Those ‘Suffragette’ T-Shirts Are A Problem. Here’s Why.

by Holiday Black

Recently, Meryl Streep made us all cry when she said that she is not a feminist….no, no, no, not a feminist, but a humanist. Now, we’re cringing over photos of Streep and her Suffragette co-stars posing in white t-shirts that read, “I’d rather be a rebel than a slave.” While there’s nuance in the sentiment, there’s also something decidedly eerie about seeing an image of a white woman wearing a T-shirt printed with the word “slave.”

The quote comes from Meryl’s character, Emmeline Pankhurst, who organized for white women’s voting rights. “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,” Pankhurst said during an impassioned moment at a 1913 rally. 

It’s fair and true to history that the suffragettes in question were exclusionary white feminists, but asking class-advantaged, culturally-accepted beauties to wear the shirt puts us in different territory. There is just no way on earth that being a white woman, at any point in history, is like being a slave. End of story.

This needs to be acknowledged. There is still residual trauma from slavery and as a white person, I don’t even know the half.  It seems pretty fair that before using the word “slave,” white people should give it a second or third or 50th thought before printing it on a T-shirt, and then trying to use that as a means to generate income. Like, haven’t we stolen enough from people of color? Now their historical struggle is a marketing plug? 

Okay, so maybe photographers and stylists in question didn’t have the intention of equating the rebellion of white women to slavery, or that slavery was in any way a choice for people (hello, victim-blaming!). Maybe they didn’t mean to suggest that life without the vote is the same as living in a state of slavery. But guess what—it doesn’t matter, because as a white marketer, or just as a white person in general, you should be asking yourself, “Hey dude, is this racist?”

The film itself has been called out for narrowly focusing on the struggle of white women and eclipsing their relationship to women of color within the context of the suffragette movement. I’m not saying that the movement isn’t important, or that shouldn’t talk about or acknowledge that white women did sacrifice and fight for their right to vote. But when we use language like “fighting for women’s right to vote,” which women are you talking about? Which women aren’t included? 

It doesn’t really feel very feminist to tell the story of only one other kind of woman. When you do that, you are saying that one specific story (read: the story of white women) is more important than the story of other women (women of color). Is this logic not inherently white supremacist? 

We need to start creating media that acknowledges the historical intersections of race and gender, we can’t afford to treat them like they are totally separate spheres. Yeah, some of the suffragettes were mad racist. Let’s not pretend because that isn’t productive. I’m not really interested in more damaging media created by the same phylum of white people we’ve heard over and over again. 

Photo credit: Time Out

More from BUST: 

Meryl Streep And Marion Cotillard Are Not Feminists: Cue Sad Music

Blackface: Simplified For Those Who Still Don’t Get It

Women Kicked Off Wine Train For ‘Laughing While Black’

You may also like

Get the print magazine.

The best of BUST in your inbox!

Subscribe to Our Weekly Newsletter

About Us

Founded in 1993, BUST is the inclusive feminist lifestyle trailblazer offering a unique mix of humor, female-focused entertainment, uncensored personal stories, and candid reporting that tells the truth about women’s lives.

©2023 Street Media LLC.  All Right Reserved.