Removing the statues of racist icons throughout the United Kingdom and the United States has become a movement unto itself. The toppling of the Edward Colston monument in Bristol, the potential removal of Cecil Rhodes at Oxford and the call to remove monuments of past US presidents and statesmen have become commonplace as calls for decolonisation come to the fore.
But what happens when it is our heroines rather than our heroes being asked to make amends for their histories of racism and imperialism? Many suffragettes believed in the inferiority of other races and participated in colonialism.
The project of global white supremacy often required the support of white women and used the language of women’s rights to justify the oppression of blacks and imperial conquest throughout Asia.
The British feminism of the late 19th century was not immune to the myth of a superior British culture and empire. The historian Antoinette Burton explains that British feminists such as Millicent Fawcett, Josephine Butler and Mary Carpenter built an image of womanhood deserving of suffrage by embracing the idea of Indian women as enslaved, primitive and in need of civilisation.
American feminists of the 19th century often made alliances with white racists to advance their cause. In 1868, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B Anthony founded The Revolution newspaper with support from the pro-slavery businessman George Francis Train to fight the enfranchisement of black men.
Stanton insisted that enfranchised black men would oppress white women. She wrote: “If woman finds it hard to bear the oppressive laws of a few Saxon Fathers, of the best orders of manhood, what may she not be called to endure when all the lower orders, natives and foreigners, Dutch, Irish, Chinese, and African, legislate for her daughters.” Belle Kearney, a Mississippian suffrage leader, wrote in 1903 that “the enfranchisement of women would insure immediate and durable white supremacy, honestly attained”. Will these women be held to the same standard as Rhodes or Colston?
The history of suffrage was no less racist or imperialist than any other aspect of American or British history. The allure of white supremacy seduced white men and white women into believing that they were destined to rule over the darker world and civilise all those who did not possess white skin. Knowing this, will we have the courage to remove memorials honouring the idols of women’s rights for their racism and role in imperial conquest?
Tommy J Curry