Suffragette, Slavery, and the Appropriation of Suffering

Controversy erupted recently over a photo shoot in which the stars of the movie, Suffragette, wore t-shirts that said, “I’d rather be a rebel than a slave.” A group of white women wearing a shirt with a message comparing themselves to slaves was a problem to begin with, but people familiar with the fact that southern defenders of slavery in the US are known as Rebels only made things worse.

Defenders of the movie, the photo shoot, and the quote said the outrage was based on a misunderstanding of the quote, which comes from a speech by the British suffragette, Emmeline Pankhurst, rallying women to free themselves from the oppression of patriarchy. In the United States, abolitionists and suffragettes were sometimes, though not nearly always, the same people. The comparison of slavery to women’s oppression was noted by many, including former slave Frederick Douglas, who wrote, “In respect to political rights, we hold woman to be justly entitled to all we claim for man. We go farther, and express our conviction that all political rights which it is expedient for man to exercise, it is equally so for women.”

In the UK, people are less sensitive to comments about slavery and rebels. Some have suggested that the UK did not have slaves and that the quote is therefore not offensive. Time Out London, which published the photos, said in a statement: “Time Out published the original feature online and in print in the UK a week ago. The context of the photoshoot and the feature were absolutely clear to readers who read the piece. It has been read by at least half a million people in the UK and we have received no complaints.”

The UK does have a history with slavery, though. Unlike the US, Britain did not have a large workforce of slaves, but that doesn’t mean the UK had no involvement in slavery. Slavery was abolished in the UK in 1833 by the Slavery Abolition Act, which ended slavery throughout the British Empire with the exception of territories under control of the East India Company, Ceylon, and the island of Saint Helena. The exceptions were eliminated in 1843. In the US, President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863.

Having been neither a woman nor a slave, I hesitate to comment on the controversy of the use of the Emmeline Pankhurst quote, but it turns out that philosopher Elizabeth Spelman made an insightful and relevant commentary on the issue in her 1997 book, Fruits of Sorrow: Framing Our Attention to Suffering. In the first place, she points out that phrases such as “women and minorities” excludes and ignores the existence of minority women. Comparisons to slavery are a case in point. She says,  “Consider the talk about women being treated like slaves. Whenever we talk that way we are not only making clear that the ‘women’ we’re referring to aren’t themselves slaves; we’re making it impossible to talk about how the women who weren’t slaves treated those who were.” When a white woman suffragette declared her preference for rebellion over slavery, was she honoring the suffering of slave women or, indeed, setting herself apart from them?

Drawing on the work of Jean Fagan Yellins, Spelman continues, “The female slave is made to disappear from view. Although presumably it was the female slave’s experience that originally was the focus of concern, the other women’s experiences were made the focus.” Somehow, white women made use of the suffering of slaves without experiencing the actual realities of slavery, even if the oppression of white women was intolerable, it was not an experience shared with actual slave women.

When this relationship between white suffragettes and slaves is exposed an analyzed, of course white women will want to deny their privilege and insist that they were only honoring their sisters. They can say this with great honesty, because they are not aware of their privileged status. Further, Spelman says, “The deeper privilege goes, the less self-conscious people are of the extent to which their being who they are, in their own eyes as well as the eyes of others, is dependent upon the exploitation or degradation or disadvantage of others.”

When privilege is pointed out, it makes us uncomfortable. As a result, our reaction is motivated by shame. Self-awareness is necessary to effect change, but it is also painful. Spelman says, “Seeing oneself as deeply disfigured by privilege, and desiring to do something about it, may be impossible without feeling shame.” The shame provokes a defensive reaction, but it can also help to facilitate healing and solidarity–in some cases, anyway.

With the Emmeline Pankhurst quote used by the magazine, we can see the defensive reaction. Many people defended the quote as being taken out of context, as being somehow separate from slavery because it was British, or being a victim of PC culture gone mad. In the end, though, the outrage at the use of the quote helped spark a conversation about the suffragette movement, Britain’s role in slavery, and sensitivity to women whose experiences lie outside the realm of so-called “white feminism.”

