Meryl Streep’s ‘I’d Rather Be a Rebel Than a Slave’ T-Shirt is Problematic but Accurate

suffragette-movieMost White women feminists in history have compared their state of gendered oppression to that of slaves. And, while this sad fact is both ahistorical and dismissive of the actual atrocities of slavery, the recent media from the Suffragette film – featuring Meryl Streep – is right in line with this ill-informed narrative.

The 2015 film is set to tell the story of 19th and 20th century British women who were integral in the women’s rights movement. But, the movie and the images of its cast members in a shirt that reads “I’d rather be a rebel than a slave” – a quote from Emmeline Pankhurst who Streep plays in the film – have come under fire for their lack of emphasis on people of color in the movement and insensitivity to how these movements have impacted non-White groups.

In a recent interview with Timeout London, Streep was apprehensive about using the term ‘feminist’ to describe herself. Instead, she said, “I am a humanist, I am for nice easy balance.” While I’m not sure what that even means, I am sure that Streep fits neatly into the feminist work of her foremothers who too were unwilling to unequivocally commit to the dismantling of systems of oppression.

From Mary Wollstonecraft’s 18th century English work A Vindication of Rights of Woman to Simone De Beauvoir’s 20th century French opus The Second Sex, White women advocates of women’s rights have emphasized the commonality between women (usually middle- to upper-class women) and enslaved people of color (usually American Blacks).

Historically, their focus has been on the status of marriageable bourgeoisie White women whose biggest concern was not having enough say in the ongoings of the heterosexual household or any claim to the property rights of their namesakes. In essence, the early feminist movements, or better women’s rights movements, were based on the centeredness of married, class-privileged, White women who had no conception of (or concern for) the varying levels of oppression impacting women of color or those in lower economic classes.

Some White feminists today attempt to ignore this historical framing of women’s rights movements, but they do so not in an effort to dismantle racist and gendered systems of oppression. Rather, it comes from a place of embarrassment. It’s hard to admit that one simultaneously wields skin and class privilege while seeking to dismantle male privilege. For many White women, I’d imagine even for Meryl Streep and the likes of the ever problematic Lena Dunham, the cruel fact is that their feminist work is directly linked to their position in a racial and class hierarchy. Their access to certain avenues of activism, their influence in certain circles of influence, and even the levels of attention and scrutiny they receive upon engaging on these issues is anchored in an undeniable yet usually overlooked empowerment they get just because they happen to be White, woman, and well-off at the same time. These facts are undeniable.

The Suffragette film is described on IMDB as the story of “the foot soldiers of the early feminist movement, women who were forced underground to pursue a dangerous game of cat and mouse with an increasingly brutal State.” Yet, it makes no mention of the roles Black men like Frederick Douglass and W.E.B. Du Bois played in the early calls for women’s voting rights. It also completely disregards the work of Black women like Sojourner Truth and Ida B. Wells who simultaneously faced racist White women and sexist White men while fighting for their rights. Some of our favorite historical feminists like Susan b. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Lucretia Mott struggled with their racist predilections. But, you won’t see that scrawled on a t-shirt any time soon.

Frankly, the feminist movement has never fit neatly into anti-racist activism, hence the multitude of issues Angela Y. Davis outlines in her book Women, Race, and Class with the Equal Rights Association. Davis explains that White women leaders of the women’s rights movement “in articulating their opposition with arguments invoking the privileges of white supremacy…revealed how defenseless they remained – even after years of involvement in progressive causes – to the pernicious ideological influence of racism.” These t-shirts, though seemingly trite, evoke the same historical narratives that birthed White feminist work. I hate to be cliché but, perhaps the more things change, the more they do indeed stay the same.

Some will continue to rail against Streep and her costars for donning the t-shirts in question. But, I’d rather focus on the root disease here rather than the symptoms which are so visibly dismissive and troubling. The fact is, mainstream White feminism continues to be part and parcel with a heteronormative, racially oppressive, cissexist, class privileged system of domination. Just because these women are great in movies or join social organizations to feed starving children doesn’t mean they are immune from oppressing others.

When these elite do-gooders start to see these movements as interlocking and mutually inclusive, we may start to get somewhere with ending oppression altogether. However, as long as we focus on the racially-insensitive t-shirts donned by four rich White women, we’ll miss the very real problems of mainstream White feminism hiding in plain sight.

