The National Trust, Europe’s largest conservation charity, recently published a report detailing links between 93 historic properties in the UK and colonialism and the slave trade. While this move to acknowledge Britain’s culpability in the slave trade is a topic of much debate today, the ‘white washing’ of slavery still remains ignored. Ruhi Khan, PhD Researcher at LSE’s Media & Communication department, digs into history and contemporary debates to show how elites and white feminists have airbrushed slavery by trying to appropriate it for their own causes.
The history of global feminism is intertwined with the history of colonialism, and the colonial salience of gender and race has a profound impact on feminist thinking even in contemporary times.
From the time when the French, Dutch and the British had built their empires overseas, the suppression of native freedom, indigenous culture and political thought were rife. On the back of the profits from colonised lands and slave labour, Europe experienced a period of unparalleled prosperity and intellectual engagement. While certain aspects of rational thinking began to take root during the Enlightenment, they ironically tended to not extend to issues of colonisation.
My research into the histories of global feminisms shows that while early feminist treatises argued that the natural rights of ‘humans’ include both man and woman, and systematically campaigned for the rights of woman, they also ‘whitewashed’ the history of brutality and torture that Black, Asian and Aboriginal women faced during that period. This was often done by comparing the lives of women belonging to nobility and gentry with those led by slaves; thus using the inhumanity of slavery to demand greater rights and freedoms for themselves.
In her book Subject to Others, Moira Ferguson analyses texts by British women writers on slavery between 1670 and 1834 and finds that African slaves were represented as an essentialised and homogenised mass where women followed the ‘patriarchally prescribed female roles and idealised self-images: these ranged from abused victim, orphan, and grieving mother, to altruist and loyal “servant”’. Thus, the colonial ‘other’ became even further dehumanised, objectified and fetishised as a weak and marginalised entity always in need of protection and pity from western colonisers.
Ferguson argues that these elite western women writers also hesitantly and ambiguously began writing their ‘own assumed powerlessness and inferiority onto their representations of slaves’/ This historical intersection of the anti-slavery movement with the desire to secure self-empowerment was instrumental in white western bourgeois women’s demand for political rights and freedom.
Man are you capable of being just? It is a woman who poses the question; you will not deprive her of that right at least. Tell me, what gives you sovereign empire to oppress my sex?
– de Gouges, Rights of Woman (1791)
French activist Olympe de Gouges’ Declaration of the Rights of Women and Female Citizens in 1791 championed equality between the two sexes. Alongside her political writing, de Gouges was also vocal (to a much lesser extent) against the slave trade in the French colonies in the 1780s. It is therefore not surprising that her choice of words like ‘empire’ and ‘oppression’ have connotations of colonialism and slavery while being employed in the domestic politics of gender in the western context.
In 1792, British Mary Woolstonecraft published the pamphlet A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, which is seen as the foundation of the Suffrage movement in Britain.
Educated in slavish dependence, and enervated by luxury and sloth, where shall we find men who will stand forth to assert the rights of man;–or claim the privilege of moral beings, who should have but one road to excellence?
– Wollstonecraft, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman
Wollstonecraft’s depiction of a slave is one who is complicit in his or her own slavery. She saw ‘slavery’ as moral corruption, and represents women as slaves to the social, economic and legal forces that favoured man. So, she believed that a system of public co-education would serve as a solution to lead women out of ‘slavery’ into freedom and morality.
Slavery metaphors today
In contemporary society, slavery metaphors exist in debates from the coronavirus lockdown to legislation on abortion and LGBTQ rights.
In abortion debates, pro-choice advocates often use slavery metaphors to compare the situation of a pregnant woman denied access to abortion to that of a slave, while the anti-abortion movement has long seen itself as fighting for the rights of a voiceless unborn victim, who they categorise as a slave.
Law professor Andrew Koppelman argues that the legislation against abortion violates the thirteenth amendment’s guarantee of equality, because ‘forcing women to be mothers makes them into a servant caste, a group which, by virtue of a status of birth, is held subject to a special duty to serve others and not themselves’ and many parallels are drawn between the plight of mothers being denied a choice to that of the slaves having no choice.
Betsy DeVos, US Secretary of Education, has compared pro-choice supporters to those who argued in favour of keeping slavery in America. Calling abortion a ‘moral evil’, she said that even President Lincoln had to fight against immoral ‘pro-choice arguments of his day’. Black American Republican politician Ben Carson compared women who have abortions to slave masters and called abortion ‘barbaric’ and a ‘murder’. DeVos and Carson have been criticised for promoting policies that are often against women and the Black community. Yet neither hesitated to use one of the most painful periods of Black history to further their agenda against abortions. At the recent GOP convention, Carson declared: ‘What is racist is that African Americans have the highest abortion rates’, while commending President Donald Trump on his service to the anti-abortion cause. Trump’s campaign has worked hard to win popularity among the anti-abortion supporters who now regard him as their greatest champion.
Using slavery metaphors to make either a pro or anti-abortion argument today is ignoring the deeper contextual understanding of that period. Procreation was encouraged by slave owners as selling babies would add to the profitability of the trade or create a larger labour force to increase productivity on the plantations. On the other hand, enslaved women would often quietly take home-made contraception and abortion remedies to prevent conceiving a child as a form of resistance to the tyranny of forced sex by their masters.
Journalist Imani Gandy is explicit when she writes that anti-choice arguments that compare abortion to slavery are just a way to strip women of agency and co-opt the brutal racial history to score a political point against ideological foes.
Slavery metaphors are also used extensively in debates on gay rights. At a Conservative Party annual conference in Manchester in 2015, the UK Chancellor of Exchequer, George Osborne, called the legalisation of gay marriage by the Tory government a moral achievement on par with William Wilberforce’s campaign to abolish slavery. This was not just a faulty comparison but also factually incorrect. Yet it did not stop Osborne, who wanted to project an image of being a Progressive, from using slavery analogy to garner support for the Tory party from the LGBTQ community.
Another such appropriation is visible by trans men, who are often drawn to Black feminist scholars like bell hooks and Audre Lorde. They frequently cite their work on intersectionality without giving much thought to where it comes from – their experience of being Black, woman, and queer. Their work captures their lived reality of racism, sexism and gendered discrimination. Researcher Andrew Young writes in a thought provoking piece for The Feminist Wire how trans men who identify as feminists find a sense of relatability in Lorde’s work and are quick to embrace her focus on intersectionality, while forgetting white and male privilege: ‘Our tendency is to read Lorde and other feminists of colour and say, “Look at me! I’m oppressed too, even though I’m white!” Or to feel as though our oppressed trans-identities have somehow absolved us of needing to check ourselves on racist, sexist, or ableist comments and actions.’
Lorde and hooks were relentless advocates of recognising the racism that existed within feminism. Lorde argued that white feminists, by denying racism, were only bolstering the old patriarchal systems of the male white slave masters. White feminists using slave metaphors often tend to ignore this important lesson.
It is important to acknowledge that race and gender were instrumental in creating and maintaining the support system of slavery that dehumanised Black bodies for centuries and glossed over their torture and pain. This mindset that slavery promoted remains a reality even today, as evidenced by how the Black community is more susceptible to state violence and systemic racism and Black women’s bodies still serve as sites of sexual exploitation and deviant sexual representation in the online marketplace. To thus reduce the gruesome period of slavery into simple metaphors today does disservice to the pain and suffering of a community that is still fighting discrimination globally.
This article represents the views of the author, and not the position of the Media@LSE blog, nor of the London School of Economics and Political Science.