Tag Archives: women’s suffrage

Suffering (and Suffragetting) in Silence: British Colonial Rebels and Children’s Literature

Last week, I talked about the American midterm elections and the connection (or lack thereof) between white women, suffragettes, and a lack of concern for people of color and their issues.  This week I want to start with the same issue, but in Britain instead of America.

British women (at least the over-30s) got the vote in 1918, two years before American women.  The campaign for women’s suffrage was a brutal one in Britain; one account called the suffragettes “a large network of free-lance militants engaged in repeated acts of criminality” (“Clare Balding’s Secrets of a Suffragette” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lIknRGKCKZo).  If this phrase were applied to people of colour, rather than to white women, today, they would be labeled terrorists—and indeed, in their own time, many of the British suffragettes were called terrorists, and some supporters of women’s right to the vote distanced themselves from the movement because of the violence.  However, the suffragettes are now seen, 100 years on, as heroes and are celebrated in children’s books.

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MacDonald and Antrim’s suffragette book depicts the Edwardian movement as being made up of white women.

In many popular books and media for children, the image of the celebrated British suffragette is middle- or upper-class and white; examples of this include the popular Danger Zone series by Fiona MacDonald and David Antrim, Avoid Being a Suffragette! (Salariya 2008); and the BBC programme “Horrible Histories,” whose “Suffragettes Song” video includes only white women, and middle/upper class women as leaders (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bmUA6_6UJJU).  The song discusses the violence (“burned down churches, smashed up shops, attacked MPs”) but concludes with celebration (“Suffragettes, sing! We’ve done it, ding, ding! At last those men see you should treat us the same”).  Imagine if—even 100 years ago—women of colour were involved in burning down churches, smashing up shops and attacking MPs.  Imagine if—even 100 years ago—people of colour were not just looking for the right to vote, but for their independence from the British Empire.  Would they be celebrated in children’s books today like Emmeline Pankhurst or Emily Davison?

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Sophia Duleep Singh, pictured on the right, was an Indian princess, a suffragette–and a colonial rebel.

But of course there is no need to imagine, because there were people of colour at that time who were suffragettes.  There are many whose names we do not know, but one that we do know is Sophia Duleep Singh, an Indian princess brought up in England who became a suffragette—significantly—after traveling to India and seeing the effect of colonialism on her people.  Singh, one of the many royal godchildren that Queen Victoria adopted after more or less stealing the thrones/countries of the children’s parents or grandparents, was brought up to a life of luxury.  But her parents, exiled from India to quell any hope that the Singh family would return to rule, were unhappy in their gilded cage; her father ran off with a mistress and her mother drank herself to death.  Sophia and her sisters, knowing nothing else, became society princesses in the Edwardian era.  Her trip to India, where she was recognized as the daughter of Ranjit Singh, the last Maharajah of the Punjab, showed her how much her people had lost in being colonized and ultimately dominated by the British.  After she returned to England, she became a militant suffragette, storming Parliament and attacking the Prime Minister’s car.  But until recently, she has been absent from most children’s books about suffragettes.

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David Roberts’ book puts “The Rebel Princess” front and centre–but as a suffragette concerned about her family, rather than her country.

Two recent books that include Singh are David Roberts’ Suffragette: The Battle for Equality (Two Hoots 2018), which pictures Singh (presumably) on the front cover as well as giving her a two-page spread inside, and Kira Cochrane’s Modern Women: 52 Pioneers (Frances Lincoln 2017).  Roberts keeps the focus of Singh’s transformation to radicalism on being “troubled” (36) by the way the British had treated her family, but Cochrane’s book specifically mentions Singh’s “loathing” for the British Empire after her visit to India.  For women of colour, suffrage was not just about the right to vote; it was about the right to represent themselves and be heard as people of subjugated nations.  For years, Singh’s story was lost to child readers, and those that do depict her often shy away from her anti-colonial attitudes.

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Rabindranath Tagore was once supported by British and Irish poets, including Yeats.

Another colonial rebel who has been—and still is—lost to child readers in Britain is a Nobel Prize winner and contemporary of Sophia Duleep Singh, Rabindranath Tagore.  In fact, in the year that Tagore won the Nobel Prize, 1913, he translated his children’s book The Crescent Moon, into English and dedicated to the man who nominated him, Thomas Sturge Moore.  The book, which is about the common everyday experiences of the child, is comparable to Robert Louis Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verses.  Indeed, both collections address rainy days, the seashore, fairyland, and paper boats.  Tagore’s “Paper Boats” speaks of how “Day by day I float my paper boats one by one down the running stream. /In big black letters I write my name on them and the name of the village where I live. /I hope that someone in some strange land will find them and know who I am” (http://www.gutenberg.org/files/6520/6520-h/6520-h.htm) while Stevenson’s “Where go the boats?” expresses a similar sentiment: “Away down the river,/ A hundred miles or more,/ Other little children/ Shall bring my boats ashore.”

