Thoughts on ‘Suffragette’

Suffragette: an insulting diminutive coined in 1905 by the Daily Mail for women involved in the suffrage movement. Adopted by the WSPU as a badge of honour.
I went to see the new film about the Suffragettes on Thursday afternoon with my oldest friend. I really enjoyed the film, it was inspiring.

[There will be spoilers in this post, skip the first few paragraphs if you don’t want to know what happens. You have been warned, don’t complain.]

The story follows 24 year old, laundry forewoman Maud Watts (played by Cary Milligan) from passive observer to active participant in the WSPU’s activities. It’s set in 1912 – 1913, and covers many of the important events. Basically, a fictional character has been inserted into real events.
Maud finds herself testifying before Mr Lloyd George at a Parliamentary Select Committee, after her friend Violet is unable to do so because her violent and drunken husband has beaten her up (in 1912 it was difficult for working class people to get a divorce – this is Violet’s reason for being a Suffragette). Following her later arrest and week in prison for protesting the result of the Committee’s deliberations, and then being dropped off at home by the police after attending a rally where she meets Mrs Pankhurst (a cameo role by Meryl Streep), Maud is put out of the house by her husband, Sonny, who also works at the laundry and holds her illegitimacy over her head when he tries to guilt her into staying away from the suffrage movement. Denied access to her son, by law, Maud becomes an ardent Suffragette because she wants to change that injustice. Living in a hostel paid for by the Women’s Social and Political Union, Maud joins the more militant Suffragettes in planning ‘outrages’ – bombing post boxes and cutting telegraph wires. The women, aided by Mr Ellyn, husband and number one fan of Mrs Ellyn (Helena Bonham Carter), pharmacist to the East End and frustrated doctor who’s mother had a fight for her to get any education, unleash a wave of attacks in the early morning to prevent injury to by-standers. When the press suppress the news, they blow up Lloyd George’s almost finished and empty country house. Arrested again, Maud spends six months in prison, where she goes on hunger strike and is force fed.

Once out of prison the women are determined to make the King notice their cause. And so unfolds the final tragedy: Emily Wilding Davison’s injury and subsequent death at Epsom on Derby Day 1913 when she tried to pin a WSPU badge on the king’s horse, Anmer.

While the grand narrative of the WSPU is being played out, Maud’s personal story unfolds. The owner of the laundry is sexually assaulting her and raping Violet’s 13 year old daughter, Maggie. I got the feeling that he’s also Maud’s father, but I could be wrong. Inspector Steed, tasked with breaking the suffrage movement picks on Maud, as a new member of the WSPU, as a weak link that he can use to destroy the movement. When the Inspector has her photo published in the papers as one of Mrs Pankhurst’s violent supporters, Maud’s boss sacks her. At which point Maud hits him with a hot iron. Inspector Steed uses this as a way to coerce Maud into acting as his agent.

During all this Maud and Sonny are at odds over their son. The law says she has no right to see him, and Sonny tells little George that his mother is sick in the head. On his birthday, Maud discovers a middle class couple have adopted her son. The trauma spurs her into action and she refuses Inspector Steed’s proposal.

After Emily’s injury at the race track (she took four days to die), Maud returns in shock to London where she removes Maggie from the laundry and deposits her with a middle class member of the WSPU, Alice (Romola Garai) as a servant (at this point in time, servants were hard to find because factory work paid better and came with a day off and limits on working hours – which domestic servants didn’t have). [History Today’s review has some interesting things to say about servants and their Suffragette employers in their review of the film, here.]

Then follows the funeral and the film ends with original footage of that event and Maud reading from the book Emily Wilding Davison gave her the night before Epsom.

[For a really informative article about Davison, see here. History Today has a large collection if articles about the susuffrage movement.]

It was very a affecting film, focusing on working class women , an often ignored constituency in the history of the suffrage movement, and highlighting the brutality with which the government and police tried to suppress the movement.

I especially found the prison scenes interesting. One of the complaints of Mrs Pankhurst in her autobiography of 1914 was that they were political prisoners – she got the admission that they were being unjustly prosecuted, (before militancy set in – first window broken 1908, then truce for much of 1910/11) because the Home Secretary directed the magistrates to do so, out of witnesses at one of her trials. As political prisoners, the women were entitled to a few more freedoms in prison, including wearing their own clothes. When Maud is first imprisoned, Mrs Ellyn demands that they be treated as political prisoners. The prison wardressess ignore the demand and force the women to strip off. It’s a small detail that makes the film believable.

The depiction of force feeding, obviously based on the testimony of those who survived it, is an essential part of the film, and something I felt I had a duty to watch, even if I found it disturbing. Force feeding was supposed to be administered only to the insane if they were unable to feed themselves, and had to be approved by two doctors. People died from the practice and doctors objected to its use and to it being called ‘medical feeding’. That the government allowed the practice to be used on the Suffragettes says a lot about the attitude of the ruling classes to anyone who wants a more equal society – ‘they must be mad, after all things look fine from up here’.

The film has stirred up a lot of comment about the suffragettes and the suffrage movement generally.