About ethicsbeyondcompliance

I hold a PhD in medical humanities with an major emphasis in ethics. I began teaching college-level ethics in 2000.
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One Response to Suffragette, Slavery, and the Appropriation of Suffering

  1. curiosetta says:

    Every race/ nation has been enslaved and has enslaved its own people. Slavic people – from where we get the word ‘slave’ – are a pretty pasty looking bunch.

    > The comparison of slavery to women’s oppression was noted by many, including former slave Frederick Douglas, who wrote, “In respect to political rights, we hold woman to be justly entitled to all we claim for man. We go farther, and express our conviction that all political rights which it is expedient for man to exercise, it is equally so for women.”

    In the past women’s status was somewhere between that of a child and an adult. Women enjoyed many of the freedoms of adulthood, but also enjoyed many of the protections and lack of social and legal obligations associated with childhood too. Men’s social role was that of friend, companion and equal to women on the one hand… but also that of ‘patriarchal’/ paternalistic provider of resources and protection.

    Men were, for example, liable for their wives’ criminal activities (other than treason) and men were socially and legally obligated to provide financially for women. It was often the case that the only available paid work involved manual labour which was often dangerous, unhealthy, unpleasant and life shortening and so this meant men’s role was to work like mules to put food on the table for women and children. Feminists have sold us the concept of women being ‘chained to the kitchen sink’ but they never mention that men’s role was to be chained to the coal mine, the construction site, the shipyard, the field of crops, the factory, the fishing boat and of course the battlefield….. and for most of history these manly roles did not yet benefit from electricity, machines, decent protective clothing or health and safety legislation!

    At no point in history were ordinary men’s roles preferable to the ordinary women of that age. So how can feminists claim that women were oppressed? EVERYBODY was oppressed… men, women, children and animals. They were all oppressed by a lack of technology and the brutal and harsh struggle to survive that resulted from it. In every age men bore the brunt of that harsh lifestyle, and women were protected. Being protected is not oppression.

    As the saying goes “There are no feminists in a house fire” and the same is true when society is a day-to-day struggle to survive due to a lack of technology and scarce resources.

    In any period of history no sane women wanted to trade places with her man, and while women had their complaints (as did the men) women did NOT consider themselves oppressed as a sex, nor did they consider their men oppressors. There are people still alive today who can remember their great grandfathers would come home from the mine and their wives could not tell them apart because they were so dirty from coal dust. And these men would hand the women their wages because the women would handle the household finances, and give the men an allowance. How feminists can frame this as men oppressing women staggers the mind.

    Women’s liberation is entirely the result of modern technology liberating women by (a) making housework a breeze, where before it had been a full time job (b) creating a bunch of safe, comfortable, non-manual labour job opportunities, typically in electrically lit, centrally heated office environments which were appealing enough to women that they were finally able and willing to earn their own income.

    Suffragettes and modern feminists were – and still are – the PRODUCT of women’s increasing liberation (due to technology), and not the cause of women’s liberation. If a meteorite struck earth tomorrow and reduced our technology back to 19th century levels or less, then women would once again push men out the door to go and earn an income doing some sort of dirty and back breaking manual labour job, while they stayed at home and baked bread and washed the linen. And to provoke men into providing for women they would once again start wearing traditional feminine clothing and adopting traditional feminine mannerisms which highlighted their frailty, weakness and vulnerabilities – in order to trigger men’s hard wired protective instincts.

    Suffragettes were bidding for power and privilege and NOT for gender equality, just as modern day feminists are still bidding for power and privilege and NOT for gender equality. Gender equality today means giving men all the rights that women already have that men don’t yet have. Men are the one’s who have less rights than women, not the other way round.

    For most of history ordinary men and women did not have voting rights, and only the upper classes (landowners) had them. Men eventually got voting rights by agreeing to become property of the state and fight wars whenever the state demanded. At the time of the women’s suffrage movement many women vehemently opposed the idea of women also getting voting rights, because they did not want to become ‘property of the state’ the same way men were. They rejected the idea of women being given the same rights as men but without the corresponding social obligations…. on account of that being blatant, sexist, unfair privilege. These women were the true gender equality champions, not the suffragettes.

