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Suffragette (2015, dir. Sarah Gavron, screenplay by Abi Morgan) tells the story of Lower Class laundress Maud Bates (Carey Mulligan) who gets drawn into the world of the militant women’s suffrage movement in Britain around 1912. The film explores the struggles that the Suffragetttes encountered and the extremes they went to in order to be heard.


The film does a very good job of addressing the issue of class. Maud and her friend Violet (Anne-Marie Duff) are working wives at a time when respectable women were not supposed to be work outside the home. Maud and her husband Sonny (Ben Whishaw) live in a very tiny apartment on a street filled with other Lower Class families. The film makes a point of exploring the power that Maud and Violet’s boss exercises over their lives, and when Violet loses her job, her 14 year old daughter is left as the only breadwinner in the family. Later in the film, Violet tells Maud that she is pregnant again in a scene that drives home the despair of poor women who know they cannot support another baby.

In the film’s most heartbreaking (if somewhat unlikely) scene, Maud learns that Sonny has decided to give away their son George because he cannot take care of the boy all alone. The couple he has found are clearly Middle Class, so there is a sense that this childless couple is using their class privilege to get a child at Maud’s expense.

The film clearly acknowledges the role that Lower Class women played in the Suffragette movement, which serves as a helpful corrective to the common idea that the Suffragettes were mainly a group of Middle and Upper Class women. The film doesn’t try to explore the tensions that might have existed between the two classes in the movement, but it’s nice that the film decided to make class a major theme.

The film, however, has been widely criticized for excluding minorities. For example, Hanna Flint has raised the issue, pointing out that Indian women participated in the Suffragette movement. The most prominent example is Sophia Duleep Singh, daughter of the last Maharaja of Punjab, who not only vigorously campaigned for the movement but was also a prominent financial supporter of it. Flint also points out that the film essentially whitewashes the Indians out of Bethnall Green, Maud and Violet’s neighborhood.


Princess Sophia selling Suffragette newspapers


The film-makers have responded to these criticisms. Abi Morgan certainly knew about Princess Sophia; in an interview, she mentions a biography of Sophia as one of three books she read about the Suffragettes before writing the script. Director Sarah Gavron has acknowledged some of the criticism in an op-ed. She argues that they chose to omit Princess Sophia and other Indian women for two reasons. First, the film was focused on Lower Class women, and Sophia and the other major Indian Suffragette, Bhikaiji Cama, were Upper Class, and because the records of the period do not show evidence of substantial minority participation in the more militant end of the Suffrage movement. The one known photo of Indian women protesting for suffrage dates to a year before the events of the film and depicts a non-militant protest. And Duff insisted to Hanna Flint that there were in fact women of color in the laundry scenes, although I didn’t notice them and Flint points out that their names don’t appear in published cast lists.



Indian women protesting for Suffrage at George V’s coronation in 1911


So the omission of women of color was not born out of ignorance, but was rather a conscious decision on Gavron’s part. In her opinion, there were not enough Lower Class Indian women involved in the movement to justify their inclusion in the film. While her choice is problematic because it produces an all-white cast at a time when there is a strong push for more racially-inclusive film-making, as a historian, I can respect the fact that she made her choice based on what she thought was the best evidence available and the explicit focus of the film.

On the other hand, it’s worth pointing out that the main character of the film IS COMPLETELY FICTITIOUS. Bates, as I commented in my first post of the film, is essentially an Everywomen Suffragette, designed to illustrate the enormous sufferings that some Suffragettes experienced. That somewhat undermines Gavron’s defense that the film’s cast was dictated by historical fact. If it’s ok to make up Maud (and Violet and Ellen, and every other female character in the film other than Meryl Streep’s Emmeline Pankhurst), surely there was room to include an Indian women or two. There are several scenes at the WSPU offices where Suffragettes of all classes interacted, so surely there was an opportunity to include Princess Sophia there.

So I guess what I’m saying is that while I understand Gavron’s decision, and I can admire that she thought about the issue in a serious way before making that decision, I’m not sure it was the right decision. And feminists of color have long objected to the tendency of white feminists to ignore racial issues, so it’s not like this criticism was unexpected.


Suffrage and Slavery

The film has also attracted some criticism over a photo-shoot for Time Out London in which the cast of the film was photographed wearing (white) t-shirts with the phrase “I’d rather be a rebel than a slave” on them. Director Ava DuVernay, for example, has said that the photos were at best racially insensitive. The objections to the slogan are three-fold, first that it implies that legal slavery was voluntary and therefore slaves were to some extent complicit in their slavery, and second that the word ‘rebel’ in conjunction with ‘slave’ implies the Confederate States of America. Third, the sense that the film-makers were being insensitive to racial minorities conjures up the problem of white feminists ignoring the concern of non-white feminists.


