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What did the suffragette movement in Britain really look like?

The new film Suffragette has been accused of "whitewashing" the movement to get women the vote. Do historians agree?

The release of Suffragette has reopened a conversation about diversity in feminism, the whitewashing of the film industry, and attitudes to race in the women’s suffrage movement. 

When Time Out interviewed the cast of Suffragette this week, it photographed Meryl Streep, Carey Mulligan, Romola Garai and Anne-Marie Duff in T-shirts emblazoned with an Emmeline Pankhurst quote: “I’d rather be a rebel than a slave.” Many commented on the racial insensitivity of this, emphasising that comparing white women’s oppression to slavery, or implying that the slavery could be a choice, betrays an lack of concern for the experiences of non-white women. (Pankhurst's use of the term “rebel” also translates particularly badly to an American audience: the Confederate flag is often called the “rebel flag”.)

“It was very insensitive, I thought,” says Dr Paula Bartley, a historian focusing on women in history and the suffrage movement and biographer of Emmeline Pankhurst. “Although though she said it, I don’t think even Emmeline Pankhurst would have been so crass as to wear that T-shirt if she were around now. It was a different time.”

The photoshoot has formed just one part of the controversy surrounding Suffragette’s release. The all-white cast have faced accusations of erasing the role of people of colour in securing the vote. But what did the suffragettes actually look like at the time?

“Britain was a white society in the main,” Dr Bartley tells me, “and the movement reflected that.” Dr Sumita Mukherjee, a fellow at King’s College London researching Indian suffragettes, notes that the women’s suffrage movement in Britain was “very different from the American case or the Australian case or the New Zealand case, because although there were ethnic minorities in Britain at that time, there wasn’t the same scale or the same questions of citizenship as there were in other countries”. 

Dr Bartley agrees. “The American women’s suffrage movement was very different, and was in some respects very racist: they often refused to have black women included in it. Race was a much bigger issue in the United States, and you can’t compare the two movements, because of that issue.”

Anita Anand, author of Sophia: Princess, Suffragette, Revolutionary, tells me that there were women of colour working alongside more famous white suffragettes, most notably the subject of her book, the Indian princess Sophia Duleep Singh. “There were many overlaps between the Indian suffrage movement and the British suffrage movement. Sophia Duleep Singh had every reason to hate the British. They had taken everything from her: her father’s kindgom, wealth, future, everything. But she believed in this sisterhood, and she sacrificed everything to fight for British women’s vote, and also then fought for Indian women’s emancipation as well.”

“I would have loved her to be in the film,” Anand admits. “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.”

Sophia Duleep Singh selling The Suffragette in 1913

The involvement of Indian women in the British women’s suffrage movement extended beyond just Princess Sophia, Anand tells me: “Herabai Tata and her daughter Mithan Lam came to know the suffragette movement through Sophia, and they were absolutely tireless in bringing the organisation and the means of putting pressure on government bodies to India.”

Dr Mukherjee adds: “There’s a popular image of Indian women in 1911 involved in a suffragette procession [see above]: they were Indian women living in Britain at the time living with their families. What’s interesting about that photo is that they’re part of a procession campaigning for the vote for British women, but in that procession they had an Empire section with Australian women, New Zealand women and Indian women. British suffragettes tried to convince women from other areas of the British Empire that if they got the vote, they could look after Indian women and other women in the other communes of Britain.

“There’s an implication that white women felt they were more able to speak for Indian women than Indian women themselves. So although I’m not sure I’d say it’s overtly racist, it is imperialist.”

Anand adds: “British suffragettes were fighting for the rights of women in India: for example, Millicent Fawcett led the campaign against the horrific abuse of Indian sex workers outside British cantonments. But it’s also true to say that some suffragettes had a real passion for Empire, and Emmeline Pankhurst was one of them. You can’t get away from that. There were some who were outright fascists: Norah Elam, who earlier in her life happily worked alongside Sophia Duleep Singh, turned into a Blackshirt later.” Suffragettes like Mary Richardson followed this same pattern from women’s suffrage to fascism. “Like other organisations at that time, some people involved held racist opinions,” Anand tells me. “That was a strain that ran through society.”

There were also members of the suffragette movement who resisted this. Earlier, in the 1880s, a suffragette named Catherine Impey founded Anti-Caste, sometimes described as Britain’s first anti-racist journal, which attempted to speak “with” rather than “about” people of colour, highlighting racism in the US and the British Empire. Its letters page was a space in which diverse voices from Australia, Africa, the US and Europe could be in dialogue, and the journal suggests there were Asian, black and white activists working together to form an anti-racist community in Britain in the 1880s and 1890s. Sadly, this journal failed to become an orgainised movement after Impey and her fellow activist Isabelle Mayo fell out (reportedly out over the disputed affections of one of their male readers).

Catherine Impey

Although the nuances of the Suffragettes' relationship with race are not addressed by the film, Dr Mukherjee tells me that she is pleased that Suffragette focuses on the story of a working class woman. “The diverse nature of class backgrounds in the suffragette movement isn’t usually taught. In terms of the British movement, it was very diverse, in that it involved people of all social backgrounds.”