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Jenn M. Jackson

Jenn M. Jackson, PhD is a co-Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Water Cooler Convos. She is a native of Oakland, CA. Jenn is a radical Black feminist scholar who believes none of us are free until all of us are free.

25 Responses

  1. Andrew Lopata says:

    Great. So now the word “slave” is a black only word? Do we need to call it the “S” word as well? I guess the author has never heard of the Jews or black on black slavery or every other culture in history. Way to be divisive.

  2. HELISE12 says:

    Susan B. Anthony & Elizabeth Cady Stanton founded the Women’s Right’s Movement in 1848 with the first Women’s Right’s Convention in Seneca Falls, NY. I have written the home grown USA suffragettes screenplay “STANTON & ANTHONY”. I am seeking investors and sales reps for my project! Knight Quest Entertainment

  3. andre lupitz says:

    Don’t bother…”slave” is a “cultural appropriation” by blacks. The word is of Latin origin and it used to refer to Slavs taken prisoners. Also slavery and serfdom are synonyms with the same etymology and long before being designated for black slavery it used to designate white on white slavery in Europe as well as the Ottoman slavery of millions of Eastern Europeans (mostly Slavs) being sold to other Levant and North African country’s which at the time were part of their empire. In some parts of Europe this practice continued till the 1900’s but you can still find people today greeting each other with “servus” which is literally “I am your slave”.
    For example in Transylvania the local salute is “servus” while in the rest of the country it is not. The Jews have their own word: Holocaust. Eastern European Slavs have slavery, serfdom. Maybe it’s time for black Americans to get their own word considering that most abuse this word without knowing it’s etymology and the fact that is represents the suffering of so many Slavs and other Eastern Europeans.

  4. This is one of the most ignorant comments we have ever gotten on this site. Congratulations!

  5. Where in the post did I ever say “slave” was a “black only word.” Please find the passage and alert me.

    Also, wtf does your comment have to do with the central thesis which is that White women have historically fought against women’s oppression while upholding racism?

  6. Mary Burrell says:

    Many of the suffragettes were racist

  7. Mary Burrell says:

    Deflecting much

  8. Right! That’s the entire point here. Folks will contort themselves to ignore/deny that fact!

  9. says:

    Very thought provoking, eloquent article. Many black slaves were rebels against oppression as black slaves organized huge rebellions throughout the Americas (from Brazil to the States). Also, Claudia Jones was a great fighter for women’s rights too. Some of the suffragettes back then ignored that racial and class oppression must be opposed fully.

  10. says:

    Thank you. I find the story of Claudia Jones fascinating, because she was one of the greatest freedom fighters in history, but few people know about her. Rebels have existed among many people and true consciousness exists beyond bourgeoisie societal structures as you have outlined.

  11. andre lupitz says:

    Thank you, I’m really glad you think so. I was applying your login to the situation and taking things to the extreme like you did. In your vision those English feminists must have been ignorant and self absorbed for daring to use the word slavery to describe their situation, thus trivializing the horrendous suffering of real slaves: black people. You can’t think like that, because there isn’t a direct correlation between the word slave and black people, thus you can’t make the word slave an exclusive word for the suffering of African Americans. That’s why I gave all that etymological explanation so you would know it’s historic context in Europe and how it came into existence. What you can’t do is mix British feminists and American feminists because their paradigms were very different. Europe is so vast and diverse and the society it’s so different than the one in the USA, that you can’t apply the same rules to judge people, specially in the 18th century. But I’ll give you this, everyday those differences are being eroded. You know Ms. Jenn, you can write article upon article about the many forms of racism and the consequences of slavery that affects your minority even today, but you still won’t get anywhere. I’m not saying that what you are doing is not important, because we as humans have this imperative need to rationalize and explain things that happen to us, but at the end of the day how do we get over it?? We can’t change the past, and let’s be honest neither you or I will change the word. The only thing we can change is ourselves. Take for example Europe. Here you can find ethnic groups with grudges that go back more than a thousand years. Everybody screwed everybody and just now people are staring to get over it because it’s just to dam difficult to hold so much historic hate. So feeling like the only victim doesn’t help, because you feel ashamed, you feel isolated, mistreated, persecuted. Looking around at other ethnicities and races and also learning history from their perspective lets you realize that…hey I’m not the only victim! So maybe, just maybe then you can let go, stop feeling so bad and start to dissipate everything that was holding you back. Even if you could make discrimination based on race or gender disappear tomorrow the people in power would still find other excuses to keep everybody else down.
    We as a species are prone to tribalism and a few centuries of civilization won’t erase thousands upon thousands of years of Darwinism.

