Suffragette (2015, dir. Sarah Gavron) explores part of the movement to win women the right to vote in Britain in the period before World War I. It tells the story of the radical Women’s Social and Political Union, derisively nicknamed the ‘Suffragettes’ (the polite term was ‘Suffragists’).
Spoiler Alert: If you’re planning on seeing this film in the theater, you may wish to put off reading this until after you’ve done so, because I discuss a variety of major plot points.
By the start of the 20th century, several decades of efforts by British feminists to achieve the franchise had met only limited success. British women had the right to vote in local elections (for school boards and similar matters), but could not vote in Parliamentary elections. In 1903, Emmeline Pankhurst, a long-time advocate for women’s rights, founded the WSPU, which adopted a much more militant stance than other such groups. The WSPU’s members began protesting outside Parliament and disrupting meetings of the Liberal Party. When Pankhurst was arrested in 1908, she began to protest the treatment of women in prisons, and ultimately demanded to be treated as a political prisoner.
In 1908, the organization began to embrace violence, hurling rocks through windows, throwing axes at cars carrying politicians, blowing up mailboxes, burning slogans into the turf at stadiums, cutting phone lines, and smashing the greenhouses at Kew Gardens. In 1913 Pankhurst claimed responsibility for the bombing of a house that was being built for David Lloyd George, the Chancellor of the Exchequer (and future Prime Minister), and in 1914, in retaliation for her arrest, a Suffragette slashed Diego Velazquez’ Rokeby Venus with a meat clever. But the Liberal Prime Minister H.H. Asquith was determined to oppose the extension of the Parliamentary franchise to women, even though a majority of his party supported the measure.
When the Suffragettes were arrested, they increasingly resorted to going on hunger strikes. Asquith’s government, recognizing that if one of the women died in prison, the movement would gain a martyr, ordered that the hunger strikers be force-fed. The brutality of the force-feeding, which variously involved metal gags to force a prisoner’s mouth open or nasal feeding tubes, was extremely unpleasant for the women, and eventually the government passed a law allowing hunger strikers to be temporarily released in order to recover their health and then re-arrested to serve out the rest of their sentences.
One of the most militant members of the WPSU was Emily Wilding Davison, who was one of the first group of women to study at Oxford, although she was not permitted to earn a degree. She frequently struck out on her own to engage in vandalism and arson, and was arrested nine times, during which she was often force-fed. On one occasion, she threw herself over the railing of a prison staircase to protest the treatment of women at the prison, leaving her with permanent spinal damage. On another occasion, she hid overnight on Census Day in a closet in the Parliament building so that when she filled out the census form, she could honestly list the House of Commons as her residence. (There’s actually a plaque in Westminster commemorating the stunt.)
On June 4th, 1913, Davison traveled to the Epsom Derby, the most prestigious horse race in Britain. There is some controversy about exactly what she hoped to accomplish there, but evidence suggests that she probably didn’t intend what actually happened. King George V had a horse in the race, and most of those who have studied the evidence believe that Davison ran out onto the racetrack hoping to attach a WSPU flag to the king’s horse, so that it would be wearing the flag when it crossed the finish line, thereby gaining the movement some publicity. Instead, Davison was trampled by the king’s horse, which did a full somersault and dragged the unconscious jockey a distance down the track. The unconscious Davison was taken to a hospital where she died four days later from internal injuries; the horse had to be put down due to injuries. There are persistent rumors that Davison was one of a group of Suffragettes who had trained for this stunt and that she drew the straw to select who would attempt it, but historian Michael Tanner has argued that, given Davison’s usual pattern, she was probably acting alone and without the WSPU’s support.
Here’s the footage of her accident with the king’s horse, which is third from the last.
Davison’s funeral in London on June 14th attracted enormous crowds, most of whom were far more respectful than they usually were toward the Suffragettes. Pankhurst was arrested on her way to the funeral. Davison’s death and funeral garnered world-wide attention. The WSPU considered her to be a martyr and celebrated her brave self-sacrifice for their cause.
Here’s the footage of the funeral procession.
