Why Meryl Streep's 'Rather Be a Rebel Than a Slave' Shirt Broke Twitter

The 'Suffragette' promo opened historical wounds around race and gender. Here's why.

Steps in creating a perfect Twitter storm:

  1. Public figure says or does something controversial or offensive.
  2. People question and or critique those words or actions.
  3. Indignant and often out-of-context responses in defense of the public figure start flying around.
  4. Indignant and often out-of-context responses to those indignant and often out-of-context responses happen.
  5. What could be a pretty important conversation devolves into Twitter personal attacks and accusations.
  6. Rinse and repeat.

On Monday, the offensive act was Meryl Streep doing interviews promoting her new movie Suffragette, a bio-pic of British suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst. Streep and co-stars Romola Garai, Carey Mulligan, and Anne-Marie Duff posed for the companion photo-op sporting T-shirts emblazoned with the Pankhurst quote “I would rather be a rebel than a slave” for Time Out.

A group of Twitter users — black women, predominantly — took to their timelines to question the use of the quote on the shirt, and criticize the photo as another in a long line of white feminists failing to practice a more inclusive brand of feminism. And while many immediately dismissed the critiques as “Outrage gonna outrage!” there is a hell of a lot more to this argument than accusing folks of not understanding how history or words work:

Was Meryl Streep purposely trying to offend anyone by wearing the shirt? I have a hard time believe that to be true. However, I do think that is the very point of those critiquing it: why was it that no one thought about the ramifications of using such charged language or anticipated there might be any kickback? Yes, slavery existed outside of the context of the African chattel slavery of the 17th-19th century, but how do you not know that in 21st century not-so-post-racial America, a shirt using that kind of charged language –regardless of the original context— is going to push people’s buttons?

Furthermore, women of color calling out the continued failure of inclusivity in mainstream movements is in fact valid in both contemporary and historical contexts.

Much as civil rights movements have typically been centered around men, women’s rights movements (both in the States and around Europe) have been almost exclusively dominated by upper-class white women. In a political sense, to exist as black and a woman has meant being erased from the discussions in either arena. For women of color, there has always been the issue of being “represented” by movements in which they were allowed no voice; their labor on both fronts has always been expected, but their calls to include a more intersectional perspective are derided as unnecessary and divisive.

Emmeline Pankhurst was a British suffragette whose work was vital to getting British women the vote. She first uttered the line in question during a speech to members of the Women’s Social and Political Union (a suffragette group Parkhurst founded with her daughters in 1903):

“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.”

At first blush, this quote seems fairly benign in the proper context. It’s obvious that Pankhurst was not referencing the word “rebel” in the context of the Confederacy or any more modern derivatives. Nor was “slave” being used in the context of African slaves or their descendants. She was clearly rallying her followers to keep up the fight against oppressive gender inequality — hers was a stridently militant (and hugely successful) brand of activism that preached tactics such as hunger strikes, standoffs with police, and attacks on public and private property.

In America, influential leaders like Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton cut their teeth in abolitionist circles — but many suffragette groups adopted blatantly racist tactics to curry favor and support with Southern suffragettes. While Parkhurst, though a staunch imperialist, didn’t practice the overt racist vitriol that evolved in parts of the American suffragette movement, her message to black suffragettes in Chicago (according to Parkhurst biographer Paula Bartley) was simply to continue “working for the reforms their white sisters advocated.”

From the inception of the women’s suffrage movement through the latest wave of contemporary feminism, black women have constantly called for more inclusivity. That call was the basis of Sojourner Truth’s famous “Ain’t I a Woman” speech and several Audre Lorde works, and even prompted the coining of the phrase “intersectionality” by legal scholar Kimberle Crenshaw.

Those calls, regardless of era, have tended to be met with outright dismissal or varying degrees of color-blind lip-service by predominantly white feminists who try to assure women of color that mainstream movements work for everybody. Implied there is an admonishment to forget about all this tricky race stuff. That doesn’t always go over so well.

And while this dynamic has existed for almost two centuries, social media’s newfound platforms for marginalized voices means that these conversations can now be had in a very public forum. On a good day, these conversation can be educational and illuminating. On days like today, what start as incredibly valid, serious critiques and questions by very smart people quickly turn into a sea of 140-character yelling matches.

If the premise for your attempted Twitter beef is that you see Meryl Streep wearing a shirt with a quote from a long dead, much-celebrated suffragette as a one-off without considering the broader histories, you may find things get choppy when you engage with someone who’s looking through a longer lens.

Likewise, if you think wearing a shirt with the word “rebel” on it — regardless of the context — makes the wearer a Confederate sympathizer, you’ll look just as foolish while doing an incredible disservice to the arguments you support:

If we are going to ever seriously try to combat racial and gender inequality, these intersections and margins are where we have to start. On Twitter — not known as a venue for nuanced conversation — we can have these conversations, so long as we critique people without drowning them out with competing outrage machines.