Suffragette retells the story of the early 20th century movement for women’s suffrage from the point of view of East London laundry worker Maud Watts (Carey Mulligan).
Maud is gradually drawn into the movement, as she tries to make sense of childhood trauma and overcome the grim restrictions of wage slavery. The film shows a selection of historical events in the year or so leading up to Emily Wilding Davison’s “sacrificial act”, stepping in front of King George V’s horse at the Epsom Derby in June 1913.
In school history lessons we are told that the suffragettes were feisty but also overwhelmingly white, middle- and upper-class “ladies”. We may not have been told that working-class women also wanted, and fought for, the right to vote. That the film-makers choose to foreground the biography of a working-class woman is an unusual and commendable choice. It is good that a mainstream film has brought a less well-known side of history to light, including some of the terrible realities of life for working class women (domestic abuse, sexual abuse at work). However, this film is not without flaws.
I attended a special showing of the film organised by Feminist Fightback at the Genesis cinema in Stepney. As the speakers — historian Laura Schwartz and Feminist Fightback activist Alice Robson — pointed out in after-film talk, the film almost completely leaves out important dimensions of the suffrage movement, as they would have been experienced by women like Maud, in the very streets near where the film was being shown. In east London, and elsewhere in England, working-class women campaigned for the vote, but they did this alongside male comrades of the socialist and labour movements. This was not shown in the film.
Also absent is Sylvia Pankhurst, the suffragette who would become the most consistent fighter for working-class women’s political and social rights. By 1912 she was already active in east London but moving away from the “commandist” rule her mother and sister, Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst, had over the Women’s Social and Political Union. Sylvia gets but a brief mention in the film. That said, the film portrays Emmeline Pankhurst (played by Meryl Streep) as a strange, cult-like figure so, to be fair, the real texture of the movement is represented in this film.
Perhaps most problematic is the way Maud’s working-class community is portrayed. Yes, domestic violence, alienation and depression would have been a big part of the reality. But the way Maud is completely ostracised when she takes up the cause and is thrown out of the house by her husband strikes a false note. She would have had a friend, or neighbour, or workmate somewhere in that community willing to take her in.
As Laura and Alice pointed out, a history that is just for the archives is not much good to us. It needs to be an inspiration to take action in the here and now. For the kind of protest Sisters Uncut took at the film’s premiere, to draw attention to cuts in domestic violence services.
Equally, dragging history out of the library vault only to appropriate it in an uncritical way is also a problem. Laura’s talk discussed the criticism that has been made by film maker’s use of the slogan “I’d rather be a rebel than a slave” — without, she says “considering its racist origins and contemporary resonances.”
Laura described how white British feminists “argued for political rights for themselves, on the grounds that this would better enable them to play their part in Empire and/or ‘rescue’ their ‘sisters’ in the colonised territories from oppression at the hands of more ‘backward’ societies.”
But, that all said, is Suffragette still an inspiration? I think it is. If you are not incensed by the brutal class intransigeance of the establishment, the all-male plutocracy of the House of Commons and the lackeys of the state, its prison wardens, the force feeding of imprisoned suffragettes, then you have a very hard heart.
The increasing frustration of the suffragettes and growing “militancy” is also well depicted. It is not the militancy that Sylvia followed, deeply committed political intransigence for and alongside working-class women. It is the militancy of smashing windows and blowing up a government Minister’s country home, an attempt to physically force the all male plutocracy in the House of Commons to listen.
In its historical context, this kind of militancy feels both understandable and necessary. Judging by the cheers and clapping at those dramatic points in the screening, I was not alone in those thoughts.
• Laura Schwartz on the class and race politics of the film, and other articles