British suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst was, to put it kindly, a rebel. Some, not so kindly, have called her a terrorist. On her watch, members of the Women's Social and Political Union in England threw rocks at 10 Downing Street, set fire to post boxes, smashed windows in Knightsbridge's luxurious shops, treated golf courses with acid, damaged the painting "Rokeby Venus" by Velasquez, bombed Prime Minister David Lloyd George's house and started a fire at the orchid house in Kew Gardens. A single-issue reformer, Pankhurst was, with her daughter Christabel, given to provoking violence, declaring at a speech at the Royal Albert Hall in 1912, "I incite this meeting to rebellion."
A year later she proclaimed, "I would rather be a rebel than a slave."
That quote has provoked anger among those who rail at the racial insensitivity in the sentiment. When Meryl Streep, who portrays Pankhurst in the new movie "The Suffragette," and co-stars Carey Mulligan, Romola Garai and Anne-Marie Duff wore the quote on T-shirts in a promotional pose for Time Out London, the backlash was immediate.
Civil rights activist Deray McKesson argued that Streep should have known better "and if not, her publicist should have." Noting that suffragettes often invoked the image of slavery to "ramp up the feelings of disenfranchisement," historian Jad Adams concluded, "It's certainly an inappropriate thing to have four white women wearing slavery T-shirts." Writer Jamilah Lemieux may have best summed up the outrage when she tweeted, "White women have said a lot of terrible things over the course of history, doesn't mean you wear it on a shirt."
There is no doubt that American slavery was the original sin of a nation founded on declarations of freedom, an evil that imprisoned millions of men, women and children. That British women in the 19th and early 20th centuries felt they too were chattel — without property rights, without rights over their children, without the opportunity to get educated or pursue careers, and without the power of the ballot — is also unquestioned. That some, like Pankhurst, gave moral equivalency to the two conditions is the real nub of the complaint.
In fact, the quote and the backlash serve to underscore what was real racism in the suffrage movement in the United States and Britain. Alice Paul, who imported some of Pankhurst's tactics — though not the violence — to America's Congressional Union (later the National Women's Party), banned black suffragists from marching in the 1913 parade in Washington. A valiant Ida B. Wells-Barnett traveled from Chicago and defiantly joined the Illinois delegation, marching alongside white activists.
The visceral racism of white suffrage leaders goes back even further, to 1869, when Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony campaigned against the 15th Amendment that enfranchised newly freed black men, criticizing Republicans for ignoring the rights of 15 million women while empowering 2 million black men who, as Stanton put it, "do not know the difference between a monarchy or a republic, who never read the Declaration of Independence or Webster's spelling book."
As Anthony noted in a letter to the New York Times, "The Republican Party has elevated the very last of the most ignorant and degraded classes of men to the position of master over the very first and most educated and elevated classes of women."
It is true that the women's movement grew out of abolitionism, which itself was an emotional and oratorical summoning of the religious revival called the Second Great Awakening. Abolitionism — framed in moral terms, led by Quakers and fueled by the Transcendentalism of Emerson and Thoreau — coincided with growing international sentiment to banish first the slave trade and then slavery itself. Britain banned slavery by legislative action in 1833. In America, it took until 1865, after a Civil War that claimed more than 620,000 lives and devastated the economic and actual architecture of the South.
These wrenching changes to the national psyche did not make feminists any less prone to racism. Many women fought to abolish slavery, and then, in their quest for rights of citizenship, trod over those they had just championed. But criticizing a film — and, by extension, its stars and its marketing — for portraying the passion of the times, however ill-phrased, seems an attempt to erase a past that discomforts those of us in today's audience.
Historians have a word for all of this. They call it "presentism," an assertion that current values should be reflected in the telling of the past. The line in the film and on the T-shirts that so offended so many is a choice of perspective, not a sin, one based on a slice of the past that is inevitably our collective history.
Johanna Neuman is a former reporter and editor for the Los Angeles Times in Washington. She is finishing a doctorate in history at American University and working on a book about the effect of celebrity on the women's suffrage movement in New York.