For anyone who’s wondering, the reason this has received such a backlash is apparently because the t-shirts ‘ignore the historical context of the word slave’.
So, let’s have some of that history. Here’s the full quotation from our dear 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. I would rather die than submit;and that is the spirit that animates this movement… I mean to be a voter in the land that gave me birth or they shall kill me, and my challenge to the Government is: kill me or give me my freedom: I shall force you to make that choice.”
This quote is attributed to a speech made circa 1912-early 1913. As a point of interest, Emmeline Pankhurst was a British political activist, and the Abolition of Slavery Act was put into effect in the UK in 1833 (with territorial exceptions coming under rule in 1843). Somehow, I don’t think Emmeline was referring to slavery as abolished by law 25 years before her birth (in 1858). In context of the above quotation, too, this becomes very clear, as she refers in the very next line that she ‘would rather die than submit’ – the submission here meaning giving up her equal rights protest that earned women the right to vote.
Okay, back to modern day, and let’s have some critical thinking.
Fact one: A t-shirt can only hold so much text before it runs out of room.
Fact two: Meryl Streep is in a film called Suffragette, playing Emmeline Pankhurst.
Fact three: The ‘I would rather be a rebel’ line is one of Emmeline Pankhurst’s most famous quotes.
Fact four: The photoshoot is designed to promote the film Suffragette.
Fact five: The best way to promote a film is to encourage discussion. These days, preferably discussion on the Internet as it tends to go viral.
Fact six: Thanks to this t-shirt ‘scandal’, everyone is now talking about Meryl Streep and the film Suffragette – including me!
The Salon article I linked to above and here claims: Meryl Streep and her “Suffragette” costars made the baffling decision to wear shirts that say “I’d rather be a rebel than a slave” on the cover of Time Out London.
A baffling decision? Really? To wear a t-shirt bearing a quotation from Emmeline Pankhurst, when the photoshoot is promoting a film about Emmeline Pankhurst? I find it more baffling that no one seems to have made this connection. It isn’t baffling. It’s obvious PR. And Meryl Streep and her co-stars have done nothing wrong by wearing a t-shirt with a slogan attributed to the character Streep is playing.
Historical slavery is a terrible thing. It existed for thousands of years and, yes, still exists today in some parts of the world. To make light of it would be an equally terrible thing, but that is not what this t-shirt does. In fact, if one were to choose a racially based issue about the film Suffragette, it might be more logical to focus on the fact there are no POCs in the top-billing; considering the film is about the feminist movement, I suspect that’s a (historically inaccurate) faux pas for which the writers will be quite rightly criticised.
But the word ‘slave’ has many meanings and its usage is not restricted to the black slave trade, with which it is commonly associated. The dictionary definition of the word is: a person who is the legal property of another and is forced to obey them. Until 1882, women did not have equal rights over their property or even themselves: As soon as a woman married she disappeared as far as the law was concerned; now she was no longer a person in her own right but was merely an extension of her husband, unable to own property or even her own person (divorce was impossible for all but the most privileged women as it necessitated a special act of Parliament). A woman became essentially a chattel of her husband… A woman could be forced, by law, to return to her abusive husband and if the marriage broke down she had no legal rights over her children who automatically stayed with their father.
The social and political position of women in 1913 was not too different from that of thirty years before. Women’s rights were grossly minimal; social equality only dreamt of, and this is what the word ‘slave’ means in Pankhurst’s context.
In the case of the Time Out photoshoot, the word slave does not refer to anything else other than the social and political repression of women at that time. That’s what the film Suffragette is about, that’s what Emmeline Pankhurst was referring to, and that’s what the t-shirt means too. Perhaps if the full quotation had been written on the shirt, this discussion wouldn’t have happened but, as I mentioned before, you can only fit so much on a single piece of clothing.