The struggle of women in the early 20th century to gain the right to vote cannot be forgotten- their courage and sacrifice is something today’s feminists owe so much of their freedom to. But Suffragette, the film released this month that follows some of the events leading to the victory, has a whitewashing problem that cannot be ignored and is dishearteningly representative of the problems pervading the current feminist movement.
Suffragette stars Carey Mulligan as the fictional Maud Watts, a young woman who joins the campaign alongside famed historical activists such as Emmeline Pankhurst, played by Meryl Streep. Though it is notable that Mulligan’s character is working class, there is a distinct lack of diversity in portrayals of the myriad other women fighting. Though the suffragette movement was, undoubtedly, hugely white and middle class, this was not at all entirely the case and was a product of a racist, classist era, seized on to such an extent in the film that it seems like an unsettlingly deliberate attempt to ignore parts of history. When the contributions and struggles of women of colour are so blatantly ignored, the racist attitudes of the era are unchallenged, and their parallels with today’s problematic mainstream feminism, where white women are still seen as the mastheads of the movement and other voices are marginalised, remain unexamined.
The film’s stars themselves also received backlash when during a promotional campaign they posed wearing t-shirts reading “I’d rather be a rebel than a slave”, a quote from a speech Emmeline Pankhurst gave in 1913. The blatant racial insensitivity of this slogan only further exemplifies mainstream feminism’s overt tendency to exclude women of colour from the movement. Equating the struggle for gender equality with actual slavery places racism and sexism as opposing oppressive forces, when it is vital that feminism recognises the ways in which they intersect. Middle class white women only showing solidarity with those similarly privileged is nowhere near enough for true equality to be claimed.
The silencing of women of colour by white women is not something that has been left in the past and when there is a refusal, as there is within the film, to acknowledge that it even happened then, it highlights a serious disconnect between the equality feminism purports to strive for and its reality. Media cannot portray the past with an uncritical lens, and unconditionally glorifying the suffragettes, many of whom sought to further disenfranchise black women when it benefitted their goals, is particularly discomfiting when the stories of the less privileged are not ones we ever get to see.
While a successful film about such a hugely significant feminist triumph is undeniably exciting and important, its all white cast down to extras in crowd scenes serves as another example of how far feminism has to come before it can consider itself truly intersectional. Representation is vital, and when this is forgotten white feminists are ignoring those who struggled on their behalf while continuing to put themselves above the rest. Suffragette may empower and inspire more women to continue to work for true equality, but if we are not fighting the rights of all women across all levels of power and privilege we are not on the right side of the battle.
Image: Leonard Bentley