This post brought to you courtesy of Parissah and Aoife.
I’ve long had a fascination with the Pankhursts and the suffrage movement; I was reminded recently that I did a research assignment on the Pankhursts in year… 10? 11?; I’ve taught the British suffrage movement for a few years; I loved the biographies of Emmeline and of her daughter Sylvia, such different women; I’ve enjoyed other books on the movement too. I’ve wished that the 1970s tv show Shoulder to Shoulder existed on DVD, and I long to see Up the Women. So it should be no surprise that I was pretty excited to see Suffragette.
The only spoilers below are for which bits of the suffrage movement the film focuses on. If you don’t know the events, then I guess there are spoilers… and you need to go read some history. Here, this will help. If I tell you that the film starts in 1912… well, that’s a bit of a giveaway.
Just go see the film, right?
The basic premise of the film is that life is generally crap for women and maybe getting the vote will help. Which was basically the premise of the Pankhursts’ campaign, and that of Millicent Fawcett and all the campaigners for fifty or so years before the WSPU seriously made headlines. The film manages to show just about every way in which everyday life sucked for British women in 1912: unequal pay, sexual abuse in the workplace, men in control of the house – money, children – and the general notion that women are unfit for politics or anything other than menial work. (The focus is on white women, since the suffrage movement In Britain was generally; of course there was a whole other layer of problems for women of colour.) The response of most of the men to the women’s claims for equality is to be abusive or to laugh, at the very idea of it. Let’s not forget that rapper who thought Hilary Clinton shouldn’t be president because she might nuke someone because women get emotional. In 2015. Cue this:
The focus is on Maud, a 24-year-old woman who’s been a laundress since she was seven. She’s married, she has a son, and she has no time for politics – literally no time, because she works all day at the laundry and then keeps working at home. She gets caught up almost accidentally in a suffrage protest, and things progress from there in an almost textbook case of how to radicalise someone, which is an interesting thought given Australia’s current overblown fears about just that issue.
Most of the cast is fictional, as Maud is. There are a couple of notable exceptions. There’s a scene when Maud is first in prison and she’s introduced to an Emily, who’s on hunger strike. I thought nothing of it, really, until there was a list of names in the police station and suddenly the name Emily Wilding Davison flashed up and if I had been alone watching the film I would have yelped. It had not occurred to me that the film would go there.
Meryl Streep as Emmeline Pankhurst only has one significant scene, which surprised me somewhat, although as this review points out the focus on working class women is a fairly radical one and one that I really appreciated. She was appropriately grand, and again, when I saw her, I nearly yelped. They had the costuming down brilliantly, which is to be expected given how many wonderful pictures there are of Pankhurst; no idea whether they got her speech mannerisms or not, because I don’t know of any recordings of her voice.
Of the others – I liked the variety portrayed, within the limited purview of the film (that’s not a criticism; the film deliberately sets itself the task of looking at one group of women). Violet is a long-time campaigner struggling to keep the faith; Edith Ellyn, played by Helena Bonham Carter (who is wonderful AND! I discovered is the great-graddaughter of that bugger Asquith, who rejected women’s suffrage!) is a pharmacist with a loving and supportive husband. There’s a brief appearance from an upper middle-class woman who supports the campaign but whose husband is strongly against, and numerous women around the laundry and Maud’s neighbourhood who do not support it at all because of the difficulties it brings at home.
I have one significant quibble, and it’s one that I’m conflicted over. I liked that the police perspective was given; it highlighted just how anti-suffrage the establishment was, and the lengths that they were willing to go to stop the women. (The scene with the new portable camera – so light it doesn’t need a tripod! – that can be used covertly is hilarious; it’s still a shoebox.) However. However. Why is it that a film about the suffrage movement needed a male perspective? Because that’s exactly what Brendan Gleeson is providing, by being the copper who talks to Maud and is always present when something big is happening on the streets; he’s a male point of view on the proceedings. Could it be that a significant portion of the audience still couldn’t care less about the experiences of a person like Maud – poor, uneducated, female? I’m troubled by this, and it’s the one aspect that made me sad (about the film experience, I mean. There was a lot that made me sad). The film could have shown the police in general, as they prepare to battle the women on the streets; that would have got across the same point without it feeling like Gleeson’s character was an alternate viewpoint on the events.
I’ve also read comments about it being disappointing that there are no people of colour in the film at all, which I think is absolutely a fair call. From the perspective of suffrage history, yes there were women of colour involved but the records about individual members, regardless of race, are pretty sparse so as far as I know it’s not clear what the proportions are. I don’t know what the solution to this could have been (not an excuse, just a comment).
I’ve read a review that suggests Maud is basically a cipher, a stand-in, and not a really person – and to an extent I agree. I mean, basically everything bad that could happen to her, does, and she’s involved in just about everything interesting (well, public anyway) that happens in the suffrage movement in 1912 and 1913. But I don’t think this is a bad thing necessarily. The film is called Suffragette. The only way to really convey the experience of ordinary women in the struggle is exactly like this – to show one woman, experiencing it. I think Maud is intended to stand in for white working class women in 1912 who started thinking about politics, and she does it well.
At the end of the film, there’s a potted history of when different countries gave women the vote; the cinema erupted when Switzerland came up as 1971.
It’s also only I think the second time I’ve been in a cinema when there was applause when the film concluded.
Overall I think this a welcome addition to films about women’s history… since the list of films about women’s history, and feminist history, is a pretty short one. Next I would like to order films about Olympe de Gouges, and one about Mary Wollstonecraft kthxbai.
In fourteen fairly short articles, this survey covers a wide range of generally lesser-known topics of the movement for women’s suffrage in Britain. It covers things like the drama, poetry and fiction that came out in support of the suffrage movement; some of the lesser known societies, especially during WW1; the actions outside of London, and those undertaken by working-class women; and the continuing work after 1918 to get the franchise on the same terms as men had it (women over 30 who were householders could vote after 1918; men over 21 could vote). The only chapter that covered things I already basically knew was one on Christabel Pankhurst, who along with her mother Emmeline is probably the most well-known of all suffrage activists.
I learnt an enormous amount about the activities undertaken as well as people’s attitudes. I had always assumed there was a basic oppositional dichotomy between the suffragists (constitutional activists) and the suffragettes (militant activists); not so. Friendships networks were at least if not more important for many women than their ‘official’ societal associations. I also really appreciated reading about some of the literary men who contributed towards the movement; it’s salutary to be reminded that the women weren’t fighting against the entirety of the male population, and that those who opposed women’s suffrage were, eventually, quite a minority.
The depressing part of the story overall is that so many of the issues raised against women voting, and having any position in public life, are frighteningly recognisable in contemporary discourse. A hundred years ago. Seriously.