White feminism has been a concept before contemporary society. White feminism is socially defined as the focus on the issues effecting white, cisgender women. White feminism implies that inequality only effects white, cisgender women and disregards various intersections which create marginalized identities.
As a woman of color, I am simultaneously reminded of the inequality that white women face and the disregard for my limitations in society because I encounter both racism and misogyny. For example, Meryl Strep is starring in the film Suffragette as Emmeline Pankhurst about Suffragettes in England. To promote the movie about the British suffragettes, Streep and her white cisgender co-stars did a photoshoot in “I’d rather be a rebel than a slave” t-shirts for Time Out London magazine. The slogan apparently represents the uprising that occurs in history as well as the movie. My first visceral reaction to the shirt was disgust.
The suffrage movement purposefully excluded the rights of women of color in both the United States and the United Kingdom. This shirt again reaffirms a stratification of “white feminism” over the rights of women of color which occurred long before Streep’s film. History gives prime examples of white feminism. Susan B. Anthony, President of the National American Woman Suffrage Association and highly favored for being the leading force in the Women’s Suffrage Movement, expressed “Mr. Douglass talks about the wrongs of the Negro; but with all the outrages that he to-day suffers, he would not exchange his sex and take the place of Elizabeth Cady Stanton.”
To sum up her statement, Anthony said the plight of freed and self-educated slave Fredrick Douglass was not comparable to the oppressed Elizabeth Cady Staunton and Douglass would not want to trade places due to Staunton’s marginalization. Also, Staunton agreed with her thoughts with, “What will we and our daughters suffer if these degraded black men are allowed to have the rights that would make them even worse than our Saxon fathers?” The ideas of both Anthony, Staunton and many other suffragettes are rooted in racism but call out sexist ideals.
With the criticism of the shirts, a statement was released by Time Out London stating the shirt represents a portion of the quote and it was not the intention to “criticize those who have no choice but to submit to oppression.” The comment really wants to avoid saying the word slavery. It is clear that Time Out London does not want to be associated with the exclusion of women of color. Also, the publication claimed at least half a million people in the UK saw it and no one complained. The quote itself does not make it clear about the intentions to not stratify white women over women of color. The full quote from Emmeline Pankhurst, “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.” Time Out London decided that it was not offensive because “no one complained.” Aside from the lack of evidence supporting this claim, the outlet refuses to acknowledge why many may have an issue with the shirts.
Like the disregard for women of color in the Suffrage Movement and now, Time Out London, Streep and her co-stars did not take into consideration what the perceived opinion would be. They did not comprehend the privilege Suffragettes had in order to be rebels instead of slaves. Being a rebel was never a choice for slaves. Like Emmeline Pankhurst discusses in the statement above, women of various intersections know they are doing what is right by calling out problematic individuals, organizations, media outlets, and publications. Instances similar to this one involving a lack of consideration and disregard of identities, tries to reaffirms women’s rights as a part of a one dimensional identity. We do not share the same experiences. Stop minimizing history, shying away from uncomfortable truths and start listening to the voices that were once and still silenced.