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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 the New Statesman's deputy culture editor.

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“Grooming rings are the biggest recruiter for the far right”: Rochdale and Telford prosecutor

Senior lawyer Nazir Afzal warns the government, and communities implicated in street grooming, to do more – or the situation will get worse.

Nazir Afzal, the former chief prosecutor who led prosecutions against a child sex abuse ring in Telford, and oversaw similar street grooming cases in Rochdale, tells Anoosh Chakelian why these crimes go under the radar, and how to tackle them.

How widespread are these street grooming cases?

My involvement started with Operation Span, which is the Rochdale prosecution, in 2011. And prior to that, when I was in London as chief prosecutor, I was aware it was an issue bubbling but wasn’t getting any attention.

Obviously we’ve now got Telford, Newcastle, Peterborough, Sheffield, Rotherham, Oxford, Bristol. If anybody watched the BBC’s film Three Girls, at the very end, they list I think 16 towns and cities where prosecution had taken place.

We know that it is extraordinarily widespread. Wherever you look, if you turn over the stone, you’ll find this kind of behaviour. 

What do each of these cases have in common?

What we discovered, ten years ago nearly, were groups of men working invariably in the night-time economy, either in taxi services or takeaways or that kind of business, hiding amongst whom were these predators. They’re not gangs in the way organised crime gangs are. They’re very loose networks.

There are vulnerable young girls in so many parts of this country, who nobody else seems to care about. And what these victims need is warmth, transport, mind-numbing substances, food. And where are they going to find that? You’re invariably going to find that in the night-time economy.

I used to describe them as easy prey for evil men. They’re easy to identify, and what tends to happen is that once they’ve identified one victim, through her networks very often they’ll find others.

These men are just taking advantage of the dysfunctional nature of children’s services and young people’s services that have existed now for some time. If anything, it’s got worse, because while there is tremendous learning, the resources have been reduced.

So really good practices – like one council would have a van that would go round fast food premises in the evening to identify young girls at risk and talk to them – are cancelled because they don’t have the money to do it anymore.

People work in silence. Information was available and wasn’t shared. That style of working is part of the problem. So time and again, people are just keeping things to themselves. It’s a lack of competence on their part. It’s competence, it’s not conspiracy. Easier to blame a conspiracy than say “you were rubbish at your job”. And that is constantly something that I have come across.

The victims don’t even see themselves as victims very often. Because of the poverty of relationship education and sex education in schools, these men make them believe that they love them. I remember in the Rochdale case, one of the girls kept calling one of the defendants throughout the trial her “boyfriend”. She doesn’t know any different; nobody has taught her what’s a good relationship, what’s a bad relationship.

Time and time again, survivors have the answers. What the authorities should be doing is listening to their local survivors, and building their response and their interventions on what the survivors tell them: “This is a journey I took, this is where you could’ve intervened. This is where you could’ve prevented my abuse or somebody else’s abuse.”

There are some very, very courageous, extraordinarily strong women now more than willing to share their experiences. And we do so little of that [talking to them].

How can the situation be improved for victims and potential victims?

A lot of these victims have criminal records as a result of behaviours they were made to do – we should be erasing those criminal records. That’s the way we can rehabilitate them. I think victims need compensation for what they’ve been through. And they also need lifelong support, and that’s not being produced.

Taxi drivers in Coventry are trained in local signs of abuse; it’s part of their licensing arrangement and I work with them actually on delivering that. Why is that not happening everywhere else in the country? Why are we not licensing and training takeaway establishments in the same way?

I discovered recently that in Newcastle, they’re delivering this kind of training. Sadly, it’s voluntary. The people you need to engage with are not coming. So unless you have mandatory training for people working in the night-time economy, it’s not going to happen.

Additionally in the hotel trade, one or two large chains are doing some good work in identifying young people at risk, and sharing intelligence. Why is that not everywhere? We know that predators use cheap hotels and places like that for the abuse they carry out.

The intelligence is there, it’s just not being used. And we’re not using community intelligence either. The vast majority of victims in this type of sex offending are white girls. There are Asian girl victims too.