  12. M Glarner says:

    It’s not all about you.

    The film is a British film about British people who played important roles in British history. Why on earth would any mention be made of important figures in black American history? It isn’t your story.

    Meanwhile, the t-shirts were worn by a largely British cast promoting a British film in a British magazine, using a direct quotation from the British person in honour of whom the film was made, using words which were being used by English speakers long before any European had heard of “America” or “the Confederacy”. Again, it isn’t about you. It isn’t your story.

    Americans make up a rather small minority of the world’s population. Thousands of films are made every year that make no reference to Americans, American history, American people. There are more than a billion speakers of English on this planet, the majority of whom are not American. Should every film maker make reference to American themes just to satisfy the demands of the most privileged people on Earth? Should every speaker of English censor his or her own language to meet the demands of the most privileged people on Earth?

    Time to check your privilege, America. It isn’t all about you. In fact, it’s almost never about you.

  13. I’m not going to give you a history lesson here but the Suffragette movie is set in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. While the focus is on British women’s rights advocates, anyone who knows anything about the women’s suffrage movement knows that it didn’t happen in each country in a vaccuum.

    French, British, and American women worked in concert to ensure women’s rights around the world. And, folks like Sojourner Truth and Ida B. Wells were integral to that process.

    Before attempting to critique my historical account of feminism, you should probably read up on it yourself first.

    Time to check your ignorance random internet person with no face. You don’t know what you’re talking about. In fact, you probably never know what you’re talking about.

  14. M Glarner says:

    You Americans really hate not being at the centre of everything, don’t you?

    Get over it. This film isn’t about Americans: it’s about members of the other 95% of the world’s population who are tired of your cultural imperialism, your attempts to police our languages, your monumental sense of entitlement, your perpetual exercise of privilege.

    Sure you know more about feminism than me. You’re American – you know more about EVERYTHING than me and everyone else from the benighted other 95% of humanity. You’re the high and mighty, ultra-privileged know-it-alls who want to show the rest of us how to live correctly – with drones, bombs and guns if necessary.

    The film is British. Made by Brits for Brits, about Brits in Britain.

    Sojourner Truth and Ida B. Wells are an irrelevant distraction, just another attempt to force the rest of the world to put America at the centre of things.

    It isn’t. You’re not. The other 95% don’t need you poking your nose into our business.

  15. Your response is ignorant of history. It’s devoid of fact. During this period, the term “slave” actually was synonymous with Black. The British East India Company was inextricably imbedded in the North Atlantic Slave Trade, These women were alive during that peiod. And, to argue that British feminists’ and American feminists’ “paradigms were very dfferent” is also ahistorical.

    The earliest British feminists influenced all of feminism. French, American, and British feminist thinkers worked together to produce organizations across the globe to ensure women’s rights.

    I don’t need you to explain words to me. This isn’t about words. And, this movie isn’t even based in th 18th century!

    Regardless, please educate yourself before attemping to correct me on something you clearly have no knowledge of.

  16. Well, you’re entitled to your uninformed opinion. I don’t know more about this subject because I’m American. I know about it because I study this for a living. Your baggage and pseudo-scientific analyses of American pathology is your own problem.

    To be clear: My critique was mainly of Meryl Streep who, last I checked, is an American actress. And, even if she wasn’t, I am a feminist who has every right to critique modern depictions of feminism in the news and mass media.

    If you don’t like my opinion, feel free to never visit this site again.

  17. M Glarner says:

    Oh no, I’ve been visiting this site for some time and shall continue to do so.

    The whining of the hyper-privileged never ceases to amuse me.

