a different context, that slavery is an open wound. That we have been lying to ourselves about it for years. That people of colour don’t have the luxury of sugar coating it.

And that is why those t-shirts have been so hurtful to so many people.

The lives of these women were hard and constrained, but they cannot be compared to the lives of chattel slaves.

The risks they took should not be underestimated, but they are not commensurate of the risks of slave rebellions (like the Jamaican rebellion of 1831).

So is there a way of making the point that the film makers were trying to make without hurting those whose not-so-distant ancestors were chattel slaves? Without trivialising the issue of modern slavery?

And without losing the call to arms it represents for women like the Trinidadian mother and her daughter in Michelle Innis's She Called Me Mother, each snared by abusive marriages?

I’m going to suggest a change of wording. I can imagine the outcry from those who believe we shouldn't mess with the historical fact of Mrs Pankhurst’s words. But where should our first loyalty lie? To the past, or to the present? To quote scientist Jocelyn Bell Burnell on the Quaker concept of continual revelation – as you get more experience, you are supposed to revise your picture in the light of that new data.

If we come to understand that the words we choose can hurt others, we should change them.

So here goes. “I’d rather be a rebel than an indentured servant” doesn't make a very snappy slogan. So how about:

I’d rather be a rebel than a serf

Maybe that is no better. Maybe that just reveals another layer of my own tone-deafness that I am not aware of. And yes, I know, I am failing to address the other problem with Suffragette – that, like Stonewall, it whitewashes women of colour out of those rebel movements.

But perhaps it’s a start.

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