When I prosecuted the Rochdale gang, immediately afterwards, I prosecuted the ringleader again for his abuse of a girl of the same ethnicity as him. That didn’t get any publicity and he got 21 years for that. So there are victims from the Asian community but because of issues such as honour, shame, and the fact that very often they’re told by their families that it’s “your fault”, they’re not coming forward.

So we need to understand that there are victims out there who are even less likely to report their concerns because of familial and community pressures.

We are scratching the surface, and it really irks me that each and every time it gets in the news, it’s two things.

Number one is that it’s the biggest recruiter for the far right in this country. If you go on any far right website, they use the grooming gangs more so than Isis or terror attacks as the means by which they recruit far right activists.

So we should be tackling this, and by “we” I mean everybody, including the communities most impacted, and most implicated.

Number two is we need to intervene much earlier, but we also need to do some perpetrator programmes. There are perpetrators involved who are still in denial about their activities. There are still people out there who think “well, it’s fair game”.

How can it be prevented from happening in future?

Much more work has to happen in terms of the perpetrators and perpetrators of the future – and that, of course, involves early education.

Too often, we wait until high school to start talking about gender equality and relationship education. We should be starting to talk to them about these types of behaviours and what they should be looking out for when they’re five, six and seven. We’re just building up a problem for the future by not doing any of this.

We should have mandatory reporting of child sexual abuse. If you see someone being abused, or you perceive to be being abused, then it should be your duty to report. What the government has said recently is that social workers have come out against it. And my response would be: “Well they would, wouldn’t they?”

NGOs are doing phenomenal work in its field, so there are lots of charities and groups up and down the country trying to identify victims and potential perpetrators. They don’t get enough funding. They’re working on a shoestring.

What do you say to those suggesting ethnicity plays a part?

The vast majority of children and young people are abused within the family. We must not lose sight of that. The second largest group of victims are online. Today, you can pay pennies to watch a child being abused in real-time, somewhere in the world. The third largest group is institutional; we know about places of worship – churches, mosques – we also know about the FA and football and judo and sporting clubs, and the BBC.

Street grooming is the smallest – significant nonetheless, we’re still talking about thousands of victims. It’s smallest comparatively to the other three areas.

More than 80 per cent of child sexual offenders are British white men.

When I’ve prosecuted Stuart Hall or Max Clifford, or whatever, people never said “oh, his religion, his ethnicity”, as if that was important. It wasn’t in their cases, and they remain the vast majority of offenders.

I’ve always said the ethnicity of street groomers is an issue. We can’t pretend that’s not what’s happening.

The night-time economy is one issue. But it’s not the issue.The issue is the availability and vulnerability of young girls. The issue is the fact that they are unwanted and unloved. They get no support: the NGOs that support them aren’t properly funded, neither are children’s services. That is the issue.

But ethnicity is an issue, and I don’t think the community is doing enough. I was really pleased to see, some months ago, I was invited to the launch of the Greater Manchester Muslim community organisation, and one of their four priorities is tackling grooming. And that is rare. Most communities would rather not talk about the subject, would beat me up [verbally] quite regularly for mentioning it, and unless we tackle it, bigots don’t need an excuse to hate you, so why do we give them an excuse? Why are we not tackling an issue that can be tackled?

You can’t just generalise about what it is that might be driving these men. We need to do a great deal more research into background, why perpetrators become perpetrators, in the same way we’re trying to identify why victims become victims.

Authorities are often accused of being scared to act because of political correctness. How do you feel about that?

I’ve not come across anybody who’s scared. I get bored of this going unchallenged. These are difficult cases to prosecute. Very often, the victim treats the prosecutor or the investigator as the bad guy for trying to destroy their “relationships”. Competence was the issue – people not understanding how to bring these cases. They had to leave their tick-boxes and their normal pro formas aside.

Some people, no doubt, may not want to offend a certain community, but I would imagine they’re in the minority. The large majority fail to engage because it’s really difficult.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.