    Your Frederick Douglas quote is a good example, because it only talks about women’s entitlements, but has no mention of women’s corresponding social obligations as full status adults and citizens. A concept we still struggle with today…..

    In the end suffragettes won the right to vote and have the entitlements associated with being full citizens, yet without many of the social and legal obligations associated with citizenship – such as being required to go to war. This meant for the next century women could, and did, vote for wars and then force men as young as 18 to go and fight them which was pretty much a death sentence. Women’s suffrage was an example of female privilege and NOT gender equality. It was also yet another act of astounding (and arguably misguided) chivalry on the part of men, because patriarchy was/ is all about putting women (and by association children) at the heart of society and making it men’s duty to provide resources and protection to them. To be the hard outer shell. To bear the brunt of life’s hard knocks.

    This is all driven by biology. Women are the limiting factor in reproduction. Even today men still do the remaining manual labour and the majority of grunt work. As a result men are killed 20 times more frequently than women at work. Instead of showing any sympathy or gratitude towards men’s past and continuing sacrifices for women, feminists define men as the systematic oppressors of women (basically as sociopaths) and they now complain about such oppressions as being called ‘bossy’, or some other nonsense. It is absolutely disgusting.

    Western women are the most privileged and entitled demographic in human history. That was true a century ago, and it is still true today.

    Feminism is just a continuance of the ‘patriarchal’ mindset of the past with its traditional gender roles, only without the concern for children’s welfare – which was the whole point of traditional gender roles! Patriarchy’s mantra of “Women and Children First” has been rebranded as feminism’s mantra of “He for She”. Nothing has changed. Feminists are the least progressive demographic of women, representing only 20% of women. They are the 20% of women who still cling to the patriarchy, which is why they are always running to government (the most patriarchal institution there ever was). Suffragettes and feminists both resort to damselling themselves to death (literally in the case of Emily Davison) in front of government (men with guns) in order to get special treatment and free resources.

    Try reversing the sexes and imagine a society where women’s role was to provide for men, who got to stay indoors while women toiled in all weathers in all manner of dangerous and unpleasant jobs. Then one day some men engaged in acts of domestic terrorism (sabotaging a horse race and thus endangering the lives of every horse and rider – with one rider committing suicide due to the trauma of the event) and committing these acts out of a sense of entitlement, but without any willingness to take on any social obligations at the same time. The women gave these ‘fiesty’ men what they demanded and in doing so allowed men to vote for women to be sent to wars, so that for the next century women as young as 18 were machine gunned by the million or shot for refusing to go ‘over the top’. Men would openly express their sexual fantasies for women in this role as soldier, and they would even pay women to perform sexual routines in their soldier costumes because it was such a turn on. While the women fought all the wars and did all the grunt work, the men got to stay at home – a role which they defined as ‘oppression’. After a century of this men still celebrate their great grandfather’s acts of domestic terrorism, and refer to men’s privileges ad entitlements as ‘a triumph of gender equality’… and many men still frame society as being oppressive towards men, even though women still overwhelmingly supported men financially (directly and via taxes) and even though women still continue to do the majority of the grunt work dying at work 20 times more often than men.

    Millionaire men in white linen suits get to address the UN where they launch a ‘She for He’ campaign based on the idea that for women to be regarded as ‘human’, ‘civilised’, ‘socially acceptable’ and integrate themselves into civilised society they must agree to serve the needs and wants of men. Every week another man gets to say similar things on another expensive platform, (while women are denied any platform to discuss women’s rights) and all of these men complain FROM THEIR PODIUM that men are never given a voice in society.

    If we flip the genders this way, does the feminist narrative not come across as utterly insane and pathologically self serving?

    Today men have less rights than women. Men have no rights that women do not also have. But women have numerous rights that men have still not been afforded. By every criteria men are worse off than women. But feminism has trained us all to view women as automatically the poor, weak, ‘acted upon’, passive, innocent victim…… and men as the all powerful, evil, strong, oppressor who is full of agency. This conditioning is so pervasive that we now define “He for She” in terms of gender equality and fairness – as ‘social justice’. Can you imagine a society which defines “Blacks for Whites” in terms of racial equality and fairness? (clue – look back in history).