Dr Bartley agrees. “If you look at any political movement, whether its the the Bolsheviks or the Labour party, it is often led by the middle class, and the members are often working class. The Suffragettes were largely no different. That was incredibly important and shouldn’t be overlooked, because how does an organisation continue without a vast membership? Certainly, at grassroots level and local levels you see the movement has a very heterogenous composition.”

The suffragettes did have working class women in their leadership: most notably Annie and Jessie Kenney, activists from a poor family in Oldham. Annie was the only working class woman to become part of the senior hierarchy of the Women's Social and Political Union, becoming deputy in 1912. “She did play a huge role in the Suffragette campaign,” Bartley says.

Annie Kenney in 1909

The story of Annie Kenney is also interesting when discussing diversity, as she seems to have been involved in several lesbian relationships within the movement. Although she eventually married a man after women won the vote, in the activist Mary Blathwayt’s diary she “appears frequently and with different women”, according to Professor Martin Pugh. “Mary writes matter-of-fact lines such as, ‘Annie slept with someone else again last night,’ or ‘There was someone else in Annie's bed this morning.’” Pugh's research shows that her name can now be linked to up to ten other suffragettes.

There are many other suggestions of gay relationships within the movement, including Mary Blathwayt herself, Christabel Pankhurst, and Dame Ethel Smythe. “Dame Ethel had realised early on in life that she loved women, not men, and was fairly bold about things,” Pugh adds.

Composer and activist Dame Ethel Smyth

As Anand points out, Suffragette does not claim to be a comprehensive exploration of every activist who falls under that broad term, but instead “revolves around one working class woman’s story”. Ultimately, it is unsurprising that full detail and nuance of a mass movement has been lost in the transition to the big screen.

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.

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A swimming pool and a bleeding toe put my medical competency in doubt

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Sometimes the search engine wins. 

The brutal heatwave affecting southern Europe this summer has become known among locals as “Lucifer”. Having just returned from Italy, I fully understand the nickname. An early excursion caused the beginnings of sunstroke, so we abandoned plans to explore the cultural heritage of the Amalfi region and strayed no further than five metres from the hotel pool for the rest of the week.

The children were delighted, particularly my 12-year-old stepdaughter, Gracie, who proceeded to spend hours at a time playing in the water. Towelling herself after one long session, she noticed something odd.

“What’s happened there?” she asked, holding her foot aloft in front of my face.

I inspected the proffered appendage: on the underside of her big toe was an oblong area of glistening red flesh that looked like a chunk of raw steak.

“Did you injure it?”

She shook her head. “It doesn’t hurt at all.”

I shrugged and said she must have grazed it. She wasn’t convinced, pointing out that she would remember if she had done that. She has great faith in plasters, though, and once it was dressed she forgot all about it. I dismissed it, too, assuming it was one of those things.

By the end of the next day, the pulp on the underside of all of her toes looked the same. As the doctor in the family, I felt under some pressure to come up with an explanation. I made up something about burns from the hot paving slabs around the pool. Gracie didn’t say as much, but her look suggested a dawning scepticism over my claims to hold a medical degree.

The next day, Gracie and her new-found holiday playmate, Eve, abruptly terminated a marathon piggy-in-the-middle session in the pool with Eve’s dad. “Our feet are bleeding,” they announced, somewhat incredulously. Sure enough, bright-red blood was flowing, apparently painlessly, from the bottoms of their big toes.

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Often, what patients discover on the internet causes them undue alarm, and our role is to provide context and reassurance. But not infrequently, people come across information that outstrips our knowledge. On my return from our room with fresh supplies of plasters, my wife looked up from her sun lounger with an air of quiet amusement.

“It’s called ‘pool toe’,” she said, handing me her iPhone. The page she had tracked down described the girls’ situation exactly: friction burns, most commonly seen in children, caused by repetitive hopping about on the abrasive floors of swimming pools. Doctors practising in hot countries must see it all the time. I doubt it presents often to British GPs.

I remained puzzled about the lack of pain. The injuries looked bad, but neither Gracie nor Eve was particularly bothered. Here the internet drew a blank, but I suspect it has to do with the “pruning” of our skin that we’re all familiar with after a soak in the bath. This only occurs over the pulps of our fingers and toes. It was once thought to be caused by water diffusing into skin cells, making them swell, but the truth is far more fascinating.

The wrinkling is an active process, triggered by immersion, in which the blood supply to the pulp regions is switched off, causing the skin there to shrink and pucker. This creates the biological equivalent of tyre treads on our fingers and toes and markedly improves our grip – of great evolutionary advantage when grasping slippery fish in a river, or if trying to maintain balance on slick wet rocks.

The flip side of this is much greater friction, leading to abrasion of the skin through repeated micro-trauma. And the lack of blood flow causes nerves to shut down, depriving us of the pain that would otherwise alert us to the ongoing tissue damage. An adaptation that helped our ancestors hunt in rivers proves considerably less use on a modern summer holiday.

I may not have seen much of the local heritage, but the trip to Italy taught me something new all the same. 

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear