So… social media is abuzz today over Meryl Streep’s t-shirt (on the cover of Time Out magazine) that reads an Emmeline Pankhurst quote “I’d rather be a rebel than a slave.” Of course, the buzz words “rebel” and “slave” popped out and provoked a knee-jerk reaction for people who read the quote in the context of rebel Confederate soliders and African-American slaves. Which is not the original context of the quote.
Pankhurst, a British suffragist, made that remark in a rally speech 100 years ago. Meryl Streep portrays Pankhurst in a new film, ‘Suffragette’, and that quote is being used as a tag line in the film’s marketing. (All of the lead actresses in the film wore t-shirts bearing the same quote for the Time Out shoot.)
So, that’s that, right? Problem resolved. The backlash over their t-shirts is just one big misunderstanding, no harm, no foul… right? Wrong.
When one considers the early–and some would argue current–women’s suffrage (feminist) movement was inherently racist and never centered on the needs or unique struggles of Black women, that Pankhurst quote is not only racially insensitive by today’s PC standards, it was also racially insensitive at that time… only one generation removed from the Civil War freeing Blacks from slavery.
So, even without putting the [White] women’s suffrage movement on full blast for its early white supremacist, racist, eugenicist, elitist, anti-lesbian foundation and historical figures, one would think it prudent to NOT use that particular quote of Pankhurst as the official catchphrase of [White] feminist badassery, knowing that even in its historical context, it could be viewed as insensitive–if not straight up shade–by Black feminists and Black American descendants of slaves in general.
Is it overtly, consciously racist, per se? Not likely. I presume Meryl Streep would likely be horrified at the very thought that her gesture was hurtful to anyone, especially Black women feminist allies.
Still, this matter does highlight once again the distance and differences between the White feminist and Black womanist movements. As Ijeoma Oluo, a womanist of color, captioned the Time Out cover in her social media post, this photo shoot comes off as “White feminism on fleek.”
This is not to tone police or mansplain how these [White] women creatives, cast and feminists “should” express their views. They’re certainly entitled to disregard everything I say, if for no other reason than I’m a [Black] man. But on what grounds should the backlash of Black women be disregarded? If it is your intention to fight for the rights of women, aren’t women of color women, too? #dontBSyourself