Pankhurst and her supporters insisted militancy was the only way forward, and that they were gradually winning the war with the British government. Pankhurst argued that the extension of the franchise to lower-class men had only been accomplished through violence, and that the WSPU was demonstrating that women could not be governed without their consent. But historians have subsequently tended to agree that the Suffragettes were harming their own cause by alienating the British Middle Class, the exact segment of society whose support they needed most. They definitely succeeded in raising awareness of women’s suffrage as an issue, but it’s far from clear that they actually changed anything. Davison’s death, while dramatic, did not trigger a shift in the way the government responded to the Suffragettes, as Pankhurst’s arrest demonstrates.
Instead, the real change was ushered in by the Great War. When war broke out, the WSPU immediately suspended its activities and focused on supporting the war. Tens of thousands of women contributed to the war effort by rolling bandages, sewing uniforms, serving as nurses, and taking jobs in factors to replace the labor of men who were off fighting. After the War was over, Lloyd George, who had replaced Asquith as Prime Minister, accepted a bill to enfranchise women 30 and over, with the franchise being extended to younger women half a decade later.
The film centers on Maud Bates (Carey Mulligan), a Lower Class laundress living in the slums of London’s East End. Bates is being described as a ‘composite character’, but in this case, the phrase means “we totally made her up”. Instead of representing an amalgam of specific women, she is sort of a Suffragette Everywomen, serving as an example of all the unpleasant things the Suffragettes encountered.
She works at a menial and dangerous job; early the film she describes the various health hazards of her work. Her boss opposes her activism, and likes to sexually harass his younger employees. Eventually her activism gets her fired. She gets beaten by the police and arrested; during one prison stay she is brutally force-fed. Her husband Sonny (Ben Whishaw) doesn’t understand her growing activism and kicks her out; eventually he decides to give their young son up for adoption because it’s too hard for him to take care of the boy alone. She is ridiculed and ostracized once her picture is published in the paper. She winds up homeless, living in an abandoned church. Basically, she pays just about every price a Suffragette ever paid for involvement in the movement.
But her troubles don’t deter her; rather as things get worse for her, she becomes more determined to keep fighting. She becomes part of a Suffragette cell organized by Edith Ellyn (Helena Bonham Carter). Ellyn is a pharmacist and die-hard Suffragette very loosely modeled on Edith Garrud, a female self-defense instructor who helped the Suffragettes organize a bodyguard of women who protected Suffragettes the government wanted to arrest. (I say ‘very loosely’, because there is exactly one scene in which Edith teaches Maud and a few other women a little jujitsu.) Because Edith is a pharmacist, she knows how to compound gunpowder, which they use to blow up mailboxes and Lloyd George’s house.
Maud, Edith and Emily Davison (Natalie Press) decide to go to the Epsom Derby to display a banner, hoping to attract press attention, but Edith gets locked in a closet by her husband, who supports her activism but worries about its affects on her health. So Maud and Emily go alone. At the Derby, realizing they can’t get close to the king, Emily spontaneously hits on the plan to run out onto the race track; her exact intentions are not explained, but her death culminates the film, which ends with her funeral.
Oh, and Meryl Streep has a cameo as Emmeline Pankhurst, giving a speech and then jumping into a car to flee from the police. Her role in the film is much smaller than the publicity campaign would suggest. Except for that one scene, Pankhurst is an off-stage motivator, inspiring women with the risks she is taking and what she has to say, but not directly giving orders (which is a bit misleading; Pankhurst and her daughters ran the WSPU as a dictatorship, explicitly refusing to democratize it, despite the sharp incongruity of that stance.)
I have mixed feelings about Suffragette. On the one hand, the performances are all solid, and the story is basically true, even though Pankhurst and Davison are the only actual historical women in the film. Everything the film shows was at some point done by or to some Suffragette, with the possible exception of having a child put up for adoption. (Some women’s husbands cut off access to their children, and in one case a Suffragette’s mother threatened to kidnap her grandchildren, but I haven’t run across a case where her husband gave her child away.) The Suffragette movement is important enough that it deserves to have its story told, and the film certainly does that.
