Lehan: Gift Shop Politics

Yesterday’s activists may still have a place in today’s feminist discourse.

by Sarah Lehan | 4/5/18 1:00am

“I don’t normally shop,” I said apologetically. As item upon item stacked by the till, I’m not sure the cashier believed me.

It was a drizzly Sunday in early March, the week before International Women’s Day, and I had just raided the Museum of London gift store. My goal to see the museum chronologically meant that I had gone inch-by-inch through Celtic axe heads and Roman trepanning drills, but had not seen anything post-1066. Nevertheless, the gift store section that most attracted me accompanied the centenary celebration of women’s suffrage in the U.K. I was chagrined. How could I buy merchandise on an exhibit I hadn’t seen? And just what, now that the vote had been won, did the suffragettes offer today’s society?

But I decided to silence my inner dogmatist. This visit was my third to the museum; I had considered these purchases for two weeks now. Besides, I would see the exhibit eventually. Now that I’d traversed 451,016 years, what were 902 more?

Three minutes before closing, I re-entered the drizzle laden as a camel. One tea mug, four postcards, one umbrella, one deck of cards, one five-by-eight notecard and one book for my goddaughter — together, they made up a flurry of green, gold, and purple that cost me two weeks of my internship stipend (although, in my defense, said stipend is £35 a week).

As I began my walk home, I wondered why, of all London’s history, the suffrage movement and its trinkets so pulled me. Luckily, a five-mile walk in the dark with a dead phone provided plenty of opportunity for thought.

In some ways, women’s suffrage is to modern activism as petticoats are to thongs or as corsets are to Spanx: woefully obsolete. Women won the vote decades — no, a century — ago. To saunter down the street with a “Votes for Women” umbrella when so much injustice remains seems disingenuous. Why doesn’t my umbrella demand “Equal Pay for Women”? Or “Work Without Sexual Assault”? Emmeline Pankhurst, social justice activists might say, is so 1918.

And not just for its agenda. The movement’s very constituency is anathema to modern social justice discourse. Predominantly white and middle-class, the British movement was far from intersectional. The American movement was worse: though leaders included black women like Ida B. Wells and, before her death in 1883, Sojourner Truth, the movement tilted toward abject racism after the passage of the 15th Amendment in 1870. Upset that Congress had enfranchised black men but not white women, activists like Carrie Chapman Catt appealed to southern white women with the idea that their vote could counteract those of black men. The organizers of a suffrage parade demanded in 1913 that black women march either at the back of the protest or not at all. Not all white leaders felt this way — Amelia Bloomer, for example, fought the racism — but fear that black support would taint success contaminated suffrage strategy.

I only researched these details later. That walk home, all I had was high school history and a tea cup painted with protesters, all of whom were white. I felt ashamed — all too familiarly, the fight against one discrimination had propagated another.

What was I to do? Should I scrub my tea mug, shake my umbrella, walk back to London Wall and drop them back by the till? Or could I keep my merchandise in good conscience?

I chose the latter. And even though I didn’t have time to finish the museum before I left, I will be back as soon as I can to see the exhibit and its gift shop in all its complexity. Because that’s how the suffragettes should be remembered and celebrated: as humans who achieved great success despite their flaws. Without their courage and persistence, imperfections and all, today’s issues could never be fought — and not just because women were barred from the ballot box. Before women’s enfranchisement, society deemed the female sex apolitical, born for the demands of the home. Suffrage was the culmination of a long campaign for women’s rights that, among other victories, secured the right to divorce and to hold property. Until the late nineteenth century, “respectable” women in the U.S. and U.K. could not even walk the streets unaccompanied.

Much has changed this past century, and many of those changes should be acknowledged and appreciated.

But much remains that should change. And in that regard, my tea mug and umbrella are daily reminders to remember what 1918 offers 2018.

First, change is possible. In this contentious political climate, it is easy to feel static. A look at the last century shows not only what the world has gained, but all that it can gain. Society can and has shifted drastically. Have hope.

But secondly, change is hard. Winning the vote took decades — decades of signs, sashes and speeches, yes, but also jail time, hunger strikes and Emily Davison’s death under the hooves of King George V’s horse. Change that today seems a matter of course — women have officially won the vote everywhere but Vatican City — was then a radical step taken through radical measures. As someone who tilts towards moderation, at times excessively, this insight is invaluable, as is the idea that flawed individuals can still engender great positive change. Each time I open my new umbrella, I will be reminded to keep an open mind.

The upshot? While petticoats and corsets may be outmoded, suffrage history is most definitely not. Celebrate it. Criticize it. Seek to understand it.

And remember it, with every cup of tea.

LeHan is a member of the Class of 2020.

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