“Suffragette” Ire Continues: Analyzing the Film’s Eracism

Suffragette has been in the news for all the wrong reasons. The bad press continues with a Q&A with the film’s director Sarah Gavron. 

During a luncheon in honor of the film at Locanda Verde in Tribeca, a question-and-answer session with the director and producer Alison Owen, screenwriter Abi Morgan, and Emmeline Pankhursts’ great-granddaughter and activist Helen Pankhurst, led to one question that revealed why activists of color weren’t portrayed in Suffragette.

Gavron stated that it would have been historical inaccuracy to have women of ethnic minorities depicted in the film. Here’s what she said, according to IndieWire:

We interrogated the writ and photographic evidence, and the truth is, it’s very, very different picture from the U.S. The U.S. had a lot of women of color involved in the movement, some who were excluded, some who weren’t excluded. But in the UK, it wasn’t like that, because we had pockets of immigration…it was later, aroudn the war, around the fifties, that really the UK shifted and changed in a really wonderful way to produce what we have today.”

She did acknowledge that there were a few non-white women who were welcomed in the UK suffragette movement, but they were excluded from the film because they were not working women, like the women depicted in the movie.

“At the time, there were these two prominent Asian aristocrats who were part of the movement…Emmeline worked with Sophia Duleep Singh–she’s going to have a TV one-parter made about her, and she’s a fascinating character–but she was an aristocrat, and she was treated very differently from the working women. We really wanted to focus on the working women, and so that’s what we did. There were thousands of women in the movement, there were these two women of color.”

Gavron also brings up the iconic photo of a “continent of women from India” at the 1911 coronation procession. From reading Gavron’s comments, they were also excluded from the film because the events happened before the events the film examines.

It is perfectly within Gavron’s right to tell the story of the UK suffragette movement the way she wants to, but it’s also important to examine the UK suffragette movement for what it was; a movement that might have been mostly white, but a movement that also intertwined with imperialism and discrimination.

To be clear, I’m an American. But, for various projects, either academic or creative, I’ve done a lot of research about the UK and its history with racism and discrimination. From my outsider perspective, it seems like the UK does a lot of relying on the excuse of England being historically murky on such topics. This excuse is a form of doublespeak, since historically, England has contributed a lot to the state of racism in America, India, and anywhere else that was a part of the Commonwealth. A country that, in the 1700s, contributed to the slave trade, had young black and Indian boys as servants (i.e. slaves) and dressed in turbans and jewels as a cross between a page and a pet, but still didn’t want to come to terms with its own policies on racism because slavery wasn’t legal in law, has a history of racism and still hasn’t come to grips with the fact that its hands are just as dirty from racism as America’s are. For instance, as As historian Jad Adams, author of Women and the Vote: A World History, points out to the Telegraph‘s Radhika Sanghani:

Adams tells me: “I don’t know of any British black women being involved in the movement. It’s probably because they were not very public…They were lower working class people and tended to be disenfranchised in many ways. Their accommodation was poor, their work was uncertain and poorly paid.”

There is hardly any evidence about black women’s involvement with the British suffragettes, or how they would have treated had they wished to join the movement. But in Adams’ opinion, there could have been some conflict. “I wouldn’t presume [black women] would have been welcome [in the suffrage movement] if they’d joined,” he says.

Also, Adams stated how all women in New Zealand were given voting privileges before the women in Britain. Adams stated that prominent voting rights activists were angry that Maori women were given a privilege white women “with a certain station in society” didn’t have.

Suffragette has been one of the films of 2015 that has proven to be a lynchpin in racial debates in entertainment, but this film also suffers from the added weight of the intersection of racism and feminism. Feminism, in America’s relationship with the movement, has been one fraught with racist tension. As Adams told the Telegraph:

“White suffragettes found it would be better if they distanced themselves from black women…They thought what do we have to do to attract southern states? They thought, ‘if we enfranchise white women that will consolidate the white vote and balance the vote against black men.'”

The article states that at this time in the US, black men were allowed to vote, but white suffragettes in the US decided to market to the southern states by saying that the white vote, women and men combined, would be able to push down the black man’s voting rights.

American suffragette Carrie Chapman Catt, founder of the League of Women Voters, is known to have said: “White supremacy will be strengthened, not weakened, by women’s suffrage.” While Rebecca Ann Latimer Felton, the first woman to serve in the Senate, said: “I do not want to see a negro man walk to the polls and vote on who should handle my tax money, while I myself cannot vote at all.”

Even without the hard-line racist views of America, England still had (and has) its problems with intersectionality. As pointed out above, black women had so many burdens, aside from not being able to vote, that there wouldn’t have been any room for them to fight for one right while trying to stave off so many others. And also, who knows what history has been lost or undocumented simply because someone didn’t feel it was “important” enough. There could have been a black Emmeline Pankhurst-type lost somewhere in history simply because no one wanted to have her story remembered. Even the woman Gavron acknowledges, Sophia Duleep Singh (an Indian princess fighting for British women’s voting rights), was nearly written out of history. Anita Anand, the author of Sophia: Princess, Suffragette, Revolutionary, told The New Statesman:

I would have loved her to be in the film…I’d love her to be all over the place, I’ve spent the last five years of my life righting that wrong and trying to put her back in history. But Suffragette focuses on one woman’s story, and you can’t involve everyone in that.”

In a world view of feminism and women’s rights, it would have been an interesting move for Suffragette to have a story that at least acknowledged the women of color who did participate in the movement, like Singh, who was part of Pankhurst’s inner circle. Or, the film could have included other suffragettes of Indian heritage, like Singh’s proteges-of-sorts Herabai Tata and her daughter Mithan Lam (two people Anand also mention in her New Statesman interview). Not only would it have shown a non-white woman existing in what is routinely portrayed as a whitewashed history, but it would have also done double duty by showing audiences that non-white women of higher ranks existed and thrived in the times before the 21st century. There’s an idea that non-white women of rank didn’t exist, even though there’s plenty of evidence to the contrary (just go check out Medieval POC for reference).

But, if it’s working women Govran wants to focus on, there were plenty of Indian-British working women she could have picked from as well, such as that continent protesting during the procession. Basically, there were tons of opportunities to appeal to the worldwide market of film. People are getting tired of seeing these all-white stories of history, when history has never been all-white. History involves all people, even the ones who are so beat down by society that they don’t have a voice. Their lack of a voice includes a story that is just as valuable as the ones who have the means and ability to get on the streets and protest.

I’m not sure how great Suffragette is going to do at the box office, since there have been other big-name films like Exodus: Gods and Kings and Pan which whitewashed history and fictional characters and both failed miserably. Suffragette is clearly gunning for Oscar and BAFTA nominations, and no doubt it’ll get some. But I’m not sure how it’ll do monetarily since the bad press has outrun any of the films good qualities. In any event, this film, along with the others mentioned, should serve as a lesson that people want to see themselves in films, regardless of the genre.

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