Women’s Monumental Struggle

Against the Current, No. 181, March/April 2016

Barbara Winslow

Director Sarah Gavron, Screenwriter Abi Morgan. Starring Helena Bonham Carter, Carey Mulligan, Meryl Streep, Ben Whishaw, Brendon Gleeson.

AGAINST THE CURRENT asked Barbara Winslow and Alison Baldree for responses to the acclaimed and controversial 2015 film Suffragette. We hope they will pique our readers’ interest.

Barbara Winslow is the founder of the Shirley Chisholm Project at Brooklyn College and author of Sylvia Pankhurst: Sexual Politics and Political Activism (1996).

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.)

Iron-Jawed Angels, made for HBO television, 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 addition to be considered citizens and treated with dignity.

Directed by Sarah Gavron and screen written 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 20th-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 militants used unheard of for the time and in-your-face tactics such as heckling politicians, mass nonviolent civil disobedience, window smashing, blowing up mailboxes, buildings, even the Brighton Pavillion. 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 therefore 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.

A Working-Woman’s Story

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.

She 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, dingy 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 more toward individual acts of property destruction. The movie ends with the martyrdom/death of Emily Wilding Davison and her massive funeral. There were no dry eyes in the theater.

As 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 as 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 by working-class men, especially dock workers and gas workers given 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 to be part of the film, but the scenes had to be cut.

Struggles Then and Now

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 forcible feeding was horrifically real. (And now, think of what the U.S. government is still doing in Guatanamo)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 so 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, 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.

Some critics demanded that the story of Sophia Duleep Singh, an Indian suffragette, should have been in the story. There is no question that a movie about Singh, Indian women and the struggle for suffrage would be an important addition to our understanding the complexities of suffrage, gender, race, class, caste, ethnicity and empire. Their stories must be told.

But this was a film mainly about working-class women in the East End of London. Mrs. Singh was royalty, the daughter of the Maharajah of Punjab, the goddaughter of Queen Victoria, a debutante who was not active in London’s East End.

There is no question that the suffrage movement, in the United States and in England, was overwhelmingly white in both composition and ideology. And at a time when two years in a row, there are no African Americans nominated for 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 vote, 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. It’s hard to believe that in this day and age, women have to take up the fight for birth control, contraception and the right to be sexual.

For every gain women have made, thanks to suffragists and suffragettes and then women’s liberation activists in the post 1965 era, we always have to be on the alert and always fighting to save what we have as we continue to demand more. Hmmmm, maybe it’s time for some in-your-face window smashing.

March-April 2016, ATC 181