The real reason there are no women of colour in 'Suffragette'

Carey Mulligan and Helena Bonham Carter in <i>Suffragette</i>.

Carey Mulligan and Helena Bonham Carter in Suffragette.

I knew I was going to feel torn about Suffragette well before I watched the film. The fight for western women's right to vote is a key moment in the history of global feminism and it deserves to be remembered. But the all-white cast threatened to overshadow the film's subject matter, and I can understand why some have called for a boycott and why others refused to write a review of the film.

I have made a point of calling out whitewashing in popular culture whenever I see it occur, which is often. In regards to Suffragette, it is certainly peculiar that a film set in London, even early in the 20th century, would not feature any people of colour whatsoever, let alone in pivotal roles. But then again, I've always thought of the British suffragette movement as a predominantly white women's cause. Not since my teenage years had I entertained the notion that the white suffragettes were fighting for the rights of women like me.

Yes, there is whitewashing in Suffragette but it does not take the form that critics lamenting its lack of suffragettes of colour say it does. It's true that some women of colour (WoC) were involved in the movement. Historical proof of their involvement include photographs such as this:


This photograph of Indian suffragettes was taken at the Women's Coronation Procession in 1911, where contingents from the various British colonies were present in order "to show the strength of support for women's suffrage throughout the Empire." So they were not there for their own rights, so much as they were there to bolster the cause of white suffragettes.

The Indian suffragettes were a select group of women, wealthy aristocrats with ties to the British ruling class and whose social status permitted them to work alongside key figures like Emmeline Pankhurst.

That's not to say all the Indian suffragettes were shilling for white supremacy. Indeed, some of them also fought for Indian independence, including Princess Sophie Duleep Singh who, despite living with the British royal family and being the goddaughter of Queen Victoria, also collaborated with Indian activists and proved herself to be a right royal pain in the proverbial by refusing to pay her taxes until women had the vote.

However, their involvement, rather than indicating that the suffragette movement was inclusive (it wasn't), reveals more about the class system in the UK than it does about the struggle for suffrage.

And that is where the problem with Suffragette really lies. It's not that it doesn't honour suffragettes who were WoC, it's that it doesn't even touch on why non-white women were largely excluded.

As historian Jad Adams, author of Women and The Vote: A World History, told The Telegraph, "I don't know of any British black women being involved in the movement... They were not very public... They were lower working class people and tended to be disenfranchised in many ways."

Sadly, much of the marginalisation of WoC came at the hands of white women who, despite fighting for their own rights, were nonetheless content to let racism persist. Had the film depicted WoC fighting alongside white women, it would have given the false impression that the latter saw them as their equals, whereas white suffragettes were frequently firm believers in white supremacy.

"I wouldn't presume [black women] would have been welcome [in the suffrage movement] if they'd joined," Adams says.

In other words, including working class WoC in the film would have been dishonest because to even be able to agitate for women's suffrage required a certain degree of privilege and freedom.

As much as I enjoyed the film because it tells the story of a pivotal moment in history - the repercussions and results of which reverberate to this day - from the perspective of the working poor, who are themselves often ignored by history, it still falls into the trap that so many stories told by white people do: it completely overlooks the racism of its protagonists and the role this played on the course of history.

Emmeline Pankhurst has mythic status in Suffragette. But she was also a fierce believer in colonialism who thought WoC needed white women to look out for them. Her quip "I'd rather be a rebel than a slave" was uncritically used in - and to promote - the film even though some of her contemporaries thought her comparisons to slavery were in poor taste. Meanwhile, other key suffragettes were furious that Maori women in NZ had gotten the vote before they did.

The biggest oversight of the film then is not that it doesn't include WoC suffragettes, but that it doesn't even touch on the reasons why there was so few of them. There are many ways WoC could have been included in the film. Princess Sophie Singh could have appeared alongside Emmeline Pankhurst as she often did in real life. Some of the main characters' neighbours could have been black. Perhaps a black co-worker in the commercial laundry where much of the film takes place could have attempted to join the movement only to be cruelly shunned. That would have been powerful cinema. But it would also require a degree of honest examination of history that many white storytellers are still sorely lacking.

As it stands, Suffragette is an important film because it depicts the struggle for emancipation of a marginalised group. But, while we have much to thank them for, we should not make the mistake of assuming, as the film appears to, that the suffragettes were fighting for anyone's benefit but their own. Suffragette is history not as it really was, but as white people wish it to be: with the racism removed.