On the other hand, I’m not sure that screenwriter Abi Morgan made the right choices with her script. Yes, the shitty things that happen to Maud happened to real Suffragettes, but shoe-horning all of those shitty things into Maud’s story seems a bit over the top, and it quickly became sort of predictable that another bad thing is about to happen to Maud. Because I know the history of the movement, I found myself actually being able to predict a lot of the badness; as soon as she lies to Sonny about what she’s going to do, I thought, “oh, he’s gonna find out, they’re going to quarrel, and he’s going to kick her out and not let her see little George” and that’s exactly what happens. The first time a plate of food is offered to her in prison, I knew she was going to go on a hunger-strike and be force-fed. And giving away the son you love because you’re pissed off at your wife is a remarkably petty thing to do. The scene just plays as “asshole husband being an asshole again,” because the film has no interest in understanding Sonny’s perspective and only once hints at the social pressure he is under to ‘be the man in the family.’ So Maud’s sufferings come off as heavy-handed more than inspirational.
A bigger problem with the film is that Maud’s fictional story completely overshadows the real stories of Emmeline Pankhurst and Emily Wilding Davison, both of whom had complex and powerful stories of their own, both of which would have admirably told the story of the Suffragettes. Pankhurst is constantly mentioned, and her one appearance is filled with the usual electrifying Meryl Streepness, but the film only hints at why this woman inspired such devotion. And Davison is merely an unnamed background character until Edith hatches the plan to go to Epsom. The film makes no effort to offer us any details about her story and she barely even has a personality until her last scene or two. So once again, an historical film has overlooked the interesting real story in favor of a less interesting made-up one.
A final problem is that the film fundamentally misrepresents the impact of the Suffragettes. The march at Davison’s funeral transitions to the historical footage of the procession, and then we get an epilogue text that tells us a bit about the Suffragette movement. It ends with a roll of when different countries gave women the vote (omitting the fact that the Soviet countries enfranchised women well before most Western countries did). The implication here is that one can draw a fairly straight line from the Suffragettes to the enfranchisement of women.
But that’s untrue. The WSPU did not force the British government to extend suffrage to women; they hadn’t even campaigned for suffrage for four years at the time suffrage was extended. The Great War had a far greater impact, and Asquith’s replacement by Lloyd George was probably the most important factor. Despite the hostility of the Suffragettes, Lloyd George had long supported women’s suffrage and he argued that the women of Britain had played an important role in the British war victory and deserved to be acknowledged for it.
As I’ve noted, most historians feel that the Suffragette movement probably alienated more people than it persuaded. Davison’s gesture, whatever she had intended, did not change things except to win a great deal of attention. But it’s not like women’s suffrage was an unknown issue until the Epsom Derby; it had been a major subject of debate for a generation. And it’s notable that the Suffragettes bombed the house of a man who actually supported their goal, apparently because they felt he hadn’t done enough to help them. So I’m not persuaded by the film’s vision of the Suffragettes as freedom fighters who achieved a great success and helped usher in the era of the woman voter, although many of them certainly saw themselves that way. At a time of rising political tensions and threats of violence in American politics, a movie that validates violence as a political tool is a little disturbing to me.
And it’s hard to avoid the sense that the film validates the violence of the Suffragettes. Pankhurst’s argument was that violence was the only tool left to her movement, and that it was the only thing that men actually respect, and the film essentially embraces that position. The first moments of violence in the film are by police officers against peacefully protesting women, and the film has already established how oppressive Maud’s employer is. Suffragette violence is constantly offered as a response to government aggression and a desperate, last-ditch strategy. It glosses over the fact that the first case of Suffragette violence seems to have preceded any police violence. It ignores the fact that Lloyd George supported the group’s goal (though not its means) and it tries to soften the blow of just how dangerous the bombing of his house was. In the film, they light a fuse outside and run away as the house explodes. Later, Maud is told by a government agent that a cleaning lady was two minutes away from the building and could have been hurt in the blast. In reality, the unknown bombers left two bombs hidden in closets, using candles as timing mechanisms. The first bomb went off just before a group of a dozen workmen showed up, but the second bomb did not go off because the force of the first blast extinguished its candle. Had that not happened, the second bomb would probably have killed or injured the men.
So what do I think about Suffragette? I’m glad it got made; the Suffragettes are an important group and people ought to know about them. The film does a decent job of looking at the violence on both sides of the issue and the obstacles that British women faced in winning the right to vote. But I think the focus of the film was misplaced. Instead of inventing a woman who could show audiences what various Suffragettes did and had done to them, I think it would have been better to focus on the real women involved in the movement and tell their story. And I wish the film hadn’t misrepresented how successful the group was in achieving its goals.
In my next post, I’ll tackle a controversy that’s developed around the film and people of color.
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 Movement. Krista 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.