  18. Jessica Worsley says:

    It’s about the British Suffragete movement. They are not going mention some obscure reference about Ida B Wells. It’s celebrating Emmeline Pankhurst and ordinary women who got involved. The film is set in 1912. Firstly there were not many black women in Britiain at this time. Yes Britiain treated black people disgracefully when they came over at the end of world war 2 but we were just doing what America told us to do. Britain didn’t really know how to treat black people at first when there were not slaves. Slavery ended in 1834 in Britian. Racism is still an issue but so is women’s standings in society. Of course Black people get to voice there issue on the world stage. Like movies but so do women.

  19. This response has nothing to do with what I wrote. You can read the other comments if you need clarification.

  20. M Glarner says:

    I learnt a new word yesterday.

    Yanksplaining: when Americans try to explain other people’s cultures to them.

    The exchange above is a wonderful example of the phenomenon.

    Shall I expect a drone attack for my insolence? Your president seems rather keen on that kind of thing.

  21. Jessica Worsley says:

    I know what you wrote. I can read. But why in the article do keep talking black America leaders? That doesn’t have anything to do with the the movie or the quote written on the t-shirts. It’s just political correctness going mad again.

  22. M Glarner says:

    “During this period, the term “slave” actually was synonymous with Black. The British East India Company was inextricably imbedded in the North Atlantic Slave Trade, These women were alive during that peiod. ”

    You might want to go and have a dig through your extensive library again: the film in question is set in the early 20th century. The Atlantic slave trade had been abolished more than a century before; the East India Company had been defunct for decades. How, then, were these women alive during that period? Were they reincarnated, perhaps? Or just very, very old?

    Moreover, if you actually bothered reading any European literature from the period in which these women were active, you’d see that the term slave was as often used to discuss the conditions of the subject peoples of the crumbling Ottoman Empire as it was to discuss the victims of the long-abolished Atlantic trade. Do you only read stuff which mentions America? Do you even read stuff written in other languages? It helps to get a sense of perspective, rather than disappearing in a vortex of ethnocentric bla-bla-bla,

    Anyway, I’m really looking forward to reading some more “Everybody Else’s History as Explained by Americans”. We 95% love a good dose of Yanksplaining!

  23. andre lupitz says:

    My statement about the relationship between slave/Slavs is not incorrect.

    slave (n.) late 13c., “person who is the chattel or property of another,” from Old French esclave (13c.), from Medieval Latin Sclavus “slave” (source also of Italian schiavo, French esclave, Spanish esclavo), originally “Slav” (see Slav); so used in this secondary sense because of the many Slavs sold into slavery by conquering peoples.

    But you can always check online to educate your self a little bit further, as I am trying to educate myself on issues related to African American woman even if I live across the Atlantic. And yes 18th century British feminists had, and have an impact on today’s feminism. I was not denying that. What I was criticizing is your expectation that those woman should have been well aware about the struggles of women of color, if you take in consideration the place and the time they were living in. As you put it: they were not even well aware about the struggles of the white women that were from a lower class than them. Truth is I don’t think you have the exact same struggles as each and every woman of color that is on a lower social ladder than you. You can only pretend to. And in case you still don’t get it, white Europeans are not this monolithic group. Slavery in general for the mind of a white European accounts also for the slavery that was inflicted upon whites by other whites and non whites. It’s clear that for you slavery just deals with the part that affects people of African descent. Also it looks like you don’t like white people using metaphors or any other figure of speech that relates to slavery because you see it as if it somehow diminishes or dilutes the iconographic essence of the white on black slavery. That’s why in my previous post I was referencing the Jewish Holocaust because there are elements from the Jewish organizations that oppose the use of the term “Holocaust” in relation to the Armenian genocide for the same reason. It’s my fault to be honest because I was expecting you to be more informed about others people plight beside that of your own community and that’s why you didn’t got my reference. And about your case that this Hollywood woman are just jumping on the feminist train mostly because it is “fashionable”. I can agree to you to some extent. But even those British feminists have advanced the cause for Black women as well as all other women a bit further, even it was not their intention and they were in it just for their own benefit. That’s why every woman from every race, ethnicity, culture, social class, has to fight against their own particular type of discrimination. You can’t expect woman to know about every single type of misogynistic manifestation inflicted upon the other. Bashing these Hollywood women won’t advance the movement for the rest even if their efforts seem futile or misguided at first. Just as the recent controversy about gap inequality in the film industry demonstrated, things still have a lot of way to go… for them and for any woman.