One strand of commentary has it that the WSPU and other organisations were run by middle and upper class women who would vote Conservative if they got the vote, which is why the Liberal government tried so hard to suppress them. To which I say, yes, the organisations were run by middle and upper class women because they were the ones with money and time to organise movements (because servants did all the hard work) and the education to allow them to make informed arguments – working people were disadvantaged by their lack of access to high quality education then as they still are today (compulsory elementary education for 5 to 10 year olds was only introduced in the 1880’s. The school leaving age was later raised to 12. For the poor having working children bringing in extra income was a necessity, essential to survival; only the well off could afford secondary education or university). The suffrage movement was older than Lloyd George’s Liberal government. To take the most famous suffragette as an example, Mrs Pankhurst had been involved in the movement from the 1880’s, at least, and her husband, Dr. Pankhurst, who was quite a few years her senior had been involved even earlier. They had supported the Liberal candidates in election campaigns, Dr Pankhurst stood as a Liberal candidate at one time and drafted a Bill for universal suffrage. She, and many of her members, were part of Liberal party women’s organisations. They only started opposing Liberal candidates after the Liberal government repeatedly lied about granting the vote to women.

There have also been accusations that the film is racist because it ignores the ladies of the Commonwealth (it was the Empire at the time) who were involved in the movement, such as Princess Sophia Duleep Singh, a goddaughter of Queen Victoria. Firstly, the film’s about working class women, so a princess would hardly have been in the picture anyway. Someone desperately needs to make a film about the women of the Commonwealth involved in the movement; it would be really interesting to see another of the lesser known perspectives.

Secondly, I agree that the laundries and working class streets are unlikely to have had entirely white occupants, because the East End of London has been a magnet for immigrants for centuries. It struck me as odd as I watched the film that there were no non-white faces in the crowds. Being me, and interested in the accuracy of the film, I’ve been trying to find out the demographic breakdown of London in 1912 and must admit that I am struggling to find the information. The film makers surely had access to more resources than I and could have worked out the proportions to make the film representative of the actual population in 1912. On the other hand there’s a good chance that if they had done that, making the film completely accurate, someone would have accused the filmmakers of pandering to modern/PC sensibilities, or alternatively that the black and Asian characters were nominal characters, only there to stave off accusations of racism. They would have been damned either way; someone was always going to complain. Anita Anand, who has written the biography of Princess Sophia Duleep Singh [Sophia: Princess, Suffragette, Revolutionary] told The Week that she had had journalists ringing her since the film came out trying to get her to say it is a racist film.

Suffragettes held racist views, just like everyone else in their culture and society, although they were more progressive than most. To return to Emmaline Pankhurst, in her autobiography [My Own Words] she states that her parents were involved in the abolitionist movement, supporting abolitionists, slaves and former slaves in the U.S. in their struggle. Her earliest memories, she writes, are of attending meetings supporting the cause; she may still have held views we consider racist but by the standards of their own time the women (and men) of the suffrage movement were progressive radicals. The film has to reflect to reality of the suffrage  movement as it was, not as we would like it to have been.

Another complaint I’ve noticed comes predominantly from the U.S.; Mrs Pankhurst makes a speech in which she says
I’d rather be a rebel than a slave.
In the U.S., rebel = Confederate soldier, and references to slavery are a sensitive issue because black Americans are still suffering the consequences of that pernicious institution and the vile prejudices that support it.

Understandably Americans are, rightly, sensitive about the subject, and a phrase like that is loaded with meaning for them. Except that the words were said in a British film, from a speech by a British woman (played by an American actress, admittedly) to a British audience in Britain, and the film reflects that. It feels like Americans think the world revolves around them and their culture, but it doesn’t.

When making historical films, the filmmakers have a duty to portray the words of real individuals correctly and in context. The context is Britain 1912, not the U.S.; the film and its writer, director etc. do not have to pander to the modern American audience by changing the actual words spoken by an actual person over a hundred years ago. It only has a negative meaning in the U.S., not the UK where the film is set and was made. [I’m being polite; what I originally wrote was “don’t dump your cultural baggage on my history”, but I didn’t because that would be insensitive to a very real problem in the United States. From me this is tact and diplomacy, but I have to be honest, which is why I’m telling you what I originally wrote.] A film about the suffrage movement in the U.S. would also be interesting, again because of the difference perspective. One film can’t be expected to cover the whole history of a movement spanning the entire world and several centuries.

The phrase I’d rather be a rebel than a slave, in the cultural context of Edwardian (and I suspect for 21st century) Britain means the same as It’s better to die on your feet than live on your knees or I’d rather die like a lion than live like a lamb. Or even Don’t let the bastards grind you down. It’s about defying the establishment and changing the world, and being prepared to take the consequences of your actions. That’s still relevant today, and it is still an inspired and inspiring thought, for me; I see no reason to apologise for that.

And now, to finish, I highly recommend the film; the acting is great, and the story engaging. Also, you’ll learn something. Take the children with you, it’ll be good for them.

And I’ve been writing this for three hours, the entire morning has gone and I have things to do today.





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