Original illustrations from Tagore’s Crescent Moon–in this case by Surendranath Ganguli–recall similar illustrations of childhood in Robert Louis Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verses (this one is by Maria Kirk from 1919):

How beneficial would it be to introduce children to these collections side-by-side and talk about the similarities and differences in both childhood and poetry in different parts of the world?  But Tagore is unknown to modern British children (and indeed, many British adults).  His Crescent Moon is not available in English editions for children, while A Child’s Garden of Verses has never been out of print.  Is this because the ideas are incomprehensible to readers? Hardly.  But after winning the Nobel Prize, Tagore became increasingly anti-imperial, and his one-time champions in the English-speaking world (who included the poet William Butler Yeats) soon decided “he no longer appeared to be the docile colonized Orientalist of their projection” (Mukherjee, “Thomas Sturge Moore and his Indian Friendships in London” 67).  In his 1918 Nationalism, Tagore complains that “at the beginning of the British rule in India our industries were suppressed, and since then we have not met with any real help or encouragement to enable us to make a stand against the monster commercial organizations of the world. The nations have decreed that we must remain purely an agricultural people, even forgetting the use of arms for all time to come. Thus India is being turned into so many predigested morsels of food ready to be swallowed at any moment by any nation which has even the most rudimentary set of teeth in its head” (http://www.gutenberg.org/files/40766/40766-h/40766-h.htm page 126).  Like Singh, it was Tagore’s nationalism and anti-imperialism that silenced him for British child readers.  Singh is creeping back into the history of the suffragette (though not necessarily anti-colonial) movement, but so far, Tagore has not been returned to his place in the history of children’s poetry.  The long arm of the British Empire continues to affect the way that British child readers experience their nation’s past, silencing those who dared to speak out against the Empire.

Acceptable Racisms and Children’s Literature

There are two kinds of racism: incidental, by which I mean something that happens because of the actions of individuals; and systemic, by which I mean the deep-rooted, institutionally-supported disadvantages experienced by people of color.  These two racisms are not mutually exclusive; often, someone feels that their individual racist comment or belief is justified because the system or society does not censure their speech or action.  Equally, if individuals were more willing to examine and censure the individual racisms of themselves and those around them, systemic racism would begin (or at least be easier) to break down.  But they certainly manifest in different ways.

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Anne Rooney’s Race Hate tries to take a balanced approach by interviewing racists. But Race Hate is apparently an individual, rather than an institutional, problem.

This week, news items in the UK and US showed both kinds of racism.  In the UK, what seem to be examples of incidental racism actually point to systemic problems.  And in the US, a result that seems to suggest systemic problems highlights the responsibility of individuals.  Bonfire Night in the UK saw one group of people delighting over the burning of a model of Grenfell Tower (https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/crime/grenfell-tower-model-bonfire-burned-guy-fawkes-party-a8618661.html), and a Tory councilor wearing blackface at a Bonfire Night event in Hever (https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2018/nov/07/tory-councillor-wears-blackface-kent-bonfire-celebrations).  These were both roundly condemned in the media and the public, as well as by officials.  Theresa May criticized the Grenfell Tower bonfire.  And yet, her condemnation was called out by several people who pointed out that many Tower residents are still unhoused nearly a year-and-a-half after the fire (see, for example, Nikesh Shukla’s tweet from 6 November 2018).  The bonfire was unacceptable racism; but the system that allows the people of Grenfell Tower to continue to suffer at the hands of the government is not changed.  Similarly, the Tory councilor was participating in the bonfire as a member of a Church of England school PTA.  The school dissociated itself from the incidental racism, saying, “We are very proud to be a multicultural school with ‘respect, love and wisdom’ as our motto” (Guardian online); but they failed to acknowledge their responsibility to ensuring that all members of their community—PTA included—embraced the slogan.  Neither the government nor the church created or directly encouraged the individual racist behavior.  But the government’s and the church’s own lack of action on racism makes it easier for racists to act.

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“People may have racist ideas instilled in them”: but who is doing the instilling?

