‘Although women did eventually gain the vote, so much of this film still feels painfully familiar’
Do women really deserve the vote? This is not a question that Suffragette, the new film from screenwriter Abi Morgan and director Sarah Gavron, sets out to answer. But, nevertheless, the question – and all the reasons why women shouldn’t be given the franchise – are threaded through the film, set from 1908 to 1913. Women are too hysterical, too over-emotional, too easily distracted by trivialities. They can’t be trusted to exercise their democratic rights with the proper rationality. In any case, aren’t women adequately represented by their fathers, their husbands? Who’s to say women would act in their own best interests, anyway? And let’s not forget the “soft power” women wield, by influencing their powerful men. Isn’t that enough for them?
Well, no, it wasn’t. Selina Cooper, a mill worker and Suffragette, wrote at the time in the Wigan Observer, that “[w]omen do not want their political power to enable them to boast that they are on equal terms with the men. They want to use it for the same purpose as men – to get better conditions. Every woman in England is longing for her political freedom in order to make the lot of the worker more pleasant and to bring about reforms which are wanted. We do not want it as a mere plaything.”
A week or so after I attended a screening of Suffragette, the Labour leadership contest finally came to an end, with the election of three men to the most senior roles in the party: leader, deputy leader and candidate for Mayor of London. Sure, it was a shame none of the women had been elected – and it was particularly strange that Diane Abbott, closest to Jeremy Corbyn on policy, hadn’t done better, but surely Corbyn would make up for it in his Shadow Cabinet? But then the appointments came, and one by one, more male names were announced.
Those of us who protested that the supposed new politics was looking rather like the old politics, were given short shrift. The Shadow Cabinet is now gender equal, we were informed (the numbers were made up in the more junior positions – giving an unfortunate impression of scrambling), and Health and Education are the most important posts (despite being announced after the Great Offices of State). Why is the representation of women so important to you – don’t you understand that it’s policy that matters? These men will represent our interests – could the same be said for the available women? It all felt a little too retro. The thing is, while these men may well have the best of intentions, the history of the left, and of revolution, is littered with broken promises made to women.
Trade unions, formed to represent workers, too often in reality represented only male workers – some even standing against equal-pay legislation. In the United States, the radical feminist and left-wing activist Shulamith Firestone became so impatient with left-wing men’s attitude to women (Stokely Carmichael, the prominent civil-rights revolutionary, for example, famously stated that the only position for women in the movement was “prone”) that she told “the Left” to “fuck off”, announcing that “You can examine your navel by yourself from now on. We’re starting our own movement.” In more recent history we only have to look at the Arab Spring, and how one revolution after another has left, or even shoved, women behind – particularly galling given the crucial role women played at their beginnings.
This is not, of course, to say that women will represent women’s interests simply because they are women. One of the pleasing curiosities of Suffragette is that Helena Bonham Carter, who plays Edith, a frustrated doctor-cum-Suffragette chemist, is actually granddaughter to Violet Asquith, daughter to the prime minister at the time the film is set – and Violet was vocally against women’s suffrage. But the fact that some women were against the vote, or that some women are against abortion for that matter, does not mean they should be barred from power until proven to work in women’s interests. In her book Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg talks about how, when she got pregnant while working at Google, she struggled to walk across the company car park. Sandberg was in a senior enough position to tell her superiors to create pregnancy parking – and they did, noting that the idea had never even occurred to them. And why should it? It hadn’t occurred to Sandberg until she herself needed it.
Pregnancy parking is not going to change the world overnight, but it does illustrate that you don’t have to share the experience, the worldview of another woman, to benefit from her power. You don’t even have to like her. But if you’re a woman working at Google who gets pregnant, you will benefit from the fact that there was a woman at the top.
Of course, one woman, and a woman of relative privilege at that, is not enough, even if she does institute pregnancy parking. Sandberg does not have experience of the struggles a black woman working at Google might face, or a working-class woman. But neither do working-class or black men. What we need are for women of all classes, races, abilities to have the opportunity to represent themselves, so that power can truly serve the people. This was understood by the East London Federation of Suffragettes (Elfs), who, led by Sylvia Pankhurst, ultimately split from the middle-class-dominated Women’s Social and Political Union – in part because of a resistance from the WSPU to allow working-class women to hold positions of power and speak for themselves. The Elfs understood the vote as part of a wider struggle against the discrimination of women: gaining a voice was not merely an end in itself, but a tool to transform women’s lives.
