Better a Rebel Than a Slave

Emmeline Pankhurst, leader of the British suffrage movement once remarked: “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 week, uninformed liberals criticized this quote, arguing that it ignores the “historical context” of the US Confederacy, as if 19th century America were the only site of slavery the world has ever had.

I saw Suffragette on Thursday night.  CARE International, my long-time institutional partner in women’s empowerment work, held a private screening in London at the May Fair Hotel. The film’s premiere had been held the night before, heralded by protestors and then subjected to a strange stream of criticisms.

I myself was keen to see the film from an historian’s perspective. Having delved deeply into the history of the suffragists in the US for Fresh Lipstick, I had learned that the movements on either side of the Atlantic had communicated and often copied each other’s strategies.  So, I was quite interested to see how the suffrage in the UK was depicted.

The film itself is extraordinary.  Like many, I was disappointed that Meryl Streep only makes a couple of brief appearances as Emmeline Pankhurst, the leader of the suffrage movement in England.  However, the passionate performances by Carey Mulligan and Helena Bonham-Carter, as well as a very strong supporting cast, more than made up for this lack.

The strength of the film does not lie, as many seem to have expected, in a historical catalogue of events.  Rather, its power comes from showing what the experience of the movement might have been like, from a personal and emotional perspective.  You are propelled into the subjective world of Maude Watt, an imaginary laundress whose world is ripped apart by her simple desire to be treated as a person.  As Maude loses her friends, her husband, her job, and even her child in retaliation for her suffrage activities, the viewer learns how the law and its practices of enforcement, as well as common custom and values, combined to produce a total system that enclosed women of the time in a hopeless vacuum of powerlessness.

As the story unfolds, the actions taken by the suffragists, including destruction of property, hunger strikes, and, eventually, suicide, become painfully intelligible, not as political abstractions, but as the predictable human response to complete despair. Many of the scenes, especially the police violence against the women, are very shocking, but I am quite sure are true to the record.

The point of CARE’s showing this film was, of course, to draw the analogy between the circumstances of women in Edwardian England and the equally brutal conditions of women in developing countries today.  The parallel is an apt one.  However, I was moved to observe more keenly the parallels between British women’s circumstances then and now—and, judging from the panel discussion that followed, so were most members of the audience. Indeed, as the lights came up, I felt somewhat sickened, thinking about the men in the film and the way that the current authorities in Britain seem to view women’s rights, as well as the general culture’s negative attitude toward feminism.

The panel that followed mostly focused on the absence of women in the arts, including film, which is a serious issue, to be sure.  But the mental echo from the film was more about the daily injustices for working women and the attitude, expressed so directly and brutally in the dialogue, that women do not matter to anyone.  I was struck by a comment from Annie Lennox.  When saying she could not understand why today’s Brits are still so afraid to call themselves feminists (not an uncommon observation), she remarked that people in this country think “talking is being a feminist.” Everyone laughed, but later I wondered about her meaning.  Since the famous Pankhurst slogan, “Deeds Not Words,” was part of the evening’s theme (and Annie’s talking point), I think most may have thought she meant that, to really be a feminist, you must act and not just talk, which then brings on many damages and sacrifices because people, especially in Britain, are so offended. However, I actually thought at first she meant that merely speaking up made you a feminist in Britain.  I am often dismayed to see how cowed women in the UK often appear, never speaking up in meetings, hesitating to contradict what the men say, and so forth.  The slavish behavior makes it very clear that many British women would endure nearly anything to avoid being seen as a rebel.

The depiction of the forced feedings that ended the hunger strikes in prison is one of the most uncomfortable scenes in Suffragette.

It is a shameful thing, as many argued in the discussion that night, that the generations following the brave women shown in this film have not honored these sacrifices any better than they have.  This is not to say that no progress has been made.  Certainly, there have been gains.  But the social silence and hatreds shown in the film are very much still in place in this country.  And behind the letter of the law is a machinery of inequality that holds all women back, whether they realize it or not.  (One character in Suffragette says, “If you want me to respect the law, then make the law respectable.”  No kidding, I thought. Few employers in Britain respect the Equality Act, as the UK’s equal pay statistics show rather dramatically. And, frankly, there is not much to respect in a law that is practically inactionable.)  I have loved the country I have lived in for the last decade for many reasons, but this one thing has been a deep disappointment.  I really thought it would be better than it is.