    Women ARE enslaved. Women are enslaved by the notion put about by feminists and other life minded people that women are powerless, inept, weak, ‘acted upon’ victims with no agency, and that women have always been this way. This ensures a steady flow of resources (‘free stuff’) from men to women together with all sorts of special treatment and special entitlements (he for she), both socially and legally … but at what cost?

    Women (specifically feminists and social justice warriors) are increasingly becoming neurotic, hysterical, paranoid, angry, resentful, confused, depressed and debilitated. They feel traumatised and ‘triggered’ by words like ‘bossy’, by the works of Shakespeare. They complain that toilet door signs are ‘problematic’.Everything is ‘problematic’. Even the word ‘too’ is problematic now, apparently. They march topless demanding the right to bare their nipples (because baring your nipples is empowering), and then they campaign for women to be prevented from baring their nipples on page 3 of The Sun (because bearing your nipples is oppression).

    They are hopelessly lost in the labyrinth of their own narcissistic, self obsessed victim identity.

    And men are at least partly to blame because men rarely show women the respect of treating adult women like adults and calling them out on their BS whenever it is appropriate and kind to do so (like they would if it was a man). Nobody can grow spiritually, emotionally, intellectually or morally if they never get called out when they say something stupid, misguided or outright offensive.

    As we speak feminist women are actively working with the UN to limit free speech on the internet to ensure ‘women’s feels’ aren’t ‘triggered’ by rational criticism ….. and the occasional obnoxious comment by a troll (Gasp! I need my feinting couch!!!).

    For decades the debilitating and disempowering feminist victim narrative (AKA ‘patriarchy theory’) has been supported and validated in the media, in politics, in schools and in universities and anyone (including women) who criticise it or challenge it is silenced and branded a trouble maker (women have literally been escorted out of Q&A session at conferences by security and police have been called for daring to say they oppose feminism because it defines women as victims – blasphemy!! Burn her, burn her!!!).

    When free speech is completely shut down (and it will be) to protect women’s feelings, there will be nothing to challenge the feminist narrative that women are weak, acted upon objects. And western society will be sent back to the kind of patriarchal middle eastern style society which feminists *claim* oppresses women. We are already seeing gender segregation (in classrooms, in gyms, in train carriages etc) and ‘safe spaces’ being implemented. And we are already seeing the ‘male gaze’ being demonised, and of course there is the ‘he for she’ mindset. Women are being defined as passive objects who are irresistable to men (who are all rapists), and this is how women end up covered head to toe in cloth and being escorted wherever they go in society…

    > …Britain’s role in slavery

    Like I already mentioned, every nation and every race has engaged in the practice of slavery, including – but certainly not limited to – Britain. The African slaves sold to the Europeans were already slaves, who had been enslaved by their own people. Slaves from Africa were sold to just about every nation and every race, and not just to Europeans. The slaves who ended up on boats destined for Europe or the New World were treated the best, relative to slaves who sent east who tended to have their genitals cut off without anaesthetic (the men), or were just raped (the women) and were killed as soon as they became unproductive workers. Slaves living in America were at least afforded a degree of human rights (eg it was against the law to rape a female slave, although sadly not a male slave), and slaves were allowed to live as family units and eventually granted citizenship and integrated into society. Many countries who had African slaves do not have a significant African population today, like the US does….. why? Because unlike the US they slaughtered all their slaves the moment they became unproductive.

    Also Britain spearheaded the ending of the slave trade after being the first nation to really condemn the practice. A fact always glossed over by ‘social justice’ and ‘PC’ types who like to go on about ‘white privilege’ ad nauseam.

    At the heart of the PC ‘white guilt’ and feminist ‘patriarchy’ narratives is a male/ white power fantasy. When you deflate this fantasy, you realise that whites/ men have always been the same as every other demographic….. sometimes victims, sometimes perpetrators…. and mostly just trying to get by.

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