Focus Features / Courtesy Everett Collection

More blood and guts than tea and crumpets

‘Suffragette’ shows early feminists in a new light

October 24, 2015 2:00AM ET

Sarah Gavron’s “Suffragette,” which opened on Friday, depicts the British women who fought for franchise in 1912 with refreshing candor. The poorest of these women work in laundries. Barred from medical school because of their gender, educated middle class women run apothecaries instead. The wealthy run homes.

By the time the movie begins, all of them are fed up with acting like ladies.

“I was initially resistant because I had a very conservative view of the suffragettes. They were ladies with wide-brimmed hats and tambourines and corsets,” said Abi Morgan, the film’s screenwriter, when asked why she wanted to tell this story. Her “revelation” came when she was exposed to the testimonials of working women from that time. “So many of those things are incredibly relevant to today, from equal pay issues at work through to sexual violence, custodial rights to children, property rights and education issues.”

She was especially appalled to learn that the suffragettes were under what was then cutting-edge police surveillance. Reading police records from that time, she said, “you realize the extent of the surveillance … and level of intimidation of these women by the police, and that felt very globally relevant in the 21st century.” Many of the records she consulted in writing the film were declassified only in 2003 and revealed that covert surveillance techniques such as photographing suspects without their knowledge were pioneered by Scotland Yard to combat the suffragettes.

Knowing this history made Morgan reluctant to sugarcoat the women’s lives. The characters who toil in laundries work miserably long hours, suffer from work-related respiratory illnesses and are raped by their boss. All the main characters are bullied, patronized or humiliated by men — bosses, husbands, government officials and police. Contrast this with Charlie Chaplin’s 1914 performance of “The Militant Suffragette,” which mocked women fighting for voting rights, or a half-century later, the character of Winifred Banks, the flighty mother and suffragette in Walt Disney’s film “Mary Poppins.”

Acknowledgment of what women gave up to get the vote is long overdue. It is impossible to understand contemporary feminism without knowing women’s history. Few movies get made about women, period, and fewer still about their ongoing global struggle to be recognized as human beings and citizens. As text that appears onscreen at the end of “Suffragette” reminds us, it wasn’t until August of this year that Saudi women were able to vote.

Nor do the filmmakers shy away from the gory aftermath of rebellion. Miscreant women are beaten and thrown into jail; they go on hunger strikes and are force-fed. The women in “Suffragette” are members of an oppressed class whose violent rebellion is presented as not only justified but also, to paraphrase John F. Kennedy, made inevitable by the failure of more peaceful methods.

The women’s awakening is exhilarating, but they and their families suffer as a result of their newfound freedom.

Bringing narrative focus to the film is Carey Mulligan’s outstanding portrayal of Maud Watts, a 24-year-old laundress who becomes an activist at her friends’ urging. Maud’s evolution beautifully illustrates what many feminists would argue decades later: The personal is political. Or as Morgan put it, the film “is about somebody who goes from a place of passive observation to militant activism and how those moments of personal awakening can really become huge political moments as well.”

Nowhere is this clearer than in the depiction of Maud’s relationship with her husband, who, while initially tender and caring, doesn’t handle his wife’s transition from subdued working mother to passionate women’s rights activist particularly well. Their deteriorating marriage exposes the conflict that separates women’s liberation from other movements: the familial bond between women (so often the oppressed) and men (so often the oppressors).

Another extraordinary aspect of the suffrage movement in Britain is that it united women across class lines. Leaders such as Emmeline Pankhurst (Meryl Streep) were mostly upper-middle-class and aristocratic women whom Morgan described as having been “supported by this huge army of working-class women foot soldiers,” but they built solidarity in service of the cause. A wealthy woman imprisoned and quickly released after a demonstration tries to bail out her sisters-in-arms but is overruled by her husband; she later rescues the teenage daughter of one of the laundresses from a life of drudgery by taking her in as a housemaid. I imagine there are no maids in feminist heaven, but in the earthbound world of the movie, working for a suffragette beats toiling for a man who rapes you on his lunch hour.

The movie stands out for its willingness to acknowledge moral and political ambiguity, and those intent on ginning up controversy over the cast’s choice to wear T-shirts bearing the Pankhurst quote “I’d rather be a rebel than a slave” should see the movie and read Sarah Gavron’s forthright defense of it. The women’s awakening is exhilarating, but they and their families suffer as a result of their newfound freedom. The more radical women’s zeal endangers their health and frightens their loved ones. When a character dies gruesomely — is it a suicide? A political statement? A tragic accident? — it makes you question the wisdom and morality of fanatical devotion to a cause.

Even the police inspector who first suggests spying on the women (the great Brendan Gleeson) has second thoughts after witnessing the state’s vicious treatment of those he helps imprison. “Suffragette” reminds me of a recent documentary, “The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution,” which inspired many of the same questions.

“All of us, as a result of working on the film … are so much more engaged with our activism and certainly with our feminism,” Morgan said. She hopes that the movie “politicizes and encourages young women and young men and, in fact, the voting public to pick up their vote and use it in the belief that it can change the law and change our lives.”

My hope is that people will watch this movie and remember that women, too, suffered, fought and died for freedom — as many around the world are still doing.

Raina Lipsitz writes about feminism, politics and pop culture. Her work has appeared in TheAtlantic.com, Kirkus Reviews, McSweeney’s, Nerve.com, Ploughshares, Salon.com and xoJane, among others. 

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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