The Time Out London photos


Time Out London responded that this phrase is a quote from a speech given by Emmeline Pankhurst in 1913. The full quote is “Know that women, once convinced that they are doing what is right, that their rebellion is just, will go on, no matter what the difficulties, no matter what the dangers, so long as there is a woman alive to hold up the flag of rebellion. I would rather be a rebel than a slave.” They also pointed out that the photo shoot was specifically carried by Time Out London, an English magazine, and that suggestions that the quote refers to American slavery or the Civil War are therefore unreasonable.

19th century feminists were very aware of the anti-slavery movement, and in fact the American feminist movement emerged directly out of the Abolitionist movement. One of the first American suffragists, Lucretia Mott, was a leading Quaker abolitionist. In 1840, she and five other female abolitionists traveled to London to participate in the General Anti-Slavery Convention, as did Elizabeth Cady Stanton, another important abolitionist. But the male delegates refused to allow Mott and her group to participate and forced the women to sit in a gallery as observers. Many of the American men in the delegation moved to the gallery in protest. This incident spurred Mott and Stanton to begin organizing a woman’s rights convention, which eventually led to the famous Seneca Fall Convention in 1848, usually taken as the birth of the American Suffrage movement.

British feminists such as Harriet Taylor Mill occasionally used slavery as a metaphor for the oppression of women, insisting that married women were often treated more as domestic servants than wives. Pankhurst’s statement clearly falls within this rhetorical tradition, and it derives its persuasive force from the assumption that slavery is fundamentally immoral. So on the surface, the photo-shoot seems like a reasonable way to promote the film to British audiences.

But once you dig a little deeper, I think the photo-shoot becomes more problematic. Although the quote is historically accurate, that doesn’t mean that there’s no racism here. Pankhurst was employing a metaphor of black slavery that, as critics have pointed out, implies that black slaves were partly to blame for not resisting slavery enough. At a minimum, she was ignoring the meaning of slavery for the blacks who experienced it and simply repurposing racial slavery to make a point about women’s domestic servitude without bothering to reflect on the ways the comparison was inappropriate.

Additionally, the Women’s Suffrage movement had considerable numbers of racists in it. In the US, black Suffragists, such as Ida B. Wells, were frequently excluded from Suffrage rallies or forced to march at the back of Suffragist parades, and it’s not hard to find racist quotes by American Suffragists. I don’t know of any evidence that the British Suffragettes actively worked to exclude non-whites, and Sylvia Pankhurst, Emmeline’s daughter, was a vocal opponent of racism and colonialism, but the British Suffragist and Suffragette movements certainly had their share of racists as well; Mildred Fawcett was appalled that, when New Zealand enfranchised women, it meant that Maori women had the vote when white women in Britain didn’t. In the 1930s, at least three prominent Suffragists, Mary Richardson, Norah Elam, and Mary Sophia Allen, became supporters of Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists. Even if most Suffragists didn’t go that far, many would have accepted the casual racism and white supremacist attitudes that were so deeply embedded in British culture at the time. It seems unlikely that Emmeline Pankhurst would have rejected those attitudes.


Norah Elam in a BUF cap

Perhaps we can forgive Pankhurst for the casual racism her statement reflects. At the time she said it, I doubt anyone would have even considered the racist overtones of what she said. And, as a historian, I firmly believe it is a mistake to judge the people of the past according to modern standards. We must judge the past in its own terms. So use of the quote in the film itself would be legitimate (I don’t recall whether it’s included in Streep’s brief speech or not).

But the photo-shoot didn’t take place in the context of 1913. It took place in 2015, half a century after people began confronting the social and psychological consequences of slavery and decades after black feminists began pressing white feminists to acknowledge racial issues in the feminist movement. The photo-shoot repurposed Pankhurst’s quote for its own commercial purposes, which was to sell magazines and promote a film. So regardless of whether the quote was inappropriate in 1913, in 2015 the racist element of the quote makes it inappropriate now. The people who organized the photo-shoot should have paid more attention to the issue.

And the photo-shoot unfortunately cast Gavron’s decision to focus exclusively on white Suffragtettes in a new light, because it created a situation where the cast of white women were sporting a racially-insensitive slogan, thereby validating the charge of black feminists that their concerns aren’t taken seriously by white feminists. The photo-shoot unintentional demonstrates that mainstream feminism has a race problem. And that in turn suggests that Gavron’s decision to have an all-white cast is an example of that problem.

So by failing to consider that a slogan taken out of its proper historical context takes on a new set of meanings, the people who organized the photo-shoot carelessly re-wrote the context of the film and give it a new meaning. This is why an understanding of history matters.


Want to Know More?

One place to start would be Emmeline Pankhurst’s Suffragette: My Own Story. Sylvia Pankhurst’s account, The Suffragette: The History of the Women’s Militant Suffrage MovementKrista Cowman, the historical consultant for the film, has studied Women in British Politics, c.1689-1979 (Gender and History), and her book has a substantial section on this period.