Children’s books, even well-intentioned ones, do not always make this link between individual acts and institutional racism.  Anne Rooney’s Voices: Race Hate (Evans Brothers 2006) is part of a series which, according to the back cover, “brings alive a range of modern-day issues—many of them highly controversial—and aims to stimulate debate and discussion.”  Although I am not convinced there is much that is “highly controversial” about any kind of hate (hate is something we tell children is bad, no?)—not to mention the lack of controversy about the issue of hunger or child labour, other titles in the series (also bad, no?)—this series is clearly designed to discourage, rather than encourage, readers’ participation in or support of these issues.  But by failing to address the link between systemic racism and individual acts, the book ends up excusing people from the responsibility for racism.  Thus, the double-page spread, “Why Hate Other Races?” excuses individuals from racism by blaming “stereotypes” without explaining that stereotypes are connected with systemic, structural and institutional racism.  The photo on page 9 includes a caption that says, “Many white families employed black workers to serve them” but does not connect this servitude with a history of slavery, or a lack of other available employment opportunities for Black people.  Claire Heuchan and Nikesh Shukla’s recent book, What is Race? Who are Racists? Why does Skin Colour Matter? And Other Big Questions (Wayland 2018) addresses this failure to link structural and individual racism head on, pointing out the consequences of such a failure: “Even when people are aware of racism, they can hesitate to point it out because of the implication that somebody has been racist . . . So we end up in a strange situation where there is racism but, supposedly, no racists.  Except racism is produced by people who are racist—so if we are ever to pull apart the racist structures of our society, there must be a way to say who is propping them up” (6).

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Heuchan and Shukla’s book recognizes that institutional and individual racisms matter.

While individual racist acts exposed systemic problems in the UK, the news from the US this week highlighted the opposite problem.  One of the headlines of this week’s midterm elections was the record number of women who ran and won in their races.  Some media even called the elections the #MeToo Midterms (https://thehill.com/homenews/house/406183-women-wield-sizable-power-in-me-too-midterms), and election reports frequently mentioned the “suburban women” who helped defeat Trump-approved candidates.  Of course there is nothing racist in women running and supporting candidates for office (indeed, many of the new congresspeople are women of color).  But “suburban women” is media code for white women (here’s one report on “suburban women”: https://www.msnbc.com/stephanie-ruhle/watch/how-will-suburban-women-vote-in-the-midterms-1358101059960?v=railb&), and the #MeToo movement (which was started by an African-American woman) has been criticized for its focus on white women as well.  Just as second-wave feminism was about the middle-class, educated white woman, excluding and eliding the rights of women of color, the midterm elections reveal that white women will unite around an issue that directly affects them, but cannot extend their understanding of oppression to issues such as police brutality against African-Americans or racist and jingoistic language and threats against migrants and refugees.  The system allows racism to exist, and white women—who understand what it is like to be oppressed by that system—do not, through their individual votes, call for an end to that system.

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Curiously, even though White’s book mentions both abolition and the civil war as causes Morris supported, there is not a single African-American depicted in the book.

Again, even well-meaning children’s books can sometimes reinforce systemic racism (and classism) under the guise of individual choice.  Most children’s books about women’s suffrage show photographs of white women only, and have lines like, “only men can vote” (I Could Do That! Esther Morris Gets Women the Vote, by Linda Arms White, Farrar, Strauss and Giroux 2005).  This elides the fact that in America, African-Americans could not vote, and in Britain only rate-paying men could vote until 1918, the same year that women over 30 got the vote. An alternative approach can be found in Nosy Crow’s short story collection, Make More Noise: New Stories in Honour of the 100th Anniversary of Women’s Suffrage (2018).  Unlike many books about women’s suffrage, which focus almost exclusively on white women and their struggle, Make More Noise includes stories about all kinds of women and girls, historically and contemporaneously.  Patrice Lawrence’s story, “All Things Bright and Beautiful,” for example, tells the story of Olive Malvery, a woman of English and Indian parentage, who “came to London when she was twenty-three and was shocked by the way poorer women were treated” (83).  Lawrence’s story shows Malvery helping a young mixed-race girl who suffers not just from being poor, but from being brown.  When the young girl, Victoria, asks for an extension on her rent, her landlady tells her, “the best thing your father could have done was take you with him back to whatever country he came from!” (59).  This and other stories in the collection show that no woman has an identity based entirely on gender—so all women should band together to ensure everyone’s rights.

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Nosy Crow’s Make More Noise listens to the noise of all kinds of women, not just white suffragettes.

Racism is, or should be, unacceptable to people of all backgrounds because it harms the entire society.  But if we can’t recognize our individual racism, then we can’t fight systemic racism.  And if we don’t see the systemic, structural and institutional ways that racism is supported, then fighting individual racism will never lead to victory.  Racism will go on being acceptable, and we will all be the worse for it.