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Sorority struggle

21 July 2017


In A Split in the Sisterhood (Radio 4, Monday of last week), Anita Anand took issue with people who say that white, middle-class women are hijacking feminism

In A Split in the Sisterhood (Radio 4, Monday of last week), Anita Anand took issue with people who say that white, middle-class women are hijacking f...

YOU can study pretty much anything by correspondence nowadays, from nuclear physics to golf-course management. And now there is a course in how to exorcise your white, middle-class prejudice.

As quoted in A Split in the Sisterhood (Radio 4, Monday of last week), there is an online course “to decondition white people from the toxic burdens of white privilege and unconscious racism”; a steal at $297.

The intended market for this commercial reprogramming is white, middle-class women who steal the feminist limelight. At least, that is the contention of vociferous campaigners such as Mona Eltahawy, who recently declared that white women should “shut the f*** up”. For the presenter Anita Anand, herself a feminist historian, this strife among the Sisterhood is potentially debilitating and dispiriting.

Anand was drawn into the debate when the recent film Suffragette was the subject of protests by some feminists for its whitewashing of history. In particular, the suffragette of whom Anand was the biographer — Sophia Duleep Singh — had not merited a mention in the script.

Anand’s crime was that she did not criticise the omission; and thus she colluded in a falsifying of history which favours Pankhurst over the ethnically marginalised. Anand left it until the end of her programme to reveal the damning flaw in this reading of history: Singh was a woman of extreme privilege — a Princess, no less — and could hardly be said to have been socially excluded. Real life is thus for ever making fools of those who wish to impose their narratives on it.

There were conciliatory voices here, including the US blogger Feminista Jones, who likened the feminist movement to an orchestra, constituted of different sections which, when operating effectively, produces harmonious music. When a particular instrument seeks to dominate, however, things get ugly. And some crucial perspective was provided by the historian Rachel Holmes, who pointed out that feminism had never been a fully unified phenomenon, and that, in particular, the black feminism of the US had always had a distinct and resolute voice of its own.

The deficiencies of which Suffragette was accused might be identified in all projects that entail the adaptation from history or literature to the screen. This, at least, was the argument set out by Hilary Mantel in the last of her Reith Lectures (Radio 4, Tuesday of last week). Both of Mantel’s Booker Prizewinning novels have been adapted for television and stage; so she has no doubt had to suffer innumerable indignities as her precious prose is chopped and diced for audiences with limited resources of time or attention.

She appears to have born these abuses with good grace and is happy to admit that the cinema will do things to her drama that writing can never do. It is hard, for instance, to do anything suddenly on the page — still more so to make the reader jump. You need to give adaptations the freedom to dream the images and situations which their sources provoke. Insistence on authenticity only kills; while the job of an adaptation, like that of the historical novelist, is to resurrect.

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