Suffragette- some thoughts
Suffragette describes the story of women’s activist organisations at the beginning of the 20th century in the UK who advocated and fought for the right of women to vote in elections.
There was a lot of criticism of this film. Some said it was historically inaccurate, some said it was not relevant, some said it was bad art. Others found it really good. I found it necessary.
So, was it historically inaccurate?
The suffragettes were mostly women of the upper classes who were frustrated with their financial dependency on men. However, instead of focusing on some of the real-life famous women who led the movement, the film traces the story of a fictional character called Maud played by Carey Mulligan, who was poor and working at a launderette. Is this important? First, the film never claimed to be a true story. It is a fictional story based on fictional character. Second, the upper class women who led the movement are indeed featured, in the face of Emmeline Pamkhurst (played by Meryl Streep), who gave an inspiring speech in the film. They are also featured in the face of the wife of a politician. When she was arrested and her husband went to pay bail at the prison to release her, she asks him to pay bail for all the imprisoned suffragettes. “It’s my money”, she tells him. “It’s my money”. He refuses, as he is the only one allowed by law at the time to sign checks. So, no, I would say that the fact that the main film character comes from the working classes does not make the film historically inaccurate. All the historical elements are there, in the background. In fact, the focus on a working class woman was successful. Working class women did participate in the suffragette movement. And they even had a lot more to lose through their participation compared to the higher classes women.
Others said that the film was focused on a too short period of time of the suffragette movement, i.e. the period when the women were more militant, between 1912-1913. The critics say that these militant tactics did not really manage to lead to the granting of the right to vote to women. It is only after the first world war, when the movement focused on diplomacy rather than militant actions that women succeeded in getting the right to vote. The critics argue that the militant part of the movement was unsuccessful, that only diplomacy won in the end. Historically it is accurate that women in the UK did not get the vote until 1918. It is also true that after 1913 the suffragettes focused more on politics rather than militant activism. But what seems intensely unfair is the disconnection between the two phases of the movement.
The film shows very well that the suffragettes were finding it impossible to be heard. They were not heard at home or at work. They were not heard by the politicians. The film shows very successfully that when the women tried to march peacefully, the police attacked them viciously so that they “don’t come back anymore”. They were arrested and went on hunger strikes in prison. They were violently force-fed. Still nobody listened. Even when they blew up the summerhouse of a politician, it was only reported in 2 vague lines in the newspapers.
It was only when one suffragette, Emily Davison died while trying to pin a “Votes for Women” banner on the King’s horse at the Derby in 1913 that the suffragettes’ actions became more widely known and reported in the press. And that was the point at which the film ended. It did not go on to show the advocacy/political phase.
But it would seem that the main message of the film was that, if these activists did not throw stones, break shop windows, blew up things…if they were not beaten, imprisoned, tortured, abused…if they were not brave and sacrificed their lives, they would most likely have not been heard for years and years. “Deeds not words” was their slogan. Why? Because words did not work at that time. What these militant suffragettes achieved was to give the movement a voice, to make it visible. It was because of their actions and their personal sacrifices that the advocacy worked later on. These women had nothing to lose. They were disgraced at their homes, in society, they were abandoned by their husbands, lost their children, fired from work. They did not have a voice that they risked losing. They did not even have the potential to have a voice that they risked losing. On the contrary, they gained a voice for them, for the ones that followed, for all of us, though their actions.
So, indeed, it would be very unfair to say that the film was not historically inaccurate.
Now was the film not relevant? What is the point of a film on suffrage, a right that women had in the UK since 1918, in Belgium since 1948? Maybe because in Saudi Arabia, the right for women to vote will only be granted this year?
Or maybe because equality between men and women is still far off? Progress to close the gender pay gap around the world has all but stopped since the 2008 economic crash and it will be more than 100 years before women can expect equal pay with men, according to the latest global figures. How can this be possible? How can this be acceptable?
The suffragette movement, which was the first wave of feminism, was one of the first battles of the feminist movement. But the battle is far from over. The film was not therefore a mere historical depiction of the suffragette movement. It was mostly a film about the struggles of the feminist movement, about how agendas are pushed forward, about how rights are won. It was a film about how, for advocacy to work, activists must first pave the way forward.
Maybe feminism is lately drowning in politeness, in promises, in always giving way for other, more urgent things. Another 100 years to get equal pay, which is the simplest form of equality, is not ok. Maybe it’s time to get angry. And maybe Suffragette was a reminder of that. And please don’t misread this. No one is suggesting to engage in violence etc. What seems more and more obvious however, is that it is difficult for polite advocacy to provide results by itself.
And it is for these reasons that this film seemed to me to have been necessary. It served as a reminder at a time when the feminist movement needed to be reminded of its history.