They All Must Fall: Does the racism of white suffragettes mean their statues must also come down?

By: Tommy J. Curry
(Join Professor Tommy J. Curry for the second event in the Edinburgh Race Lecture series).

Removing the statuses 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 removal of Cecil Rhodes at Oxford, and the call to remove monuments of past U.S. presidents and statesmen have become commonplace as calls for decolonization 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 the 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 was not immune to the myth of a superior British national culture and empire. The historian Antoinette Burden 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 and primitive in need of civilization.

American suffragettes of the 19th century often made alliances with white racists to advance their cause for women’s rights. In 1868, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony founded The Revolution with the support of the pro-slavery democrat George Francis Train to specifically fight against the enfranchisement of Black men.

Stanton insisted that enfranchised Black men would oppress white women. “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,” writes Stanton.

Belle Kearney, a Mississippian suffragette, 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 Cecil Rhodes or Edward 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 civilize all those who did not possess white skin. Knowing this, will we have to courage to remove memorials honoring the idols of women’s rights for their racism and role in imperial conquest?



Image: Johnny Cyprus / CC BY-SA (