Suffragette Chronicals

Historical Suffragettes: Maya Angelou

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I am SO excited to be writing about this extraordinarily colourful and intensely genuine woman. Most recognisable as the poet of ‘Still I Rise’ (often quoted out of context on hipster and faux-feminist instagram posts), Maya Angelou (1928-2014) was an acclaimed performer and writer of many forms, and a social activist with a powerful voice. The more I read her work, the more I love her.

I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

I’ve only just come across her seven autobiographies, and my god, I am obsessed! It isn’t her tragic childhood in southern segregated America that inspired me, nor is it her triumph as an adult making her mark on the world (although it goes without saying that both aspects touched my heart). It is her character that really strikes me – despite her flaws, she’s so contagious, so absorbing a story-teller, someone who is able to capture the best in others, and someone who really demonstrates how perspective and reflection can really change the way our lives fold out.

I am not religious anymore, but I genuinely believe that it’s a massive historical blaspheme that God has been represented as an old white man rather than a black woman. I don’t mean this patronizingly at all, but the women Maya talks about in her story have such soul, such character, such integrity and kindness under the insult of racial bigotry, I believe that is the real image of what God looks like. Oh gosh, I could gush even more, and should probably stop before I offend someone, but seriously, Maya is a supremely unique and incredible woman. It is a special thing when you come across someone who lights a fire in you that cannot be put out. Even better when it’s a person you know personally (and I know a few!).

I first read her final book “Me & Mom & Me“, as an Our Shared Shelf monthly feminist book discussion. I was first intrigued by her ability to remember details and feelings so acutely that they didn’t seem made-up or exaggerated for the sake of filling up a page. Her ability to give and receive love and capture the integrity of the people in her life – no matter how minor a character.

Don’t get me wrong. Maya Angelou wasn’t perfect. She is, unfortunately, painted as such by many people who don’t know her, but to say she is so would dismiss everything she stood for. Having just written about perfection in my last post, I really wonder whether saying this of Emma Watson could be construed the same way. But Watson and Angelou came from vary different backgrounds and circumstances – despite their shared vision and inspirational lives.

I recently finished Angelou’s first autobiography, “I know why the Caged Bird Sings“, which is undoubtedly her most famous, if not her most painful and moving memoir. Her interpretation of segregation in the south isn’t a new concept (although it probably was when it was first published in 1969), but WOW the resilience of her people, and her spirit! I wonder if people like myself with the luxuries and privilege of being white and middle class could ever cope with that sort of mistreatment.

Gushing aside, what makes Maya who she is? What can we feminists learn from her? I think in particular, it’s the power of voice, and the power of forgiveness. As a black woman, her story in particular highlights the importance of remembering the struggle but forgiving those who put you through it.

Throughout her illustrious career in letters, Maya Angelo gifted, healed, and inspired the world with her words. The beauty and spirit of those words live on in this new and complete collection of poetry that reflects and honors the writer’s remarkable life.

There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.

Continue reading

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Suffragette Chronicals

Historical Suffragettes: Ms Pankhurst

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I’m a little late on the posting schedule today, but I really wanted to think this blog post through. I might come across as having an adamantly single view on this topic, but I promise you, I’m open to discussion!

In every wave of feminism over the last 100 years, there is a figure who stands out as the face of the movement at that time. For the first wave of feminism in the early 20th century, that person was Emmeline Pankhurst. A warrior in a corset, Pankhurst was possibly the most critical political and social agitator in the 20th century.

I first became aware of the significance of Emmeline Pankhurst when Meryl Streep portrayed her in the movie Suffragette in 2015. She was in the movie for a whole 5 minutes, so you didn’t really get to know much about her apart from the fact that a) she was the head of the Suffragette movement in Britain, b) she had been arrested quite a bit c) she encouraged the use of force when peaceful protesting wasn’t working and d) for that, she was a controversial protagonist in many ways.

When the movement for Women’s rights wasn’t making progression, Pankhurst encouraged adopting the man’s method in order to make women’s voices heard: Violence.

Deeds not Words

This was a commentary about reform. Fight back. Make the news. Give them a taste of their own medicine. Sounds pretty terrible, but if you think about it, women engaged in peaceful protest were already being arrested, tortured, beaten by the police, and with little success; it would have been madness to continue with the same methods and expect a different result. I have to note that that this message didn’t involve murder. No one died – at least until Emily Davison stepped in front of the King’s Horse at Ascot 1913 and accidentally did. It did mark a turning point in the movement though – her death gained international attention and coverage and forwarded the movement.

As mad as it sounds, while it looked like suicide, Davison was simply trying to attach a Suffragette banner to the moving horse. A risky move, but it’s clear she was prepared to go to considerable lengths to make a statement. And she did so, as part of the struggle against the inequalities of society, in the face of hostility, imprisonment and violence. It raises the question of what we would be prepared to die for.

I have made speeches urging women to adopt methods of rebellion such as have been adopted by men in every revolution. – Emmeline Pankhurst

This resonates with the biblical belief that faith without works is dead, as seen through Jesus’ death for humanity. So can we really blame her?

Violence aside, ‘deeds not words’ teaches us that we need to walk our talk. Make whatever we believe in our lives and passion and commit to it through real action. It may open doors for persecution and hate, but this is all part of the struggle for change. Where in the old days people would stand on a soapbox in the street and yell out revelations, today we have social media in which to vocalise our thoughts, and these messages spread faster and further. A certain responsibility is necessary with this power. If the message isn’t ethical, moral or promoting the advancement or equality of all people, this tool can be more of a curse than a blessing. In the case of taking action, many people are keen to step up and help others out but often for the wrong reasons. For example, there is a problem of ‘voluntourism’ where well-meaning folk sign up to volunteer for people in need – particularly in impoverished and diseased places – but often end up providing superficial service dedicated to the social media experience rather than the goal of making a genuine difference. Now while I certainly don’t want to bag anyone willing to give up time for a good cause, and any sort of charity or volunteering is gratefully required, these people often end up being more of a burden than a help for the organisations they are working for. Similarly, most volunteers travel in summer time, so during winter these people and places can be desperately under-staffed.

Discipline. Sacrifice. Commitment. I know how hard this is! I’ve often flaked or half-heartedly committed to something. I wouldn’t expect everyone to drop their full-time job and travel to Kenya for a full year of intense volunteering in order to convince me they’re committed to the cause. I also wouldn’t expect anyone to die for it. But I have promised myself that whether I end up volunteering for or sponsoring a woman, or a community of women, I will travel during winter, or keep up sponsorship for as long as I agreed to sign up for. Our actions should not be the case of ‘lip service’, or because of ‘duty’, or when one is in the mood. If you want to make a meaningful contribution to the world, it’s simply a matter of following through with a promise. It doesn’t even have to be volunteering! It could be keeping a blog alive. Or donating money, time or skill without complaint. Or standing up for something that matters to you.

But whatever the circumstance, please, please don’t die for any cause!

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