And, at heart, this is what Suffragette is about. It is about a woman finding her voice – and a working-class woman at that. Indeed, one of the most refreshing things about this film is not just that it is dominated by women’s lives, so unusual in a film industry where women make up only 28 per cent of speaking roles, but also that it is a story about the Suffragettes that focuses on working-class women.
The story of the Suffragettes has been told to us as a story of middle and upper-class women, wearing white. The images of these white-clad soldiers are, as they were intended to be, striking. But white was an option only available to women who had more than one dress, and servants to keep it clean for them. Working-class women had neither the means nor the time to own a white dress – even if it meant not being recorded by the cameras. Working-class women were also less likely to be educated and therefore less able to keep diaries of their actions. They also lacked the time: many of them were the main breadwinners in their families, as well as chief scrubber and child-carer at home.
When Morgan came to write the script, she originally focused the story on Alice, an upper-class Suffragette played by Romola Garai. But, she says, “it felt very narrow. And then Sarah and I started to stumble on tiny little news articles” that referenced working-class women. Like the Elfs, they started to think about “the direct relationship between economic poverty and the inequality of women”. And so Maud (played by Carey Mulligan), who had originally been a minor part, a laundress who visited Alice’s house, switches with Alice to become the main focus.
By following Maud’s story, Morgan’s screenplay contextualises the fight for women’s suffrage within the wider fight for women’s rights. It’s very subtle, nothing is shoved in your face. It’s just there: Maud’s struggle to “have it all” – job, childcare, housework – before it became middle-class and aspirational; her sexually abusive boss who is in the process of moving on to younger meat; her husband, Sonny, played by Ben Whishaw, not a monster, just your average turn-of-the-century husband, to whom she hands over her wages and who has the power to take away her son and render her homeless.
The powerlessness of women in the face of their husbands is an issue that crosses class boundaries. After Maud’s first arrest, she is lined up against a wall in the police station with her fellow working-class Suffragettes. The camera pans over to a counter where a man is writing a cheque to the policeman behind it. Standing next to the man is Alice. She pleads with her husband to write a cheque to free all the women. When he refuses, she protests that it’s her money. He makes no verbal response, merely manhandles her out of the room. The message is clear: Alice may not be spending the night in police custody, but she is not free either.
Nevertheless, she does escape a prison cell – and, even if she hadn’t, the likelihood was that she would have received better treatment than the women lining the wall. The disparity, although denied by prison authorities, was brought to light by Lady Constance Lytton, who kept being released from prison without being force-fed (Suffragettes went on hunger strike to protest against being imprisoned as criminals rather than political prisoners), as a result of her heart condition. She did not believe that her treatment had nothing to do with her class, so she went to a Suffragette protest disguised as plain Jane Warton. She was arrested, force-fed until she vomited, and then slapped on the face by the prison doctor. The force- feeding continued for several days, until her true identity was revealed – at which point her heart condition suddenly seemed to matter again, and she was released. She was to die not long after.
Lytton was not the only woman to die for the cause. The film ends with archive footage of Emily Wilding Davison’s funeral – the Suffragette who threw herself in front of the King’s horse at the Epsom Derby in 1913. Opinion is divided as to whether Wilding Davison intended to kill herself – and Suffragette leaves this open to interpretation. Whatever her intentions, however, what is clear is that this was an act of desperation. “Although there were MPs who were supportive,” says Morgan, “on the whole, the media and Westminster suppressed these voices.” The women’s increasing militancy is a mark of their increasing desperation to be heard. With the death of Wilding Davison, that aim was achieved.
But although women did eventually gain the vote, so much of this film still feels painfully familiar. Women are still being sexually abused, still being pathologised as hysterical, still being locked out of positions of power and ridiculed for caring. Of deciding to tell Maud’s story, her struggles, Morgan says, “It felt very 21st century in a way.” It certainly does.