Election time: when women tweet out how they are voting because the Suffragettes fought for the right of women to vote. And, when men come running over to shriek “OMG, the suffragettes were racist” as if women didn’t realise that the White Supremacy didn’t just start last week. I get so fucking bored with this silencing tactic – because that’s all it is: a silencing tactic. It’s another way of telling women to shut the fuck up. After all, I have yet to hear anyone in the UK bang on about how the Reform Act of 1832 was a bastion of anti-racism and anti-colonialist discourse.
We all know the Suffragettes were racist. We know it for the same reason we know that white people are inherently racist: we live in a white supremacist culture where it is very, very difficult for white people to identify and challenge both their own white privilege and the structural racism that they perpetuate daily (even if they are aware and trying to challenge). This is hardly shocking news unless you are a) quite happy being racist or b) a nincompoop. The history of the world is one of racism, violence, misogyny and those in power engaged in constant warfare to maintain that power. The movements for suffrage (whether for all men, women or the right of people of colour) have all been problematic (to understate the issue.) Suffrage movements have always excluded certain groups of people in order to extend power to some. The Suffrage movement for women was no different, yet it is the only one which features constant references to racism. Male enfranchisement, across the globe, has always excluded those deemed “inferior of race” from the British Empire to the US Civil Rights Movement to South African Apartheid and beyond. Yet, we only talk about the Suffragettes (and feminists) as racist.
Why aren’t we talking about the male suffrage movements of the 19th and 20th century as racist? Why do we only recognise racism in the American and South African contexts when the British Empire was founded on racism (and our wealthiest residents living off the fat of slavery and colonialism to this day).
The Suffragettes were racist. Homophobia, disablism and classism weren’t exactly issues they were right-on about either. This is the reality of world history. Only now, in the 21st century, are we seeing progress on issues of racism and even then it’s pretty much non-existent. You only need to look at the Republican’s desperate attempts to disenfranchise African-American voters in the last US election to see how little progress has been made – and that’s without getting into the legacies of colonialism and unfettered capitalism across the globe.
Those in power have very little interest in allowing Sub-Humans access to power structures. They never have and they never will. Men have a vested interest in shutting women up and, whilst I recognise the Suffragettes were far from perfect, their campaigns made it possible for more categories of Sub-Humans to vote – and the definition of ‘sub-human’ remains historically and locally contextualised. Extending the franchise and encouraging those without power is the only way we can cause change with a capitalist-patriarchy. It’s not a great way of causing change but it’s the only we have and we do need to thank those who fought for our right to vote – even if they don’t represent our values.
I’m grateful to those men and women who fought for the Reform Acts of 1832, 1867, 1884, 1918 and 1928. I’m grateful to the women who fought for our right to vote in the 20th century. I’m grateful to the Famous Five of Canada who took the fight for the recognition of women as persons all the way to the British High Court in 1929. All of these were far from perfect but it is because of them that the vast majority of people domiciled in the UK have the right to vote: regardless of sex, gender, ethnicity or faith.
Our political structures are still dominated by rich white men who refuse to share power. We need to do better but crapping on the campaigns that came before us means we’re not focusing on the real problem: the capitalist-patriarchy. We can’t destroy it if we’re too busy complaining about how a group of women a 100 years ago exemplified the racism of their period when we neglect to point out that so did the men!
The right to vote is a precious gift and we can use it today to keep racists like UKIP and the BNP out of power. Surely this is the legacy we want to leave from the Suffrage movement – women defeating racism through the democratic right to vote in spite of whether or not those who campaigned for women’s suffrage would support us now?