July 26, 2016

A professor emerita at Brooklyn College, Barbara Winslow is a historian of women’s activism as well as the founder and director emerita of the Shirley Chisholm Project. She is the author of Shirley Chisholm: Catalyst for Change (2013), Sylvia Pankhurst: Sexual Politics and Political Activism (1996), and a coeditor of Clio in the Classroom: A Guide for Teaching U.S. Women’s History (2009). She is currently writing a book on the women’s liberation movement in Seattle Washington from 1965–1975. She is also an OAH Distinguished Lecturer.

The movie Suffragette is the first feature film dramatically depicting the monumental struggle for women’s right to vote in pre-World War One England. (Please erase from your memory the horrible, and I mean horrible portrayal of suffragettes in the Disney monstrosity Mary Poppins.)

The only feature film that portrays the U.S. suffrage movement is Iron-Jawed Angels, made for HBO television, which told the story of the U.S. suffrage struggle led by the Congressional Union after 1913. Suffragette is a powerful and moving story of women’s struggle and sacrifice to win the right to vote, and in the process, to be considered citizens and treated with dignity.

Directed by Sarah Gavron with a screenplay by Abi Morgan, the project also had the support and star power of Meryl Streep with her brilliant-as-always portrayal of Emmeline Pankhurst, the leader of the militant suffragette organization, the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU).

In twentieth-century England there were two major suffrage organizations. The constitutionalist suffragist organization was the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS). The movie focuses on the activities of the WSPU, founded and led by Emmeline Pankhurst and her two daughters Christabel and Sylvia. The WSPU militants, as they were called, used unheard of for the time in-your-face tactics such as heckling politicians, mass nonviolent civil disobedience, window smashing, and blowing up mailboxes, buildings, even the Brighton Pavilion. They used acid to etch “Votes for Women” on men’s golf courses, and one suffragette debutante had the audacity to ask King George for the vote! The Liberal Government responded to suffragette militancy by jailing the suffragettes, who then retaliated by hunger striking. Desperate and unwilling to deal with the basic demand for the vote, the Government then began force-feeding (read: torturing) the women.

Not all women campaigning for the vote were middle or upper class. Some, like Emmeline’s daughter Sylvia, were socialists. Many trade union and labor militants supported the women’s suffrage struggle, albeit warily. Suffrage in Edwardian England was gender, class, and empire based. The majority of unskilled male workers in England and colonial subjects could not vote. The women’s suffrage campaign would therefore enfranchise mainly middle and upper–class women. It was not surprising that many trade union and socialist women’s suffrage supporters believed that the existing Votes for Women campaign would only strengthen the Conservative and Liberal parties.

One of the strengths of the movie is that Suffragette is not the story of the “established” leaders, the Pankhursts, even though Streep has a star cameo. The movie takes place mainly in London’s East End, a diverse, working-class immigrant community. Suffragette’s protagonist, Maud Watts, is a married mother who works in a laundry. All the women scrub. All the bosses are men. Maud embodies the experiences most working women faced and face today—the double shift: low and unequal wages, long hours, backbreaking labor, sexual harassment, and dangerous working conditions. She comes home to a tiny, poorly lit, badly heated flat to shop, cook, clean, and take care of a husband and son. Maud, a very conventional working-class woman, is drawn into the WSPU’s orbit after witnessing (and enjoying) window breaking in the more middle-class West End of London. She ends up testifying about the horrendous working conditions women face in the East End, joins demonstrations, and attends meetings. She experiences the horrors of prison when arrested for participating in demonstrations. She meets other WSPU comrades, but finds herself ostracized by some East End co-workers and friends: her husband kicks her out of their home and takes away her son. But Maud finds sisterhood and comradeship in the WSPU and the struggle, even as the WSPU moves away from mass militancy and toward individual acts of property destruction. The movie ends with the martyrdom and death of Emily Wilding Davison, trampled on a derby track as she attempted to intercept King George V’s horse, and her massive funeral. There were no dry eyes in the theater.

Suffragette_posterAs an historian of the British suffrage movement, I could quibble with some of the historical inaccuracies. I wish the filmmakers could have better portrayed the extraordinary diversity of the East End, a community including Jewish, Irish, Syrian, Italian immigrants—all deemed to be racial outsiders and outliers by the English. Such a depiction might have offset some of the criticism of the film being too white. I also wish the film showed the support that working-class men, especially dock workers and gas workers, gave to East End suffragettes. In 1912, when the movie opens, George Lansbury, the Labour MP for the East End constituency of Bow and Bromley, resigned his seat to fight a by-election on the single issue of votes for women. Lansbury’s campaign mobilized the East London community and laid the basis for Sylvia Pankhurst’s socialist-feminist organization, the East London Federation of the Suffragettes. The director and screenwriter originally included the Lansbury campaign in the film, but the scenes had to be cut.

The strength of the movie, along with the brilliant performances, lies in the emphasis of the struggle, of sisterhood, of comradeship. The movie doesn’t ignore the real class (although not political) differences that existed in the suffrage movement. The scene of force-feeding was horrifically real, and resonates with a U.S. audience thinking of the U.S. government’s treatment of prisoners in Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo. There was not a whiff of “lean-in” feminism, power-feminism, or the anyone-can-do-it feminism that gets touted these days. What is made clear in this movie is that if it wasn’t for women’s feminist organization and militancy, there would be no women’s suffrage.

When the movie opened, there was criticism that Suffragette did not include women of color, and the London Time Out cover publicity shot, showing Streep, Mulligan, and other white women in the movie with Emmeline’s famous quote, “I’d rather be a rebel than a slave,” was at best racially tone-deaf and at worst read like a former U.S. white plantation mistress.

There is no question that the suffrage movement, in the United States and in England, was overwhelmingly white in both composition and ideology. In the United States, suffrage was based on a wide range of exclusions: class (property ownership, slavery), race, gender, age, religion, and geography (U.S. territories, Washington, D.C.). When for two years in a row there have been no African Americans nominated for the Academy Awards, the issue of race, gender, and sexuality in film must be addressed.

What galled me at the end of the movie was the thought that today, while women have the constitutional right to suffrage, the U.S. Congress, Supreme Court, and state governments are taking the vote away from the poor, people of color, the elderly, youth, and students, by gutting the 1965 Voting Rights Act, enacting restrictive voter ID laws, opposing “motor voter” and other same-day voting registration laws, and cutting back on funding for elections. It is hard to believe (let alone accept the fact) that women still find it necessary to take up the fight for birth control, contraception, paid family leave, and equal pay and job opportunities, as well as the right to be sexual. And at this moment of writing, a proud and demagogic racist and misogynist is the Republican nomination for the U.S. presidency. For every gain women have made, thanks to suffragists and suffragettes in Britain, the United States, and elsewhere, and to women’s liberation activists in the post-1965 era, we must always be fighting to save what we have as we continue to demand more. Hmmmm, maybe it’s time for some in-your-face window smashing.