<em>Suffragette</em>, T-Shirtgate, and a Taylor Swift Tweet: Breaking Down the Historical Problem of White Lady Feminism

Suffragette, T-Shirtgate, and a Taylor Swift Tweet: Breaking Down the Historical Problem of White Lady Feminism

Can rich, white ladies be effective feminists? In the court of public opinion these days, it seems the answer is no, mostly because they keep saying and doing really stupid things. Women of color and those of us lacking in the silver spoon department have been telling everyone from Taylor Swift to Erica Jong to check their privilege, recognize that not everyone can “lean in,” and get right with intersectionality.

The latest kerfluffle in this ongoing conversation happened just last week when Meryl Streep, Anne-Marie Duff, Carey Mulligan and Romola Garai, the stars of the upcoming Suffragette movie, appeared in a September 29 interview and photograph for Time Out London in t-shirts with “I’d rather be a rebel than a slave” emblazoned across their front. Immediately the Twitterverse lit up with another collective “WTF.” Though the quotation is from a 1913 speech given by British reformer and suffrage leader Emmeline Pankhurst (whom Streep plays in the film), folks rightly called out the production and stars as astonishingly dismissive of present-day racial consciousness.

(Mary Rozzi)
(Mary Rozzi)

Alex Abad-Santos over at Vox has written one of the best brief explanations of the controversy and its historical and cultural meaning. He points out that most people, particularly Americans, who registered their discontent with the shirts seemed to be associating the quotation with antebellum bond slavery, colonialism, and racism. As one Twitter user from Brooklyn, New York put it: “‘I’d rather be a rebel than a slave’ shirt is suggesting that black people had the choice of enslavement, when we didn’t. So disrespectful.”

Time Out tried to downplay these connotations, releasing a statement that protested that “[the story] has been read by at least half a million people in the UK and we have received no complaints.” While this explanation elides the very real history of British slavery and conquest (not to mention also appears to insult American outrage), it is true that Pankhurst was not directly referring to black slavery in her speech. In this case, her “slave” metaphor referred to the legal fiction of “coverture” in which married women in both England and America had no legal identity outside of their husbands’. Not only were they unable to vote, but they could not own property, enter into contracts, or even keep their own wages. Their bodies were the property of their husbands.

Yet American Tweeters were onto something when they protested that the t-shirts were racist, or at the least, insensitive to history. In both the United States and Britain, the association between the rhetoric of women’s rights reform and black slavery has a complex history dating from the 1840s. American women’s historians like Ellen DuBois, Amy Dru Stanley, Norma Basch, Linda Kerber, and Nancy Isenberg have long pointed out that white women often explicitly and very effectively compared themselves to slaves – who, by definition, had no legal rights or bodily freedom – in order to argue for increased contract rights and changes in marriage law.

But in the United States, this rhetoric took an ugly turn by the late 1860s as feminists found themselves arguing over the scope of the Fifteenth Amendment. While the amendment asserted that no state could restrict voting based on race, color, or previous condition of servitude, it contained nothing about sex. Many women reformers, including Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, were incensed at the fact that black men’s rights took precedence over women’s, while others, including black women themselves, insisted that racial equality was as important as sex equality.

These disagreements led to a years-long split in the American movement and the founding of two separate organizations – the National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA) and the American Woman Suffrage Association (AWSA). The rift was only healed in 1890 when the two rival groups merged again in the ultimately successful effort to give all women the ballot. But as historians Rosalyn Terborg-Penn, Louise Michele Newman and more recently, Lisa Tetrault, have argued, the split’s most significant effect was the almost total exclusion of black female concerns in the women’s rights movement. Segregation, wage inequality, lynching, and black women’s sexual exploitation became portrayed as “race questions” that were “irrelevant to the woman movement’s foremost goal of ‘political equality of women.’”1

African American women during the Montgomery bus boycott.
African American women during the Montgomery bus boycott.

At the turn of the twentieth century, white leadership on both sides of the Atlantic either simply ignored the problem of race, or at their worst, openly worked against the social and legal advancement of people of color. By the 1960s, Second Wave white feminism’s exclusionary tactics also extended to the denial of gay, lesbian and transgender participation in the movement. No wonder historians could only shake their heads in irritation when actress Patricia Arquette eerily resurrected many of these century-old arguments this past February at the Oscars, as she rambled about why “it’s time for … all the gay people, and all the people of color that we’ve all fought for to fight for us now.”

All of this is to say that modern feminism has a long and dark history of explicitly excluding intersectionality. The question then becomes, should the uncomfortable facts of feminism in the twentieth century morally invalidate its historical gains? Do we let Stanton, Anthony, Alice Paul, Betty Friedan, etc., off the hook as “products of their time,” or should we hold them accountable for their failure to be inclusive and expansive with their feminism? As with all things in history, the answer is yes and no.

Each of these reformers worked within their individually specific circumstances and spheres – ones which we cannot necessarily understand even with the best historical research. The result, much as we may dislike it, is that they were able to mentally reconcile their own gains at the cost of others’ equality, and to achieve change for some women. In the United States, this means that, among other advances, coverture laws disappeared, women went to work, college and graduate school, ran for office, began to vote, and earned the right to seek divorce, birth control, and abortions.

The Suffragette film is urging moviegoers to talk about the film and its message on social media with the hashtag #Fightsnotover. This phrase ostensibly reminds us of the continuing social, economic and legal inequality women face all over the world. But given the wide implications of “T-shirtgate” it also reminds us that feminism must consciously continue to work toward incorporating the stories and experiences of oppressed people everywhere. It seeks to fundamentally overturn the idea that rich white ladies are doomed to be bad feminists.

And it can be done, with a lot of willingness to shut up, sit down, and listen. Even TSwifty herself says so.

Taylor Swift tweet - 2015-07-23

Further Reading

Basch, Norma. In the Eyes of the Law: Women, Marriage, and Property in Nineteenth-Century New York. Cornell University Press, 1982.

DuBois, Ellen Carol. Woman Suffrage and Women’s Rights /. New York University Press, 1998.

Isenberg, Nancy. Sex and Citizenship in Antebellum America. Univ of North Carolina Press, 1998.

Kerber, Linda K. No Constitutional Right to Be Ladies : Women and the Obligations of Citizenship. Hill and Wang, 1998.

Newman, Louise Michele. White Women’s Rights: The Racial Origins of Feminism in the United States. Oxford University Press, 1999.

Stanley, Amy Dru. From Bondage to Contract: Wage Labor, Marriage, and the Market in the Age of Slave Emancipation. Cambridge University Press, 1998.

Terborg-Penn, Rosalyn. African American Women in the Struggle for the Vote, 1850-1920. Indiana University Press, 1998.

Tetrault, Lisa. The Myth of Seneca Falls: Memory and the Women’s Suffrage Movement, 1848-1898. UNC Press Books, 2014.


  1. Louise Newman, White Women’s Rights: The Racial Origins of Feminism in the United States: The Racial Origins of Feminism in the United States (Oxford University Press, 1999), 6. Return to text.

Lauren MacIvor Thompson is a Faculty Fellow in the Georgia State University College of Law's Center for Law, Health, & Society. Her research centers on the forces of law and medicine, and their role in the early history of public health and the birth control movement. She has a background in Public History and before returning for her doctorate, worked for various history museums and state agencies on historic garden preservation, public history projects, and Section 106 federal and state historic resource protection.

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