As I rode the train back to Oxford, I checked my iPad for reviews of the film. My attention was called to two stories, the Guardian‘s reviews and the criticism from some misinformed liberals about the comparison between women’s subordination and slavery.  I was so disturbed that I thought it was worth commenting on them here.

This map shows the belt of countries where the world’s coffee is produced. Note that the path crosses cultures from Latin America to South Asia. But the conditions for the women are the same right through the regions: they are clustered at the bottom, doing the work for little or no money, seldom allowed to leave, and threatened always by violence. This is a phenomenon you can see in virtually every major agricultural supply chain in the world.  It is neither bourgeois nor racist nor heterosexist to express concern about the subordination of these women.  And there is nothing trivial about what they endure.

Last week, I taught the case study on the International Women’s Coffee Alliance to four different sections of an incoming class of about 400 MBAs at Oxford. Each time, when we reached the summary that the women who cultivate, pick, and sort coffee in a belt of countries that circles the world are (1) working without a contract and usually for no pay, (2) unable to leave the farm without permission, and (3) threatened with violence if they try to resist, I asked the class what we would call those circumstances if any other group besides women were involved.  Every time, I am proud to say, they would respond, in unison, that the answer was “slavery.” These conditions do meet the international definition of slavery and yet we seldom see it because the victims are female.

There are more slaves in the world today than ever before in history.  The vast majority of them are female—indeed some official estimates say it may be as much as 80% of human trafficking victims who are women or girls. Slavers treat these poor humans with every bit as much brutality, including starvation, chains, torture, mutilation, and even murder, as has been levied on any slave population the world has ever seen.  And the world has seen many slave populations.  This horrid practice has been with us since at least the beginning of written history.  It has been practiced all over the world, not just in the American South of the 19th century.

Yet the liberal community lashed out at the makers and stars of this film for wearing T-shirts quoting Pankhurst saying she would rather be a rebel than a slave, shouting back that women have no right to compare themselves to slaves.  There is no arguing that the suffering of the Africans, men and women, enslaved in the 19th century, through both American and British hands, was severe.  But this one group does not own slavery as an experience and they are not the only world population who has suffered this kind of victimization.  It was unseemly for anyone to try and claim this word as if it were a trademark.  I was sickened by this assertion.

But I was even more sickened by a single interview with the Guardian‘s movie critic, Catherine Shoard.  Her response perfectly mirrors the truth-denying attitudes of so many British women.  In a fit of Stockholm syndrome, she opens her critique with the observation that the film has no “tension”:

What you need to do to make a drama like this come alive is to have the opposite side have their standpoint explained.  Have interesting reasons why they might have thought that [women should not have the vote].  Because people weren’t just completely stupid up until 100 years ago.  They might have been bigots, but it is good to have that explained. . . All you are meant to do [when watching Suffragettes] is to roll your eyes in a 2015 way.  Which just doesn’t make for good drama.  

It is heartening, but nonetheless embarrassing, that Shoard was rescued from this shocking line of argument by her colleague, Peter Bradshaw, who quickly disagreed that the film is “too boringly obvious,” pointing out that, even among the liberals in London, the importance of this cause is “very far from obvious,” in particular citing the “gotchered” refrain about the “rebel not a slave” echoing from that quarter. And, thankfully, the written review from the Guardian is very positive (“a valuable, vital film about how human rights are won“) with none of the backward-drifting thinking offered by Shoard.

Imagine it.  On the day of a movie premiere like, say, Schindler’s List, we are treated to a respected movie critic’s opinion that it would have been better to have learned about the “interesting reasons” behind the Nazi viewpoint. Why is it that a bigot is not a real bigot when the topic is women?  Why is their suffering less because it is female?  And before you respond that the suffering of Jews under the Holocaust is a bigger deal than the suffering of women, please take at least a heartbeat to think about the violence against females levied every day in every country, every year, much of it in their own homes.  A bride is burned to death by her husband or inlaws every hour in India.  Let’s interview these murderers for their “interesting reasons,” shall we? Why is this ancient ritual not of a scale qualified to be called “holocaust”?

I am proud to say that the host for this screening, CARE International, is both one of the biggest charities in the world and one of the most sophisticated organizations working to empower women in the countries where their subordination is still as total as what we see in Suffragette. They will hold an International Women’s Day march on March 6 in London, themed “Walk in Her Shoes.”  Women who have benefited from the sacrifices of the suffragists would do well to go join that march, perhaps as way of coming around to walking in their own shoes.


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